Enacting meaningful electoral reforms would be a catalyst for a myriad of other issues. And I am not using the word “catalyst” as it is commonly used, synonymous with a spark. I mean catalyst as it is used in chemistry: something that lowers the energy needed for a reaction to happen. Electoral reforms can reduce the amount of time and money needed to push through popular policy measures. If done correctly, they can make politicians less beholden to special interests for political survival. They ought to be the fries to everyone’s pet issues. Say young Berkeley liberal, what do you care about? Gun control AND electoral reform so that the NRA can’t squeeze your representatives’ grapes. What about you under-the-table conservative barber? Less market entrance regulations AND electoral reform so that Big Haircut can’t make beholden politicians treat the operation of a pair of clippers as if you’re wielding a loaded gun. Makes sense.
To illustrate some of the things that might get done with meaningful electoral reforms, here are some public policy ideas with broad-based support that do not get much of a hearing in Congress: universal healthcare/public option, climate change focused reforms, legalization/decriminalization of marijuana, universal childcare and pre-K programs, increase in federal minimum wage, closing background check loopholes for gun sales, more lenient criminal justice policies for nonviolent offenders. Why is it so hard to make headway on these popular policies? The most touted answer is that special interest groups and billionaires use their money and influence to undermine the public will. With that in mind, many believe the white whale that must be slain is Citizens United. However, the support for many of these popular reforms predates Citizens United. I’m not saying that undoing the aftermath of Citizens United won’t help diminish the influence of special interest groups, just that in the best case scenario conditions will revert to a slightly worse version of the not-so-rosy state before Citizens United. The core issues are that it is too easy to hijack our political process and that as long as politicians placate a narrow base with a few token maneuvers, they have a tremendous amount of leeway. We need to make our political process more resilient to the relentless onslaught of moneyed interests. Fortunately, there are some great electoral reform ideas that can help us arrive at a healthier balance of power between voters and interest groups.
The most important electoral reform that we can implement is ranked choice voting (RCV). As the name implies, this allows voters to rank their choices. Once a candidate reaches a threshold to get elected, his/her votes are apportioned according to how supporters cast their votes for their next favorite candidate. At the low end, a candidate is eliminated in each round until the necessary number of winners are reached, and the votes of his/her supporters are reallocated to their next favorite candidate. What this voting system does is practically eliminate “voter’s remorse”. People can vote their conscience without feeling like they have wasted their vote. This means that third parties become more viable. As things currently stand, people often vote along party lines even though they are turned off or often disgusted by the candidate they eventually vote for. That is because even though they might not like the candidate they end up supporting, they cannot bring themselves to lend support to an ideologically distant candidate. Special interests use this flaw to hijack the major parties, counting on people to not jump ship to an opposing party. In the Republican party, this can be seen by the social conservative/economic Libertarian (or nativist in recent months) minority advancing their candidates at the expense of the larger moderate Republican contingent. On the Democratic side, the moderates have been running the show since the Clinton era at the expense of the sizeable progressive contingent. RCV allows third parties to be more viable and puts pressure on the major parties to appeal to a broader base or risk losing seats.
Furthermore, with RCV candidates have to be broadly agreeable since they benefit greatly from ranking high on voters’ ballots, even if they are not their first choice. In single-member districts, candidates will need to win with majority support, not a plurality as is currently the case in most voting districts. That means that candidates who are reviled by a large section of the population stand little chance of getting elected.
While candidates in multi-member districts would not necessarily need to have the support of the majority of the electorate to win, it would still make sense for them to be civil in order to go give them and their allies the best chance to win the most seats. Multi-member districts have the added benefit of being more reflective of the politics of a region. For example, a 60/40 Democrat/Republican split in a 3 member district would most likely result in the election of 2 Democrats and 1 Republican. As it stands, an area like this, divided into single member districts, often results in all Democrat or single Democrat representation depending on how the single-member districts were drawn.
