Combining non-partisan primaries and ranked choice voting could help fix American democracy
In a polarized nation, our system of electing representatives favors ideological extremists and fails to effectively represent most Americans
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The main purpose of this newsletter is to bring attention to the grave threats to democracy at home and abroad. But I also want to provide hope by highlighting efforts many are making to fix the problems democracies are experiencing - and thus this post on electoral reform.
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Most people around the world continue to support democracy over other forms of governance. However, those living in democracies know that democracy is in trouble. In 2021, 56% of citizens in 17 democracies reported that their political system “needs major changes or to be completely reformed.” (with 85% of Americans in this category!). Only 57% of these citizens ( 41% of Americans) are satisfied with the way their democracy is working. Clearly, democracies can’t survive if they follow the definition of insanity and do the same thing over and over again but expect different results. We need to reform our democracies for the realities of the 21st century if we expect for them the survive.
In future comments, I want to do a deep dive into issues of electoral reform and bring your attention to what democracy researchers are saying about the comparative advantages of different reform proposals. But for today’s purposes, I just want to draw your attention to the interesting reform proposal advanced by the Institute for Political Innovation called Final Five Voting.
The current electoral system in the United States — in which the winners of partisan primaries in our two major parties face off against each other in the general election — is creating legislatures populated by representatives on the political extremes. Partisan gerrymandering has created mostly non-competitive electoral districts. For example, some experts have estimated that there are only about 30 highly competitive general election races for the U.S. House for 2022. This means that for a large majority of officials, the primary is their main obstacle to reelection. As parties polarize, partisan primaries result in candidates that reflect the views of a majority of their primary voters. So, we end up with general election candidates, and then representatives, that trend to the poles of the American political system. Even though study after study show that American voters do not fully identify with the right or the left - due to polarization and gerrymandering - we end up with representatives accountable mainly to the left and right flanks of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Final Five Voting cracks this model to attempt to produce representatives who more closely reflect the views of a majority of their constituents. Here is a video on how it works.
In short, Final Five voting provides for an open primary where all voters can participate and all candidates may qualify for the ballot regardless of their party. The top five voter-getters advance to the general election.
Why “five”? This is admittedly a random cut-off. But five is a reasonable number to both ensure broad ideological options in the general election, but does not clutter up the ballot with so many candidates that voters are confused or candidates with virtually no chance of winning detract attention from those legitimately competing to become an elected official.
What kind of candidates would get on to the general election ballot under this system?
Well, let’s think through a highly gerrymandered district with 65% Republicans, 15% Independents, and 20% Democrats.
There are enough Republicans in the district so that two Republicans will advance — perhaps a MAGA candidate wins with 35% of the vote, but a more moderate Republican captures 30% and still makes it to the general election. If the primary had been closed, the more moderate candidate would lose in the Republican primary and not have a chance to compete in the general.
It is also likely that with 20% of the electorate being Democrats, the most popular Democrat also makes it on to the ballot (but only one of them).
The last two spots could go to minor parties of the right or left.
The system also leaves open the possibility that a centrist candidate that can appeal to independents and moderates of each party could capture 10% or so of the primary votes and make it to the next phase.
The second reform would be the use of ranked choice voting (RCV) in the general election. Under RCV, voters rank their choices in order of preference. When the first choice votes are counted, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and the second choice of voters who cast the first choice for this candidate would now be counted. This process of eliminating candidates and redistributing the votes of the eliminated candidates continues until a candidate has over 50% of the votes.
Let’s think through how this system could impact our gerrymandered district where we have a MAGA Republican, a moderate Republican, a party line Democrat, and centrist independent and a Green party candidate on the general election ballot.
First, strong environmentalists can vote for their real number one candidate - the Green party candidate, without worrying that they are wasting a vote and possibly helping their least favorite candidate win. They know if their candidate comes in 5th, then their second choice votes (probably for the Democrat or centrist) will still count.
Democrats also get a more meaningful chance to participate. In a normal general election, their candidate almost certainly loses given the partisan imbalance - so they are casting a meaningless general election ballot. But with RCV, they can still vote for their preferred Democrat first, but then, if the Democrat is eliminated, they get to vote for the centrist candidate or moderate Republican over the MAGA Republican. They don’t get the candidate of their choice, in office, but if the centrist or moderate Republican wins, then their representative will be in closer in alignment with their views than would have happened if the MAGA Republican won the Republican primary and then the general.
What happens on the Republican side?
In a traditional system, the MAGA Republican would win the Republican primary and be highly favored to beat the mainline Democrat. In the general election, all the MAGA Republican would have to do is get about half of the remaining Republican votes to get to 51%. The best way to do that would be to polarize the electorate as much as possible to make it hard for Republicans to cross-over to the Democrat. Demonizing the Democrat will also help to get a bunch of the independents and 51% is easily achieved.
But not so under RCV.
The MAGA Republican is probably the last or second to last choice of about 35% of the voters. To get to 50%, this candidate is going to need to be the second choice of a big chunk of those who voted first for the moderate Republican or the centrist independent. Firing up the base and demonizing opponents will probably backfire for the MAGA Republican’s effort to gain the second or third choice votes of these right-center voters.
