The Two-Party System Is Facing Its Biggest Challenge In 70 Years

From Maine to Missouri, states are bucking the establishment to push radical electoral reforms.

Theo Anderson March 19, 2018

Winston Apple is on a crusade to redraw Missouri into multi-member state legislative districts. (Emily Burke)

We are in a moment of ner­vous, semi-pan­icked reflec­tion about the health and prospects of the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem. Take The Atlantics March essay, Amer­i­ca Is Not a Democ­ra­cy.” It begins with the sto­ry of how a pri­vate water com­pa­ny in Oxford, Mass., appar­ent­ly derailed a pub­lic buy­out pushed by locals who were angry about high rates and poor ser­vice. The plan was vot­ed down at a town hall meet­ing mys­te­ri­ous­ly packed with peo­ple who had shown lit­tle pre­vi­ous inter­est. Even in this bas­tion of delib­er­a­tion and direct democ­ra­cy,” writes Yascha Mounk, a nasty sus­pi­cion had tak­en hold: that the levers of pow­er are not con­trolled by the people.”

Proportional representation is already used in 94 democracies around the world.

With good rea­son. Polling shows that Con­gress is pro­found­ly out of tune with the will of the peo­ple on almost every issue, from gun con­trol to sin­gle-pay­er health­care to action on cli­mate change. In a Gallup poll released this past fall, only a third of respon­dents said the two major par­ties do an ade­quate job of rep­re­sent­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” Six­ty-one per­cent thought a third par­ty was need­ed — the high­est num­ber in eight polls tak­en over 15 years.

One path for­ward is to engage each issue and press for change with­in the exist­ing dys­func­tion­al sys­tem. But if there is a gamechang­ing and achiev­able solu­tion that solves some of the most pro­found prob­lems at once — end­ing the stran­gle­hold of the two major par­ties, mul­ti­ply­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of minor­i­ty vot­ers, decreas­ing polar­iza­tion and boost­ing vot­er engage­ment — doesn’t it deserve seri­ous atten­tion from progressives?

Such a solu­tion — pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion (PR) — is already used in 94 democ­ra­cies around the world. In those coun­tries, there are more par­ties to choose from. Elec­tions focus more on issues and less on indi­vid­ual can­di­dates. The pow­er of mon­ey is dilut­ed, because coali­tion build­ing takes pri­or­i­ty over per­son­al attacks. And there are more women and minori­ties in office.

In the Unit­ed States, a semi-hid­den his­to­ry attests to PR’s trans­for­ma­tive pow­er. Intro­duced into the New York City Coun­cil elec­tions in 1936, PR unleashed a wave of demo­c­ra­t­ic engage­ment and diverse rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Com­mu­nists and oth­er minor­i­ty par­ties claimed 50 per­cent of the seats and broke the Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine’s monop­oly. In Cincin­nati in 1951, PR put an African-Amer­i­can attor­ney, Theodore Berry, on the cusp of becom­ing may­or, until the estab­lish­ment closed ranks and shut him out. A total of 24 cities adopt­ed PR in the ear­ly decades of the 20th century.

The Red Scare, cou­pled with racism, squashed those exper­i­ments. New York City abol­ished PR in 1947, large­ly because it empow­ered Com­mu­nists. Cincin­nati did so in 1957, to block the rise of African Amer­i­cans on the city council.

Now, in response to grow­ing the glar­ing fail­ures of our democ­ra­cy, PR is being advanced at the local lev­el from Maine to Mis­souri to California.


The biggest bar­ri­er to PR today may be iner­tia. Polling shows that its appeal tran­scends ide­ol­o­gy, but the two-par­ty tug-of-war is so ingrained that it’s hard to imag­ine a dif­fer­ent way.

PR also has a mar­ket­ing prob­lem. Its name seems designed to make eyes glaze. And there are end­less vari­a­tions on how it could be implemented.

But set aside the mar­ket­ing prob­lems and the mechan­ics, and briefly con­sid­er PR’s basic claims.

The case for PR holds that the mad­den­ing things about Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy are built into our leg­isla­tive maps and our vot­ing pro­ce­dures; dys­func­tion and dis­en­chant­ment are fea­tures of our elec­toral sys­tem, not bugs.

The basic prin­ci­ples of reform are sim­ple. The first is that a leg­isla­tive dis­trict need not be the domain of a sin­gle rep­re­sen­ta­tive, but should be rep­re­sent­ed by mul­ti­ple peo­ple — a reform called mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts. The sec­ond is that vot­ing should be about rank­ing the can­di­dates, not choos­ing the sin­gle best per­son — a reform called ranked-choice vot­ing (RCV).

Mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts can cre­ate space for racial and ide­o­log­i­cal minori­ties, who may have trou­ble win­ning more than half the vote but can attract a loy­al bloc, enough to come in sec­ond, third or fourth and earn a seat. Mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts also defy ger­ry­man­der­ing. In a sin­gle mem­ber dis­trict that’s split 60 – 40 along par­ty lines, the 40 per­cent minor­i­ty gets no rep­re­sen­ta­tive. A rul­ing par­ty can game the sys­tem by cre­at­ing many such slim-mar­gin dis­tricts in its favor, dis­en­fran­chis­ing a siz­able por­tion of the oppos­ing party’s vot­ers. But in a mul­ti-mem­ber dis­trict, the 40 per­cent gets a share of the seats.

RCV breaks the grip of the two-par­ty sys­tem in anoth­er way, by solv­ing the prob­lem of spoil­er can­di­dates and boost­ing vot­er engage­ment. In RCV, a voter’s sec­ond-choice can­di­date receives her vote if her first choice is elim­i­nat­ed. The same is true for her third choice if the sec­ond choice is elim­i­nat­ed. And so on. If the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion had been non-par­ti­san and ranked-choice, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clin­ton vot­ers could have been at peace, know­ing that by mark­ing the oth­er Demo­c­rat as their sec­ond choice, they would still be cast­ing a vote against Don­ald Trump — even if their first choice didn’t win.

These two ideas can be applied inde­pen­dent­ly, but they’re more pow­er­ful in com­bi­na­tion. Alone, mul­ti-mem­ber dis­trict­ing has some risks. For instance, under cer­tain cir­cum­stances, it can actu­al­ly sup­press rather than increase minor­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion (if block” vot­ing allows one par­ty to win all the seats). Ranked-choice vot­ing cor­rects that. Used togeth­er, mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts and RCV dis­solve the two-par­ty monop­oly and give out­sider can­di­dates a real chance.

A per­fect storm of dys­func­tion, cor­rup­tion and dimin­ish­ing democ­ra­cy is dri­ving the recent revival of sup­port for PR. The GOP’s rad­i­cal ger­ry­man­der­ing of leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, and the flood of cor­po­rate dark mon­ey since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Cit­i­zens Unit­ed deci­sion, have spot­light­ed how our polit­i­cal sys­tem is rigged against democ­ra­cy in favor of wealth and pow­er. (That’s in addi­tion to Don­ald Trump’s con­stant laments about the rig­ging of the sys­tem and his inces­sant efforts to rig it for himself.)

In that grim con­text, PR’s bold and hope­ful vision for how our sys­tem can work bet­ter is gain­ing trac­tion and win­ning con­verts. It’s a solu­tion well suit­ed to this moment of demo­c­ra­t­ic dys­func­tion and a flow­er­ing of local experiments.

We’re in a cri­sis whose depth is not ful­ly under­stood yet,” says Rob Richie, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Fair­Vote, a nation­al advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion work­ing to pro­mote PR. Peo­ple are hop­ing they can fix it with Band-Aids, and I don’t think they can. And as that sinks in, more and more peo­ple will see that PR bends things toward the changes that we need to make.”


Sev­er­al cities and states are now explor­ing one or both reforms. On June 5, San­ta Clara, Calif., (pop. 126,000) votes on a mea­sure that would estab­lish both mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts and RCV for city coun­cil elec­tions. On June 12, Maine votes on a ref­er­en­dum that would estab­lish RCV for state and fed­er­al offices.

The San­ta Clara bill would mark the first time a city has adopt­ed mul­ti-mem­ber dis­trict­ing and RCV since the 1950s. Only Cam­bridge, Mass., cur­rent­ly elects its city coun­cil using RCV in mul­ti-mem­ber districts.

The elec­tions in Maine and San­ta Clara are bell­wethers that pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion is gain­ing momen­tum. A nascent effort in Mis­souri cap­tures the kind of pas­sion and faith it can inspire.

In late 2014, a retired high school eco­nom­ics teacher, Win­ston Apple, draft­ed a bal­lot peti­tion that would cre­ate a PR sys­tem for Missouri’s state gov­ern­ment. It didn’t get enough sig­na­tures the first time around, and he filed it again in late 2016. Since then, he’s been work­ing to build sup­port for it by coor­di­nat­ing with pro­gres­sive groups around the state. They need about 160,000 sig­na­tures by May 6 to put it on the Novem­ber ballot.

Apple is a mem­ber of Our Rev­o­lu­tion and a self-described polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ary.” He’s also a can­di­date for Con­gress in Missouri’s 6th District.

He orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to put sev­en reform mea­sures on the bal­lot this fall. When his coali­tion part­ners asked him, for the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, to choose one, he chose PR. If we can get that on the bal­lot and passed this year, then in 2020 we will elect a gen­uine­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­ture that will pass all the rest of the bal­lot mea­sures,” Apple says. It’s a gate­way to get­ting all the rest of the good stuff done.” His coali­tion part­ners include sev­er­al chap­ters of Our Rev­o­lu­tion and mem­bers of minor par­ties that would ben­e­fit from a PR sys­tem, includ­ing Greens and Libertarians.

