“We can put the power back where it belongs: with voters.”
Do you ever think about just not voting, and then feel bad for being lazy? Or do you wonder what is wrong with your friends who don’t exercise their right to vote? Last time, I made the case that politicians aren’t bad apples, our voting system is a bad barrel. That bad barrel also taints voters, making them more apathetic, disengaged, and suspicious that the whole system is corrupted by money. In this article, I lay out more problems and solutions: voters feel like their votes don’t matter and money has too much influence, but a better voting system can engage voters and make money matter less.
Problem: Most election results are already decided before voters get the chance to vote in the general election.
Many countries have used the “election-before-the-election” as a tool for disenfranchising voters while still going through the motions of letting them vote. In the United States after the Civil War, Southern states could no longer legally prohibit people of color from voting. Instead, Southern states used “white primaries” to ensure that only white-approved candidates would be on the ballot. People of color could vote in the general election, but the real decisions had already been made. China recently used this tool against Hong Kong. China agreed to let all Hong Kong voters choose their chief executive. From a China-approved list of candidates.
In the United States, we still have systems ensuring that a select few pre-approve all the candidates before most people vote. We have party primaries. (We also have the money primary—more on money next.)
Most US districts are “safe” for one of the two major parties because the district boundaries have been drawn to give one party a decisive advantage. This is not just gerrymandering—even independent redistricting commissions in Washington state drawing lines around contiguous communities create “safe” districts because communities are increasingly sorted by ideology. In a safe district, the primary for the dominant party is the real election. In 94 percent of US House general elections, whoever won the dominant party primary will win the general election. Voters in the general election are just a rubber stamp. Even spending more money can’t overcome partisanship. Idaho, Oregon, and Washington had zero competitive seats in 2014: 11 of their collective 17 congressional districts are completely safe, with greater than 58 percent of voters voting for one party, and the remaining 5 seats are fairly safe, with 53 to 58 percent advantage to one party. In 2016, American voters will only have the opportunity to really choose a candidate, rather than rubber-stamp a pre-determined candidate, in just 3 percent of House seats. Only one Cascadian seat—Washington District 1—will actually be a race in 2016.
Elections for executive office, like Governor, are more competitive because safe districts don’t protect them and partisans are more likely to “throw the bums out” when the state has had a rocky few years. So maybe your vote counts? Or not: the presidential candidate with less popular support may win due to the ghastly electoral college, or a candidate with less than majority support may be installed in office because of the spoiler problem (as when Nader spoiled the election for Gore and installed Bush). Sigh.
It’s hard to get excited about voting in a general election when, odds are, your vote really will not matter.
Solution: Ensure that support from more general election votes makes a candidate more likely to win.
“Voters, not district boundary lines, should determine who wins elections.”
Voters, not district boundary lines, should determine who wins elections. General elections, not party primaries, should elect legislators. With multi-winner districts, it is nearly impossible to pre-determine the election outcomes just by drawing the district boundaries. All voters have a shot at electing one or more representatives for their district, meaning it matters whether they vote and whom they vote for.
Ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for primaries, or enables open top four primaries that give November voters more choices than the two provided in California and Washington because the run-off is built into the vote. General election voters can actually choose winners, rather than rubber-stamping a ballot hand-picked by primary voters.
With ranked-choice voting for executive office, a candidate can’t take office without support from a majority of voters. So voters can vote their true preferences, safe in the knowledge that the candidate with the most true support will win.
Problem: Voters are unrepresented and disengaged.
Low voter turnout has historically plagued the United States, and to some extent, Canada. If you are a member of the smaller party in a safe district—as more than 40 percent of Oregon and Washington voters are—winner-take-all elections have nothing to offer you. You can vote in every election and never once put someone in office who represents your views. If you align with a third-party, your candidate almost never has a shot at winning. You could choose to strategically vote for the lesser of two evils. Or just not vote. Why vote, if you can’t actually elect someone to represent you?
Solution: Make more votes count.
In a multi-winner district, more voters have the chance to elect at least one representative. The power to elect makes voting more attractive, boosting voter knowledge and turnout.
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
In a single-winner election with ranked-choice voting, voters can safely vote for their favorite long shot candidate without wasting their votes. They can use their second-ranked vote to help push another candidate they like, but who is more popular, over the finish line. The freedom to vote your true preference is more motivating than holding your nose and voting for the lesser of two evils.
Experience shows that countries with proportional representation have consistently higher voter turnout than countries with winner-take-all. And, by the way, countries with winner-take-all are a small and discontented club: only the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France still use it.
Problem: Voters know that money is corrupting our democracy.
Money corrupts. Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions, more money is flowing into American elections every year: the 2014 mid-terms cost $4 billion, and the 2016 presidential election alone is likely to cost $10 billion, with the Koch brothers’ fund shoveling in nearly $1 billion. The spending seems to work: in 2012, 95 percent of the US House candidates who spent more money won their election. Most of the money accompanying legislators to victory comes from the richest 0.01 percent of the population, and it shows: government policies overwhelmingly benefit businesses and the wealthy over the middle class.
Solution: Make money matter less.
Money and winning go together. It could be that a candidate can win if he raises more money. Or perhaps a candidate can raise more money if he is already sure to win. Most elections are safe, and the safe winner raises the most money about 90 percent of the time. But in the few races that are not safe, the big spender only wins about 60 percent of the time. Campaign funders may not be paying to help their favorite candidate win so much as they are using campaign donations as a way to lobby the soon-to-be winner. By removing safe seats, proportional representation may make campaign finance a less attractive form of lobbying, causing funders to save some of their cash.