An organization called Fair Vote has been fighting the good fight to improve the representative nature of our government via electoral reforms, and I would refer people to their site to get more information on RCV and other reforms. However, there is a dearth in the movement when it comes to electoral reforms that improve the responsiveness of our system. It is absurd that it is easier in our society to fire a contractor for unsatisfactory work than it is to remove a politician for reneging on a campaign promise or for dereliction of duty (plenty of no-shows in Congress). No, we have to wait 2, 4, or 6 years for a chance at sacking them. Why not have periodic votes of approval/disapproval, perhaps every 6 months? There can be thresholds for votes of no confidence that dictate whether an elected official is automatically given the boot or whether they are on probation. A certain percentage of votes of approval can protect an elected official from withdrawal, regardless of the number of detractors. These measures will disincentive politicians fitting in unpopular favors in the middle of terms, only to provide some token gestures near the end to placate their constituency just enough that they get reelected in a “lesser of two evils” election.
So, how do all these reforms help weaken the power of special interests and make it easier to pass policies with broad support? Well, let’s start by looking at the campaigning process. More viable choices means less ideological compromise, so special interests cannot tow candidates on either side of the conservative/liberal divide without losing some voters to another party. Furthermore, candidates will have to expound on their positions more to differentiate themselves from ideologically similar competitors as opposed to being wishy washy. And while we readily believe dirt on opposition when they are framed as enemies, thoughtfulness and nuance are needed to convince those outside of one’s base. That is why a winning strategy of vying for 2nd and 3rd place votes with your constituents results in less mud slinging. The campaigns have to be more grassroots. Some of you may wonder why special interests cannot simply effect grassroot efforts to the same extent they effect current elections. They can and will definitely try, but the problem is that with greater candidate specificity on issues, there are more pressure points. That together with the fact that candidates will be reliant on a coalition of supporters, many of whom will be more closely aligned with other parties on issues of high personal priority, will put elected officials at greater risk to be ousted should they make empty promises on a pivotal issue to a sector of their coalition. Since much of the leverage of special interest groups relies on the pledge to help politicians get re-elected, this will decrease their leverage. All in all, there will be less ground for special interests to taint and even when they do, their ROIs will be more often limited by single terms or less.
Creating an electoral system that is more responsive during terms of service will also greatly diminish the power of special interests. For one, politicians will no longer be able to make unpopular votes and just wait for the storm to pass unworried. This sometimes happens with unpopular votes where the consequences are gradually and diffusely felt or of high priority to only a sliver of the population. Take GMO labeling for instance. Polls suggest that it would be a very popular measure, but few prioritize it high enough to flip to the other side because their politician voted against its implementation. With a more responsive electoral system and more parties in the mix, a politician can be removed from office or put on probation for not living up to an expectation, even if not of the highest priority. The very same ballots used in the prior election can be used to shift the votes of an official’s backers to their next choice. Or some other system can be employed. The point is that politicians will have more accountability for their stances and less room to make behind-the-scenes deals with campaign financiers.
By making people less blindly faithful to one party and less likely to see opposing parties as the enemy, these reforms will also help break gridlock. After all, obstructionism works as a strategy because the party leaders know that our tribal instincts get the better of us when evaluating disputes. If the mayor/governor/president is of the “enemy” party, we are quick to lay blame on him/her for all that goes wrong during his/her reign regardless of the context, and vice versa. If we do not always vote for the same party and must make nuanced considerations when evaluating candidates, it is much more difficult to feel tribal about our political opinions. In addition, if a party does decide to obstruct as a matter of course, the executive branch can compromise and work with one of the other parties. With several parties with different agendas and priorities sharing power, it is more difficult to grind things to a halt. An obstructionist policy would likely result in a party being sidelined while important laws are passed.
Can you see why electoral reforms are needed to transform our dysfunctional political process? All the popular public policy issues mentioned at the outset are opposed by large special interest groups. Their influence over politicians can be offset to a fair extent by greater voter choice and power. Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The quote would be equally true were it about politicians and campaign contributions, monetary or otherwise. Fortunately, we the people, given enough power, can rebalance the world of public policy to our favor.