Is There Any Hope for Electoral Reform?
About a year ago, I wrote a piece here called “Tired of Polarization? Go Multi-Party” – it’s time for a follow-up. In that first piece, I discussed the work of FairVote, a non-profit dedicated to electoral reform in the United States. It advocates ranked choice voting (RCV), proportional representation (PR), and other things that are common in many democracies around the world, but not so much here in America. Why is that? Are we somehow condemned to live with our polarized two-party “Doom Loop,” as political scientist Lee Drutman describes it?
First, let’s describe some of the electoral reform proposed for us, and actually tried in a few cases. Most American voters would be happy to have more choices on their ballots come election time. The question is not “what do voters want?” It is more a matter of “how do we get there?” RCV allows for multiple choices of candidates to be eliminated via “instant run-off,” one-at-a-time until the final winner is determined. Of course, so long as only one candidate can win, the increase in choice from multiple candidates appearing on the ballot is minimal. Hence, one additional reform becomes necessary. In PR, there are multiple winners, good for House districts, state legislatures and local jurisdictions, that are not limited to single-member representation. A multi-member district can be apportioned based on population, probably larger than most single-member districts, and consequently “proportional.” PR clearly gives voters more representation than they currently enjoy because it doesn’t disenfranchise everybody who votes for the loser!
Instant runoff RCV allows voters to show up only once, but instead of putting a check next to the name of the candidate they choose, they rank multiple candidates by preference. This may require a bit more thought initially, but hopefully is worth it for increased access to multiple candidates/parties. Presumably primaries would be unnecessary. In RCV, the lowest instance of Number 1 choices gets eliminated in however many rounds are needed depending on the number of candidates on the ballot. Those Number 1 votes get reassigned to the candidate’s Number 2 preferences, until a winner ultimately emerges. So far, Maine is the only state using this system for all statewide and federal elections. It has been tried for local city-wide election in various places, but the jury seems to be out on its effectiveness. Many feel it must be combined with PR, multiple winners, to clearly benefit democracy.
Lee Drutman of New America, in his book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, maintains that we formerly had a “four party” system in America: conservative and liberal elements of both major parties divided mostly along geographic lines (conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans alongside the two dominant groups we know today). U.S. politics was better then. We now have a feedback loop where divisiveness becomes more intense over time, the “doom loop” of his title. He sees a more rational future coming only from accepting compromise, not promoting consensus. Consensus-building seems to lead to ever fiercer battles. It’s hard. Hence, he advocates those electoral reforms mentioned above, believing they would ultimately lead to a multi-party system reminiscent of the “way things used to be.” Compromise would be the order of the day, forming coalitions in our legislative bodies. It would lead to a more centrist array of elected representatives. And Drutman sees that as a good thing.
Writing his book in mid-2019, though, he had not yet seen the worst of it! This was pre-pandemic, pre-2020 election, pre-Jan. 6 Insurrection. How does his prescription for electoral reform hold up now? He acknowledges that the leadership of both parties need to feel genuinely threatened by the status quo before any initiatives from the electorate get through. While it sometimes seems that both parties hold onto their privileged positions by fingernails, it’s not clear that they are quite desperate enough to embrace serious changes in the way their candidates are elected — not yet. Incumbents can be challenged in primaries, but usually not successfully. And the single-member legislative district seems to accommodate a shifting balance of power between the two parties, despite gerrymandering, often enough that nobody agitates too much for eliminating that institution. Anything more than half-hearted court challenges to racial gerrymandering is now precluded (although voters in some states have gone, via referendum, for independent redistricting commissions). Will the 2022 elections move the ball further? We’ll see.
Since 2017, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA, full disclosure: I’m his constituent) has introduced and reintroduced in each subsequent Congress his Fair Representation Act. The 2021 version for the 117th Congress (H.R. 3863) has seven cosponsors. Its status is: “referred to” House Judiciary and House Administration Committees. No hearings scheduled in either committee. The same fate it had in both 115th and 116th Congresses. Beyer’s bill specifies that RCV be used in all Congressional elections (both House and Senate), that House districts be proportional, with multiple members per district (if state has more than one House member), and that all Congressional redistricting be done by independent commissions rather than state legislatures. It would require the repeal of the 1967 Single-member District Mandate. But the most salient fact is that it has been introduced three times now, with no action from Congressional leadership, which did change between 115th and 116th Congress. That implies that the respective Committee chairs, and House leadership, despite the shellacking one party received in 2018, have not considered such electoral reforms a high priority. And we have no reason to think that it would fare any better in the Senate (where the Constitution mandates two Senators per state, elected for six-year terms). Likewise, the Electoral College is recognized by most as a grossly undemocratic device for electing the President. But where is the impetus to change that? Or recently, the impetus for changing the composition of the Supreme Court? Term limits perhaps?
It appears that the self-interest of both parties, and their incumbents, outweighs the interests of their voters. The anti-democratic mechanisms in American politics combine to make these incumbents feel relatively secure in their positions. The best bet we have as voters is to activate ourselves via organizations like FairVote, or RunForSomething, and get new people to run for office – challenging those incumbents in primaries. Take to the streets, like we did for George Floyd in 2020 — but pay attention to the messaging. Our polarized tribal politics is sensitive to language and image; college educated young people yelling “defund the police” creates backlash. Two open Senate seats in 2022 are especially interesting to me – Ohio and Pennsylvania. In both, it might be language and image that determine the winner more than substance or issues. Those outcomes may be critical, both for the Senate and democracy. The House is now more constrained by anti-democratic electoral routines than even the Senate, thanks to gerrymandering. Back to the streets people! The urban/rural divide fits nicely with the education level class divide, and the racial/ethnic/gender divides — there is cross-cutting among these groups, but it is way too easy to sort ourselves into the two parties. Consensus is only possible within our tribe. This is Drutman’s argument for multi-party compromise and Don Beyer’s fairness objective as well. It is up to us, the voters, to say we want – and deserve – better!
— William Sundwick