Good Candidates Won’t Be Enough in 2020—We Must Overhaul Our Entire Voting System

There’s a growing national movement across party lines for multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting.

Rob Richie

Voters in Portland, Maine cast absentee ballots on November 1st. Third-party congressional candidates fared relatively well in Maine, the first state in American history to use Rank Choice Voting for its Senate and House elections. (Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

My advice in the wake of the midterms I give as a strate­gist for democ­ra­cy, not for Democ­rats or the Left. For any par­ty or elec­toral group, it is the same: Earn the trust of the chang­ing Amer­i­can elec­torate by pass­ing bet­ter vot­ing rules.

Electoral organizing is impossible to sustain when you have no chance to win.

Last Novem­ber, democ­ra­cy itself was on the bal­lot: redis­trict­ing reform, vot­er access, vot­ing meth­ods, vot­ing rights and cam­paign finance reform. And democ­ra­cy won. Land­slide majori­ties backed fair­er elec­tions in states both red and blue. The Democ­rats’ pro­posed first bill of the 2019 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, HR 1, would take most of those changes national.

HR 1 is excel­lent, but insuf­fi­cient. Mil­len­ni­als are fed up with the sta­tus quo, as shown by how many are reg­is­tered as Inde­pen­dent and backed Bernie Sanders’ polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion. A reform that can earn their votes is ranked-choice vot­ing (RCV), which lets vot­ers rank can­di­dates and not be forced to choose the less­er of two evils.” Already used in more than a dozen Amer­i­can cities, RCV had a big year in Maine. It was affirmed in a statewide bal­lot mea­sure, used in the pri­maries and then to elect U.S. sen­a­tors and House mem­bers for the first time in Amer­i­can history.

The RCV con­test for U.S. Sen­ate drew more votes than any midterm race ever in Maine. In Maine’s con­gres­sion­al races, the shares of votes going to third-par­ty and inde­pen­dent can­di­dates were high­er than in all but one oth­er House race with two major-par­ty nom­i­nees (Utah’s 1st district).

In Maine’s 2nd con­gres­sion­al dis­trict — the most expen­sive con­gres­sion­al race in the state’s his­to­ry—RCV was key to eco­nom­ic pop­ulist Demo­c­rat Jared Gold­ens upset of Repub­li­can incum­bent Bruce Poliquin. Golden’s 45.5 per­cent of first choic­es put him in sec­ond place, after the first choic­es were tal­lied. With RCV, the votes of the 8.2 per­cent who vot­ed first for inde­pen­dent can­di­dates made the dif­fer­ence; when your first choice is in last place, your bal­lot goes to your next ranked choice. Poliquin said he wouldn’t rank any oth­er can­di­date sec­ond, while Gold­en and the two inde­pen­dent can­di­dates embraced the new sys­tem and encour­aged their vot­ers to pick each oth­er as back-up choic­es. He won 50.5 per­cent to 49.5 percent.

RCV has anoth­er appli­ca­tion that could serve the Democ­rats well: the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion process. The Repub­li­cans’ big field in 2016 reward­ed Don­ald Trump. Democ­rats should sup­port RCV in ear­ly cau­cus states like Iowa and Neva­da to turn the spot­light on can­di­dates best able to rep­re­sent the par­ty. Democ­rats could make this change with a sim­ple rule change approved by the DNC.

But RCV alone isn’t enough, either. Even in 2018, three in five House races were won by land­slide mar­gins of greater than 20 per­cent­age points, and more than 150 Repub­li­cans won by at least 10 per­cent­age points in a strong­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic year. FairVote’s Monop­oly Pol­i­tics report has already pro­ject­ed win­ners in more than 350 of the 435 con­gres­sion­al races in 2020. Near­ly all those win­ners are in dis­tricts that wouldn’t be much more com­pet­i­tive with impar­tial redis­trict­ing. That means more than a third of Amer­i­cans, includ­ing most African Amer­i­cans in the South, live in safe­ly Repub­li­can dis­tricts that are unlike­ly to ever elect a Democrat.

In today’s high­ly par­ti­san cli­mate, the core prob­lem is the win­ner-take-all rule where 51 per­cent of votes gains 100 per­cent of pow­er. Elec­toral orga­niz­ing is impos­si­ble to sus­tain when you have no chance to win. Take Richard Oje­da, the pop­ulist pro­gres­sive who earned 44 per­cent of the vote in a West Vir­ginia dis­trict that Trump over­whelm­ing­ly car­ried in 2016. Ojeda’s per­for­mance was impres­sive, but still well be- hind what was need­ed. Nation­al­ly, expect less ener­gy in such dis­tricts in 2020, not more.

Yet Con­gress could change this equa­tion overnight. The New York Times in a full-page edi­to­r­i­al recent­ly embraced HR 3057, the Fair Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Act. HR 3057 com­bines RCV with what is known as mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts — that is, putting togeth­er adjoin­ing dis­tricts and elect­ing more than one per­son using RCV. In such a sys­tem, 51 per­cent of the votes will win the most seats, but not all: Any 20 per­cent group of like-mind­ed vot­ers will be able to elect one out of five officials.

Sud­den­ly, every sin­gle vote in the nation would count in every elec­tion, from West Vir­ginia coal coun­try to the Texas pan­han­dle. The Left could orga­nize lit­er­al­ly every­where, and far more women and peo­ple of col­or would like­ly win elections.

Democ­rats face a par­tic­u­lar geo­graph­ic chal­lenge with win­ner-take-all: Their votes have become too con­cen­trat­ed in urban areas. While ger­ry­man­der­ing mat­ters, Democ­rats aren’t as effi­cient­ly dis­trib­uted as Repub­li­cans across large regions of the coun­try. As a result, there is a built-in par­ti­san skew with­in any win­ner-take-all system.

So, Democ­rats, respect the vote. Pass vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions, cam­paign finance reform, the Nation­al Pop­u­lar Vote plan and impar­tial redis­trict­ing, to be sure, but also pass RCV every­where you can. Build sup­port for the Fair Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Act and show Amer­i­cans you’re tru­ly ready to embrace fair­ness, choice and a tru­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive democracy.

Rob Richie is the pres­i­dent of Fair­Vote and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to many lead­ing news­pa­pers and tele­vi­sion news pro­grams. He is co-author of Every Vote Equal and Whose Votes Count.
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