“The candidate who spends less money wins a ranked-choice election five out of six times.” -@FairVote
Ranked-choice voting also undercuts the sway that money now holds in elections. Ranked-choice voting rewards candidates who engage in direct contact with voters over those who simply shell out the money for 30-second television ads. One example was Betsy Hodges’ upset win in the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral race. Hodges won by 20 percentage points in the final round of the RCV tally even while not spending money on television advertising, unlike the better-funded frontrunner. Her campaign instead invested in direct voter contact. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan also used direct voter engagement (“we talked to everyone” she said) to win the most support from voters despite being outspent nearly four to one: her campaign and independent supporters spent $275,000 while Don Perata’s campaign and supporters spent nearly $1 million. Indeed, according to a forthcoming FairVote analysis, the candidate who spends less money wins a ranked-choice election five out of six times.
North American voters aren’t more lazy and apathetic than voters in other countries. Rather, voters sense that the archaic voting systems still in place in the United States and Canada strengthen the power of parties and plutocrats and diminish the power of the people’s votes. By implementing multi-winner districts and ranked-choice voting throughout Cascadia, we can put the power back where it belongs: with voters.
Thanks to FairVote for its decades of research on proportional representation and ranked-choice voting. This article relies heavily on that research.
You are on fire with these most recent column sin this series. Great work, please keep it up. We can’t make progress on the environment without the ability to assert popular priorities over corporate priorities, so this (election reforms to restore democracy to how we choose leaders and policies) is the uber-issue of our time.
Thanks for posting my exact thoughts. This series, even with the provincial references to the northwest (I’m from Boston), is the best source I’ve found on this crucial topic.
You strongly imply that Washington State has party primaries. Obviously, we do not, so the winnowing primary functions to select the top two, regardless of party, as you would want. You state that no 3rd party candidate can win, yet we have Socialist Alternative party Kshama Sawant. I think your whole argument, driven by your conclusion, just failed. Sightline needs a better editor.
Hey Sarajane, are you willing to admit Sound Transit is an oligarchy?
15 of the 18 boardmembers are appointed, by only four individuals. Those four are oligarchs — pursuant to statute.
Let’s see if you understand about government structure, or are just basher paid by the democrat party.
Hi Sarajane – I said that third-party candidates almost never have a shot at winning. And voters almost never have a shot at electing someone other than a D or R.
If you are a Socialist Alternative party member in Seattle, and you’ve voted all your adult life, you have voted for hundreds of legislative candidates and only once have you elected someone (Kshama Sawant) who shares your party views. And she is in the Seattle City Council, having lost, 29-70, the election for WA state representative.
The point is that, if people had the choice to elect representatives who share their views, we would see many more independents and their party members in office. But they don’t, and we don’t.
More on partisanship and primaries (including Washignton’s top-two) here:
Kristin, please comment or write about mixed-member proportional (MMP) as it exists in New Zealand and Germany as a PR system for the United States. Also, do the people (voting age citizens) have the right to amend our Constitution by a majority vote outside of the procedures of Article 5? If so, why? If not, what is the evidence and argument that the Constitution makes Article 5 the exclusive, only means of amending?
Yes, it’s the voting system. We need to switch polling places to rooftops.
I can appreciate that you understand that changing the voting system is necessary for reducing the influence of money in politics. It is too bad that progressives in the media like Cenk Uygur and Sam Seder can’t seem to figure this out. IRV, however, is not the way to go.
First, of all, please don’t refer to IRV as ranked choice voting. It is vague and there are many different forms of rank choice voting other than IRV such as the different Condorcet methods which are far superior. They give more accurate representation and it is so much easier to tabulate the results.
Second, voting for your favorite under IRV can still hurt you pretty bad. If you want to find out why, look at this youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtKAScORevQ). You can see how different voting systems fair in this voting simulation (http://zesty.ca/voting/sim/). It makes simplistic assumptions such as perfect knowledge among voters and 100% voter honesty, but it gives a general idea of how they behave.
I think the best solution is to have non-partisan primaries that use approval voting(voting for all the candidate you like) to get the top two for the general. It makes it so much easier to vote on issues without much effort. If you are a college slacker and the only issue you care about is legalizing pot, you can vote for all the candidates endorsed by the “Legalize Pot Party” and you are done. You don’t have to do anything other than that. If you also care about another issue, such as banning fracking, you can vote for all candidates mutually endorsed by the “Legalize Pot Party” and the “No Fracking Party.” If you are more generous with your vote, you can vote for all the candidates endorsed by either party. Candidates would have to pay attention to the important issues to stay competitive.
Under the top four primary, you still can’t necessarily vote for your favorite candidate. You have to strategically vote for someone who not only has a chance to make it into the top four, but also has a chance of winning the general. Once you are in the general, you can still get punished for voting for your favorite under IRV. Vote splitting can artificially help your favorite candidate eliminate more viable candidates in the early rounds, but he may not have enough support to beat the guy you hate most who may have made it to the last round. If you just use top two with approval voting, you can just vote all the candidates you like without worrying.
I do not mean for ranked-choice to only mean IRV — I meant it as an umbrella category including various ranked-choice systems, including condorcet methods and STV. But you are right that saying “ranked-choice voting” excludes range options like approval, score, and range voting. Right now I am focused on proportional representation via multi-winner elections using STV, but later in the series I will dig more into single-winner elections and how rank and range voting options compare.
You assign the 3 principal problems for election failure on 1) primaries and district boundaries, 2) first past the post (winner take all) and 3) the corrupting influence of money. The problems originated with the Founders’ decision at the Constitutional Convention to only let people like themselves (white males who own property, over the age of 25) vote, eliminating nearly 90% of the population from having a voice. Every system since has been exclusive, not inclusive. The goal for any electoral reform should be inclusivity and a level playing field. I agree completely with your solution “Right now I am focused on proportional representation via multi-winner elections using STV”. It’s the most inclusive system designed to date.