Most reform ini­tia­tives, like the one in Maine, push for only ranked-choice vot­ing rather than full PR, because RCV is more famil­iar and less dis­rup­tive. Apple’s peti­tion does the oppo­site. It would cre­ate eight larg­er state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, each with 10 rep­re­sen­ta­tives, cut­ting the total num­ber of House seats approx­i­mate­ly in half.

Apple pro­pos­es a list” sys­tem sim­i­lar to the par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cy of many Euro­pean coun­tries. Vot­ers cast their bal­lot for a par­ty, not indi­vid­ual can­di­dates. Par­ties fill their share of seats in the leg­is­la­ture accord­ing to the results of their pri­ma­ry elec­tions. If a par­ty wins three seats in a dis­trict, for exam­ple, the party’s top three pri­ma­ry vote win­ners are seated.

Apple, who’s from Inde­pen­dence and bears a bit of a resem­blance to Har­ry Tru­man, says he designed it that way because it puts the focus on issues, not per­son­al­i­ties. He has a Mid­west­ern earnest­ness, and he approach­es his role of polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ary with the ener­gy of a con­vert. He’s writ­ten a man­i­festo for the reform of pub­lic edu­ca­tion,” Edu­topia, and he’s work­ing on a book about Key­ne­sian eco­nom­ics that argues the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should become the employ­er of last resort.

For his mis­sion to change Missouri’s elec­toral sys­tem, he’s cre­at­ed a web­site, Gov​ern​ment​ByTheP​eo​ple​.org, with two short videos that explain the basics of pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in addi­tion to essays that describe it in painstak­ing detail. And he takes his cause on the road. In ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, he went to a three-day sum­mit called Unrig the Sys­tem” at Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty in New Orleans. The summit’s goal was to con­vene the bright­est minds from the Right and Left to fix Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.” The slate of speak­ers includ­ed both Nina Turn­er, pres­i­dent of Our Rev­o­lu­tion, and Steve Hilton, a Fox News host.

Peo­ple not for­mal­ly sched­uled to speak at the sum­mit had a chance to pitch their ideas for a brief talk. Atten­dees vot­ed on the pitch­es, and the win­ners got to speak at an event on the last day. Apple was among the winners.

I think I con­vinced a whole lot more peo­ple that if we can only make one change, pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion is the one we should make,” he says. It’s just a num­bers game. The vast major­i­ty of peo­ple have no idea what it is or how it works. I’ve found that if you say, This will break the two-par­ty monop­oly, and inde­pen­dent can­di­dates will have a fair chance of get­ting elect­ed,’ they say, Where do I sign?’ ”


Fair­Vote expects that the Mis­souri ini­tia­tive will be a hard sell, espe­cial­ly the idea of vot­ing for a party’s slate rather than indi­vid­u­als. I tend to be skep­ti­cal that a list sys­tem will be suc­cess­ful in the U.S,” says Drew Spencer Pen­rose, FairVote’s law and pol­i­cy direc­tor. We’re used to vot­ing for can­di­dates, and we’re also used to big tent parties.”

Pen­rose and Rob Richie believe the path to vic­to­ry for PR is a series of city and state-lev­el reforms that evolve into a move­ment for fed­er­al PR over the next decade or so. A bill already in the House, the Fair Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Act, would imple­ment both mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts and RCV. It cur­rent­ly has only four co-spon­sors but serves to keep the item on the agen­da for a future, more pro­gres­sive Congress.

The ref­er­en­dum in Maine would estab­lish ranked-choice vot­ing for all state and fed­er­al elec­tions, which is a more mod­est and less dis­rup­tive reform than com­bin­ing it with mul­ti-mem­ber dis­tricts. Think of RCV as the gate­way to full PR.

RCV has strong appeal in Maine because of the spoil­er prob­lem that’s plagued its recent guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tions. In the most recent elec­tion in 2014, Democ­rats and Inde­pen­dents split their votes between two can­di­dates who got 43 per­cent and 8 per­cent of the vote, respec­tive­ly. The result was the re-elec­tion of the rad­i­cal right-wing Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, Paul LeP­age, with 48 per­cent of the vote. LeP­age, known for spout­ing racist para­noia about out-of-state drug deal­ers (“half the time they impreg­nate a young white girl before they leave”), com­par­ing the IRS to the Gestapo and telling the NAACP to kiss his butt, earns con­sis­tent­ly low approval rat­ings. He almost cer­tain­ly would have lost under a ranked-choice vot­ing sys­tem, since he like­ly wasn’t the sec­ond choice of peo­ple who vot­ed for his challengers.

