By Michael Alter
Extreme polarization is not a new phenomenon, but accompanied by interlocking systems of voter enfranchisement, mass media and internet connectivity, and profit maximization, extreme polarization now exists in uniquely pernicious forms. This polarization filters itself through our electoral institutions, and unfortunately, they are ill equipped to handle these stresses. Failure to address polarization will result in continued political and socioeconomic paralysis, the build-up of which will only contribute to further societal tension and violence worse than what we have recently witnessed across the country. The U.S. must urgently adopt electoral reforms to channel energies in more productive directions if it is to merely survive, not to mention thrive, in the 21st Century. H.R. 1 provides a good floor, but we must build upon it. Right now, publicly financed ranked choice voting is our best shot.
Unlike most other countries, the United States has what is called a fully presidential federal system of government. In contrast to semi-presidential systems like France or parliamentary federal systems like Germany, Canada, and India, the U.S. is constitutionally oriented towards a structure that, according to its framers, was intended to disperse political power across several axes while upholding class, race, gender, and other such power dynamics. But the Constitution provided for ways those other classifications of power could be brought into it, and many Americans have fought and died to force those structures to change since ratification in 1788.
The most dramatic internal divisions the U.S. has experienced have largely been due to that expansion in rights recognition. The Civil War, caused by primarliy southern states refusing to abolish slavery, was followed by ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments (XIII, XIV, and XV) giving Black Americans greater say only because the power of the federal government to execute the will of the governing party at the time (the pro-reform Republican Party) had been forcibly established at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. During Reconstruction, Black voters helped elect Black representatives at the local, state, and federal levels for the first time. The fear caused by that increased representation of America’s pluralistic population in its government, felt most acutely by white power-brokers, inspired the birth of the Ku Klux Klan to maintain white power by illegitimate means. After the election of 1876 led to a discrepancy in the Electoral College, Southern Democrats agreed to send the Republican candidate to the White House on the condition they could impose Jim Crow. Maintaining electoral power through rigging elections was now legitimate; Black disenfranchisement skyrocketed.
Other reforms to increase access to the ballot box, such as passage of the XIX Amendment extending the franchise to women, were limited in scope by continued discriminatory practices and outdated voting structures. The decisive shift in making U.S. electoral institutions capable of delivering pluralistic governments for a pluralistic population came in the 1960s with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Americans had been a pluralistic people since the beginning; because of the arduous and often painfully slow reform process, only recently has that people started to get governments that acted like it.
While representation has increased along lines of race, gender, and other such categories, polarization has also increased such that many Americans feel neither major political party (Democratic or Republican) accurately reflects their point of view. A recent study suggests that over the last 40 years, polarization in the US has increased more rapidly than in other democracies – and that polarization even decreased in certain countries. (Boxell et al.) The study describes party sorting based on ideology and demographics as well as increased mass media consumption as reasons for why the US is “exceptional” when it comes to post-1970s partisan polarization trends.
As we have seen throughout US history, then, governance changes have come about through regular elections and violent overthrows. The Capitol Insurrection was an illegitimate attempt to alter the results of a legitimate election after perpetrators of the violence were led to believe the election was not actually legitimate. Advocating that point of view was possible because of the proliferation of profit-seeking mass media (where the profit motive incentivizes sensationalism to play into a polarized electorate) through increased internet connectivity. A Pew Research poll published in November 2020 found disturbing results: about 85% of voters said Trump and Biden supporters disagreed with the opposing candidate’s voters on basic facts, about 80% said Americans tend to get different basic facts based on the news sources they use, and 67% admit the source they themselves use often presents factual information to favor one side on an issue. (Shearer) On its face, that final point appears neutral; if facts lead one way, journalistic integrity demands they be followed. But thinking deeper, it points to narrative-driven journalism and the presentation of only facts that aid that particular narrative.