Also, the moderate Republican, the centrist Independent, and the mainstream Democrat know that they are all competing for the second place votes of the the other candidates. They too will engage in cross-party outreach and tailor their positions to try to get to 50%. Being extreme will not get them there.
There is no telling who wins in this scenario, but under a traditional system, the extreme candidate of one party probably ends up winning, and that candidate’s most successful electoral strategy is to run a polarizing, deeply partisan race rather than trying to appeal to the center.
Under Final Five Voting, the MAGA Republican, moderate Republican, centrist, and Democrat all have a chance to win and the incentives are skewed towards trying to appeal to as many voters as possible (not just 51%) in order to rack up second and third choice votes. The MAGA Republican might still win but the campaign might be less polarizing and the ultimate winner would be much more accountable to a broad range of voters once they take office.
Of course, this is all speculation and every district will play out differently. But at least in theory, what we get in a Final Five Voting system has a number of attractive characteristics:
All voters get to cast meaningful ballots in both the primary and general election;
Voters can express their true preference without voting for the “lesser of two evils;”
Candidates most likely will need to gravitate towards the center to capture enough second and third place votes to get to 50%; and
Extremists candidates of either wing of the ideological perspective probably will struggle to get enough votes to get elected — so they may have to moderate, either during their campaign or then while in office.
In 2020, Alaska voters passed a referendum that put in a place a Final Four Voting system, exactly as described above with just one less candidate making it on to the general election ballot. The results could be fascinating.
The system has gotten an early roll out due to the death of Alaska’s at-large House member Don Young in March. Alaska must hold a special election for someone to serve out the last five months of Young’s term. There was a 48 candidate primary that resulted in three candidates making it to the general election ballot (the 4th candidate dropped out). They are Sarah Palin (former Governor and 2008 VP candidate endorsed by Donald Trump), Nick Begich III (son of former Democratic Senator Mark Begich, but now establishment Republican), and longstanding Democratic state legislator, Mary Perolta. It is expected that Democrat Perolta gains the most first place votes in the special election that takes place on August 16. Either Begich or Palin will be eliminated. Then it will depend on how the loser’s second place votes are distributed to determine the winner. Begich has run the stronger campaign and gained the endorsement of the Alaska Republican party, so he is expected to survive the first round and then overcome the Democrat once Palin is eliminated. But who knows?
Had this been a traditional system, Palin would probably have won the Republican primary (she beat Begich by 8% ) and cruised to victory in the general election.
To make matters even more complicated, a Final Four primary will also be held on August 16 for the regular House 2022 election for the full term that starts in January 2023. This race has 22 candidates, of course including Palin, Begich and Perolta again. The general election for the full two-year seat will be held in November. It would be strange for a different candidate to prevail in this regular election than the person who wins the special election, but there could be very different electorates for each race. So again, who knows.
There is also intrigue on the Senate side in Alaska.
Recall that incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary in 2010 to a more conservative candidate. She then ran a write-in campaign and beat the official Republican nominee by 4%. While still a loyal member of the Republican party and Republican Senate caucus, Murkowski has demonstrated streaks of independence and strong disagreements with Trump and her party over the past five years. She votied against confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, directly endorsed Secretary of Defense Mattis’ scathing critique of Trump when he resigned, and voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 riot. Having earned Trump’s wrath and antagonized much of the Alaska Republican Party faithful, Murkowski’s viability in a closed Republican party would be very questionable. (One Alaska political reporter speculated that she could get no more than 20% of Republican primary voters).
However, under the open primary system, the centrist and long-standing incumbent will easily make it on to the general election ballot. In the general election, the ranked choice voting system will help her defeat the candidate endorsed by the Alaska Republican Party and Trump, Kelly Tshibaka, since Murkowski will probably get the second choice votes of many independents and Democrats. Indeed, it was Murkowski’s campaign counsel who was the driving force behind the ballot initiative that put this system into place in 2020. Perhaps it is no accident that Final Four system is now serving as Murkowski’s political lifeline. (For more on this listen at 30:00 of this podcast).
I am sure there are plenty of critics of this system and I’ll explore them in future posts.
But in its first go-round in America, Final Four (or Five) voting might do exactly what it is designed to do - enable more centrist candidates to get elected.
California and Washington State both have Final Two primary voting systems, but they do not have ranked choice voting in the primary or general elections.
Maine uses ranked choice voting in primaries and general elections for federal offices, including for president, but not for state officials. But Maine still has partisan primaries.
There will be a ballot referendum in Nevada in November to approve Final Five Voting for all elections. Because implementation will require a state constitutional amendment, the referendum must pass in both 2022 and 2024 to become law.
New York City used rank choice voting in primaries and the general election for municipal office in 2021. Great analysis on the “mixed reviews” of use of RCV in this election can be found here.
If I am missing other examples of reformed systems - please let me know in the comments!
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