San Fran­cis­co adopt­ed RCV in 2004, and three more Cal­i­for­nia cities fol­lowed in 2010. A Fair­Vote analy­sis found that the per­cent­age of peo­ple of col­or win­ning office in those cities rose from about 41 per­cent pri­or to imple­men­ta­tion of RCV to near­ly 60 per­cent after­ward. In all, 12 cities nation­wide now use RCV in munic­i­pal elec­tions. San­ta Fe, N.M., used it for the first time in March.

The path to RCV in Maine shows how its estab­lish­ment-bust­ing pow­er both threat­ens the two par­ties and gal­va­nizes grass­roots sup­port. Maine vot­ers first approved the system’s use in 2016. Repub­li­cans and some Democ­rats in the leg­is­la­ture joined forces (cit­ing a com­pli­cat­ed Maine Supreme Court rul­ing) to delay imple­men­ta­tion until 2021. But in Maine, vot­ers can repeal recent­ly passed leg­is­la­tion through a people’s veto.” Advo­cates for RCV used that pro­vi­sion to put it back on the bal­lot in June.

All the dra­ma around RCV has like­ly helped its chances in Maine. As FairVote’s Pen­rose points out, We’re not only see­ing peo­ple who want ranked-choice vot­ing, we’re see­ing peo­ple out­raged at the state leg­is­la­ture for try­ing to thwart the will of the people.”

A June win in Maine would take effect in Novem­ber, mak­ing it the first instance of RCV’s use in Con­gres­sion­al elec­tions, and estab­lish a state-lev­el mod­el for how the Unit­ed States can begin mov­ing toward a bet­ter system.

The first statewide use would be a sea change,” Pen­rose says. You’d be able to point to a place that’s already using it. I could just say, It’s the Maine sys­tem.’ I think we’d start see­ing the impact right away.”


It’s curi­ous bor­der­ing on bizarre that pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion doesn’t attract more inter­est and resources from pro­gres­sives. It cuts the Gor­dian knot of entrenched prob­lems in U.S. pol­i­tics, achiev­ing many of the movement’s most cher­ished goals, notably by increas­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion among minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions and by mak­ing votes for third-par­ty can­di­dates more rel­e­vant. In an era that’s been defined by play­ing defense, it offers a real­is­tic plan for demo­c­ra­t­ic revi­tal­iza­tion that flips the script on the GOP’s anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic impulses.

Ger­ry­man­der­ing is a clas­sic exam­ple. Pro­gres­sives and Democ­rats have been doing triage and play­ing catch-up on this front since the elec­toral tidal wave of 2010, when Repub­li­cans won con­trol of a major­i­ty of state leg­is­la­tures and used that pow­er to ger­ry­man­der dis­tricts and dom­i­nate every lev­el of government.

Some hope is on the hori­zon: Courts have ruled recent­ly that the GOP-drawn maps in sev­er­al states — Texas, Penn­syl­va­nia, Wis­con­sin, and North Car­oli­na — are uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. And Barack Oba­ma and his U.S. attor­ney gen­er­al, Eric Hold­er, have turned ger­ry­man­der­ing reform into a high-pro­file issue.

But for sup­port­ers of pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the prob­lem is deep­er than the way dis­tricts are drawn. The prob­lem is that sin­gle-mem­ber dis­tricts are inher­ent­ly vul­ner­a­ble to deck-stack­ing. And the solu­tion isn’t sim­ply to redraw them.

There’s so much sim­plis­tic analy­sis of the prob­lem, because peo­ple want it to be fixed eas­i­ly,” FairVote’s Rob Richie says. The atti­tude is that we just need to fix ger­ry­man­der­ing, and the two-par­ty sys­tem will be fine. And we don’t have to real­ly change things. We can just kind of pre­tend. But that’s fake. We’re in a moment where this is an inescapable con­ver­sa­tion. We just have to pre­pare for that, and show the path.”

The June votes in San­ta Clara and Maine will indi­cate whether the push for pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion is gain­ing trac­tion. What­ev­er hap­pens with those votes, though, and even if Win­ston Apple’s effort to get his ini­tia­tive on the bal­lot in Mis­souri falls short, PR is begin­ning to sink roots in Amer­i­ca. That it will grow and flour­ish isn’t inevitable, but it may offer our best hope for tap­ping the kind of trans­for­ma­tive demo­c­ra­t­ic ener­gies we’ve been search­ing for.

I’d like to reform the gov­ern­ment by tomor­row after­noon and be at 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy by 4 o’clock,” Apple says. But we’re going to have to be more patient than that. And I think pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, hon­est­ly, is the biggest issue that we can deal with right now. In the states where we can get it passed, those states are going to have gen­uine­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions. And be the envy of the rest of the country.”

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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