Besides critiquing and punishing those who helped perpetuate that dangerously false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen, it is important to note that some criticisms of our electoral institutions are valid. Another Pew Research poll published in September 2020 found 62% of American adults believe the very design and structure of the US government need significant change, as only around 27% of American adults agreed that in the US, campaign contributions don’t lead to greater political influence or agreed that elected officials face serious consequences for wrongdoing. (Pew Research Center) As such, we must take stock of where our election systems need real reforms to bolster them against future charges of bias and make it less likely that their integrity will be capable of being questioned.
Many of our electoral systems are particularly ill-suited to pluralistic democracy, defined as “the view that in liberal democracies power is (or should be) dispersed among a variety of economic and ideological pressure groups and is not (or should not be) held by a single elite or group of elites.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) Despite earlier reforms, gerrymandering, voter suppression, a nation-wide political duopoly, and other problems remain. While voter turnout and diversity in elected bodies has increased since the 1960s, partisan polarization has increased alongside, leading to greater legislative paralysis and less faith the government can deliver needed policy. Changing our electoral institutions is the necessary first step. H.R.1, the current reform bill, does much to combat electoral shortcomings, but it does not go far enough.
Option 1: Change the Method of Election
One major solution governments at all levels can do right now is to adopt a form of ranked choice voting. Under Winner-Take-All/First-Past-The-Post systems, whoever gets the most votes wins. While that sounds appealing initially, in reality this system works best with only two candidates to get everyone on board, to achieve a legitimate consensus. If 5 people run for a seat, and everyone were to get about 20% of the vote, the person who technically won the most would have a rather small mandate for their position. Alternatively, there is the scenario Maine encountered a few cycles ago: an unpopular Republican governor ran for re-election, but despite winning only 48% of the vote was re-elected because of a third party candidate who “spoiled” the main Democratic challenger.
There are several methods for scrapping FPTP. Proportional representation was actually used in around 25 cities in the early 20th Century, so the country has not been exclusively WTA. (Electoral Reform Society) PR is hard to do while keeping connection to a specific locality; Israel, for example, has a perfectly proportional national legislature (Knesset) but that is accomplished by treating the whole country as one jurisdiction. A method to address that is called Single Transferable Vote (STV) or proportional RCV, currently used in Ireland to elect representatives to the lower house (Dáil Éireann) of the legislature (Oireachtas), and used in the US in Cambridge, MA. Under this system, a jurisdiction is divided into multi-member constituencies, where voters can choose to rank several candidates on a ballot and the top 3, 4, or 5 candidates get elected. Drawing multi-member districts too large can lead to problems similar to at-large districts, discussed below. The New Hampshire House utilizes multi-member districts, but to make it work that chamber is the largest chamber in the US at 400 members. Concerns about constitutionality necessitates these districts be drawn with even greater care than usual, and increasing the size of a chamber takes time. Given the urgency of the crisis, we should not waste any time.
A simpler ranking method called the Alternative Vote is used (and what we in the US generally mean when we say Ranked Choice Voting). AV or RCV is familiar enough: voters simply rank candidates for a position instead of only voting for one of them. If no candidate wins a majority of first preference votes, the candidate who received the least is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to other candidates. This process repeats until one person has more than 50%. This method is also called Instant Runoff Voting, as voters in states like Georgia could understand: instead of having two separate elections, one with all candidates and the second with just the top two, one election is enough to receive ranked preferences from the electorate. Maine and Alaska have become the first states to adopt this method for their elections, as have cities like New York City. It makes good sense that Maine and Alaska, two states with strong traditions of independents and third party candidates running successfully for office, have become the trailblazers for this method. The US constitution permits RCV at the federal level immediately. RCV eliminates the spoiler effect, and allows for more candidates to run for office as a result. Besides increasing the breadth of viewpoints in a campaign, it has shown to increase the crossover appeal of different campaigns, with a least one race in Maine recently having two candidates for the same office run joint ads asking voters to rank the other person second over the several other candidates in that race. That massively lowers the partisan temperature in an election. (FairVote)
Option 2: Change the Legislative Body
Opportunities for people to express policy preferences should be encouraged in a democracy; that is, in fact, the purpose of democracy. To that end, policy preferences can be exhibited through elections, but not just through elections and not just elections to traditional public institutions. If we are to truly make government work effectively, we must be bold in considering the ways it can be reformed. An entire genre of policy options surrounding public bodies must be discussed.
