Dear Commons Community,
In a new paper released Monday by the Center for American Progress (CAP), an influential liberal think tank, argues that changing how elections are held in the U.S. should be a top-tier issue.
“There is another equally fundamental issue that has, until recently, received only niche attention. That issue is electoral reform,” writes Alex Tausanovitch, a senior fellow at (CAP). As reported by Yahoo News.
Tausanovitch’s paper is noteworthy because of his elevation of the issue. He argues that America’s current way of running elections is corrosive to democracy. And he says the Democratic Party has been part of the problem.
“For the most part, instead of working together to solve the nation’s problems, the two major parties engage in an endless tug of war,” he writes. “In recent years, the core of each party has sometimes veered to ideological extremes.”
“It is incumbent on those who care about democracy — organizations, advocates, funders, and commentators — to make electoral reform a bigger part of their collective work,” Tausanovitch argues. “It is increasingly clear that electoral incentives are a big part of what is driving the dysfunction in American politics.”
The CAP paper does not endorse any one specific reform, but lists several as having promise, including ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan or open primaries such as the system adopted in Alaska recently, and multi-member congressional districts.
CAP was launched in 2003 and is now headed by Patrick Gaspard, who was President Barack Obama’s White House director of political affairs before he was appointed as U.S. ambassador to South Africa. His predecessor, Neera Tanden, is now a top aide to President Biden.
The fact that a CAP scholar is encouraging consideration of abolishing party primaries, and of reforms that make it easier for third parties to grow, indicates that polarization and gridlock have produced populist anger at Washington that is pushing major institutions to rethink the status quo.
Proponents of electoral reform argue that it is the best way to fight political polarization and pressure lawmakers to better reflect the views of their constituents. The basic idea behind reform proposals is that a mere sliver of hyperpartisan voters hold too much power in many U.S. elections by deciding the winner of party primaries.
Primary voters tend to be much more ideologically rigid than the broader electorate of a given area. As a result, they usually reward more extreme candidates with their votes. And because so much of the country is either solidly Democratic or reliably Republican, those candidates often face little more than token opposition in general elections.
“This represents the increasingly widespread conclusion that our electoral system is fundamentally broken, and the increasing consensus that we need structural electoral reform to rebuild our creaky and dysfunctional system of republican democracy,” Lee Drutman, a leading voice in the reform movement who is affiliated with the New America Foundation and co-founded Fix Our House, said of the CAP paper.
Electoral reform is not a partisan issue, however, and has support on the right as well. Walter Olson, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, told Yahoo News that “election reform is an exciting area these days because new ideas are getting a hearing that are scrambling some of the old battle lines.”
Olson noted that recent bipartisan cooperation on updating the Electoral Count Act of 1887 shows that reforms aimed at protecting democracy are possible.
“The successful reform of the Electoral Count Act at the federal level has made people aware that cooperation across party and ideological divides can get real results in ways that benefit the country as a whole. I see Alex’s paper as very much in this spirit,” he said.
Kristin Eberhard, director of climate policy at the centrist Niskanen Center, said electoral reform should be a central focus of anyone interested in good government.
“You can’t solve money in politics if you continue to have extremist-driven primaries. You can’t solve gerrymandering if you continue to elect all legislators from single-winner districts,” Eberhard told Yahoo News.
Ranked-choice voting is probably the best known of the reforms mentioned in the paper. This is the system in which voters rank their top choices, and as candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated, their supporters are reallocated to candidates who were ranked behind them. It is intended to reward candidates who appeal to broad swaths of voters rather than to a small but extreme minority, and to give voters more of a sense that their voice is being heard.
Ranked-choice voting has been adopted in statewide elections in Maine and Alaska, and 60 localities use it in some form, including New York City.
Alaska adopted a nonpartisan summer primary for the 2022 election, in which the top four vote getters advanced to the fall election. The general election is now decided by ranked choice.
Much of the attention in Alaska has gone to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican who defeated a Trump-endorsed opponent, and to the contest for the state’s one seat in the House of Representatives, which was won by Democrat Mary Peltola.
But the more interesting test of Alaska’s reform will be to see if it has a positive impact on the state Legislature, which was dubbed “America’s most dysfunctional legislative body” just two years ago.
There are signs of progress. Earlier this month in Juneau, “one of the longest-running battles for control of a legislative chamber ended Wednesday in remarkable harmony,” noted veteran political reporter Reid Wilson.
As Tausanovitch says in his paper: “It is still early to judge how the system will affect future elections, but it does seem to have ushered in a number of moderate candidates who align well with Alaska voters and who may have lost in a traditional partisan primary.”
Nationally, Tausanovitch concludes, “many voters — if not most — would prefer a government that is professional and responsive, in which politicians work together to solve the nation’s problems.”
“Unfortunately, however, that is not the government that America’s electoral rules incentivize politicians to deliver.”
Tausanovitch has it right!