First, if we consider the act of drawing an electoral district, we see that drawing districts to favor particular interests is such an American tradition that the word to describe it, gerrymandering, is named after an elected official from 1812. A different method could abandon the act altogether, and create at-large districts where members are all elected from the same, large district, or in addition to some districts, at-large districts are also included. This method was used by many states in the early years of the Republic, but by the late 1800s Congress prohibited them at the federal level and the states followed suit. The Supreme Court ruled in Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613 (1982), that local governments should also be discouraged from using at-large districts. The reasons for these restrictions were the evidence was quite clear that this method tended to promote bloc voting, minority disenfranchisement, and concentration of representation in certain areas of the district at the expense of others.
This is not to say, then, that all redistricting must necessarily be subject to bias and trickery. Here, redistricting commissions are key. Elected officials should not have the ability to express preferences for who their electorate is going to be. This is why several states, like California and Arizona, have in past years through referenda or state law enacted independent redistricting commissions to remove, as far as possible, political influences from the process. Gerrymandering, as a result, has been significantly reduced in those states at all levels of government. (Kilic)
Therefore, the possibility does exist to draw small multi-member districts that would probably not violate the XIV and XV amendments. However, this may work best if it were coupled with an additional reform: body enlargement. Congress has 435 House members, or roughly one per 750,000 Americans. That is out of step with much of the democratic world. (Auriol and Gary-Bobo) This is not even mentioning the Senate, where the small-state bias is baked into the chamber’s core structure. Increasing the size of Congress would allow for greater representation of views and peoples, allow for such other reforms to occur without violating the Constitution. (Kane et al.) However, public opinion of Congress is at historic lows; public appetite for creating additional members of said body is practically non-existent. It could also increase polarization if more of the same type of members are elected.
Option 3: Change the Funding of the Electoral System
Public financing has been used in several major cities, like NYC and Seattle, to great effect in recent years. Through a voluntary matching system that turns $1 of donations by an individual into many dollars, candidates are heavily encouraged to reach out to as many voters as possible, reducing the burden of fundraising call time and the tendency to tailor one’s message to wealthy donors. Because these programs are voluntary, public bodies can impose on candidates additional burdens they would not be subject to absent the program, like spending limits in a campaign. While a public matching system exists at the federal level, it is rarely used – and in a post-Citizens United world with so little limits on spending, candidates are essentially incentivized not to participate. H.R. 1 includes provisions to alter the program.
Recent evidence from cities employing this method shows that not only are people running who otherwise never would be able to, but that donors are more reflective of the electorate as a whole. (Genn et al.) Further, acceptance of a voluntary program has not been a major problem. In fact, candidates in recent NYC elections are more likely to be asked why they aren’t part of the program, as non-participation is viewed with suspicion. This implies a significant desire for more permanent campaign finance reform, and a public attitude towards rewarding candidates who commit to more transparent and controlled campaign spending. (Migally et al.) Getting money entirely out of politics by force will never happen, and partially out by force only in the coming years. Any system to drive it out in the meantime as much as possible should be readily adopted.
Unfortunately, the situation we find ourselves in as Americans is disturbing enough to warrant drastic action immediately. As a result of collective failure to maintain and expand our democratic institutions in recent decades, we have let them fall into significant disrepair and the violence we have witnessed is the almost inevitable consequence. If the United States is to make its public institutions as representative of the pluralistic country in which those institutions have always functioned, it must enact policies to change its electoral institutions first.
While in the long term, considerations could be made regarding multi-member districts and enlarging the size of legislative bodies such as Congress, there are other options available to us to enact change now. A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is also not immediately forthcoming. As such, combining public finance programs with the adoption of AV/RCV would immediately change the nature of our political discourse and elections. We may still fail our democratic experiment – or we may yet save it and improve it beyond its founding constraints.
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