The American Interest: The Long Game of Democracy Reform

Published on April 19, 2019

Larry Diamond in The American Interest

A growing array of reformers are coming to see the logic of “master reform,” the one most likely to break the logjam on all the others: Ranked Choice Voting.

With the intense controversy around the Mueller Report (which was released in its redacted form yesterday before this essay was written), debate over the troubled state of American democracy will now once again fixate on the conduct of the President, his aides, and his campaign. Even if Democrats should launch impeachment proceedings—an even less likely prospect now before Mueller concluded his work—it seems obvious that the only way Trump will be removed from the presidency is via the ballot box.

But whether or not Trump is reelected in 2020, the United States will remain deeply polarized and the quality of its democratic institutions seriously diminished. The annual Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit now places the United States in the category of “flawed democracies,” trailing Spain, South Korea, Japan, Chile and Estonia, in 25th place among 167 states evaluated. Freedom House is even more withering in its assessment. On its 100-point combined scale of political rights and civil liberties, the America has fallen from a robust score of 94 in 2010 to 86 in the last two years. As the 2019 Freedom in the World report notes, this places “American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.” In fact, the United States ranks just behind Greece and Latvia on the Freedom House scale and is not even in the top 50 countries. Freedom House holds nothing back in attributing much of the recent decay to Trump’s norm-busting assaults on truth, ethics, independent media, and the rule of law. But it also notes that the decay began well before Trump appeared on the political scene, owing to toxic levels of polarization and unaccountable money in politics. Whatever happens with Trump, the country needs a long game of systemic democratic reform.

And that is where the good news is starting to emerge. Across America, civil society is now teeming with organizations that are working from the bottom up, the top down, and every side way imaginable to reform, rejuvenate, and repair our democratic institutions and practices. Much of this effort is aimed at reducing partisan polarization in our public life. The Millenial Action Project is working to get young congressional and state legislative members and staff to think and talk about policy issues across partisan lines. With Honor is trying to do this—and promote concrete bipartisan behavior—among military veterans in Congress. No Labels some years ago created a bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus” to forge ties that might promote legislative compromises. And it has promoted numerous reforms to make Congress function more rationally. The Aspen Institute’s Rodel Fellowship Program identifies political comers from both parties at the state and local level and brings them together periodically to talk about values and policy challenges on which Republicans and Democrats can find some common ground, or at least narrow their differences. Issue One has created a bipartisan caucus of Congressional reformers who will work to strengthen ethics, accountability, and transparency in government and politics. Some of the country’s biggest foundations, including the Madison Initiative of the Hewlett Foundation, have been supporting these kinds of organizations, as well as an array of think tanks and analytic efforts to better understand the drivers of democratic decay and the needed and plausible reforms.

But the reform community is also realizing that transcending partisanship cannot be an end in itself, and neither will it be achievable without institutional changes that cut deeper to address the perverse incentives in American politics. Those incentives now drive our elected representatives to appeal disproportionately to narrow constituencies—and far too often to wealthy individuals and corporations and dollar-rich special interest groups—because that is what gets them elected.

Change the incentives and then all the other efforts to take some of the partisan venom out of our politics will be enabled and even supercharged. Remove the pernicious influence of dark money—at least by requiring full transparency in all contributions to all candidates, and by promoting greater public financing through campaign vouchers that every citizen can spend—and we will see candidates wanting and needing to respond to more diverse interests. Diversify the political and demographic profile of more districts, by ending gerrymandering, and we will see more competitive Congressional (and state legislative) elections, forcing candidates to look for more votes in the political center, because that is where elections are more often won in swing districts. Stop voter suppression and resume vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and we might see a little more moderation from Republicans in the South, who will find it more difficult to just write off minority voting constituencies and still win.

However, whether they work on one type of reform or many, whether they are non-partisan or bipartisan or anchored in one party, a growing array of reformers are coming to see the compelling logic of “master reform,” the one most likely to break the logjam on all the others: Ranked Choice Voting. Noble and innovative though many of the current efforts at bridge-building are, they swim against a powerful contrary logic: It pays to go deep and divisive in election campaigns, because that is the most frequent path to success. Before a legislator (federal or state) can worry about reelection in November, she first has to worry about winning the nomination of her party in a low-turnout party primary. Given that more ideological voters (on both the left and the right) are more likely to turn out in these low-turnout affairs, primary elections are a powerful first filter punishing moderation and compromise. For some years, beginning around 2010, it seemed to be mainly the Republican Party (thanks to the Tea Party) that was paying the price in a lurch to the extreme, but now we are beginning to see this effect more clearly in Democratic primaries as well.

One could say to moderate challengers or incumbents inclined toward bipartisan compromise: “Don’t worry, if you lose your party’s primary, the broader electorate will reward you in November if you come back and run as an independent.” After all, that is how Joe Lieberman got reelected to the Senate in 2006 in Connecticut after losing the primary to the more liberal Ned Lamont. And that is how Lisa Murkowski came back to win reelection in November 2010 after losing the Alaska Republican U.S. Senate primary to a Tea Party candidate. But Lieberman could contest in November because Connecticut was one of only a small handful of states that does not protect the two-party duopoly with something called the “sore loser rule,” which bans candidates from appearing on the ballot in November if they lose their party’s primary. And coming from a state that had such a rule, Murkowski could only prevail by becoming the first U.S. senator in more than half a century to be elected by a write-in vote.

Moreover, any moderate without one of the two party nominations now faces a formidable hurdle in a general election: Voters don’t want to “waste” their vote on an independent, however promising and appealing, and thereby risk electing the candidate they find most truly appalling. So invariably, they retreat to the “lesser evil.”

This is the dynamic that is grinding down compromise and creativity in our politics. Unencumbered by any serious competition in November save from their major party rival, candidates play to the ideological base in the primary. Often, because so many districts tilt so heavily Republican or Democrat (partially due to gerrymandering, but also due to geographic sorting), winning the primary is then tantamount to election. But even if it’s not, when the low-turnout primaries are the first hurdle and the only real competition in November is between a Republican well to the right and a Democrat well to the left, politicians are incentivized to mobilize and play intensely to their ideological base. And compromise is something reserved for theoretical discussions, or a small caucus of “problem solvers” on the occasional finely balanced and not too high-stakes issue.

Now imagine a different dynamic. The purists in the party flanks no longer have a veto on the behavior of their representative. If she opts for a workable but painful legislative compromise, say on immigration or restricting the sale of high-powered automatic weapons, and the party militants “primary” her out, she can plausibly come back and contest in the general election because the sore loser rule is gone. And if her state has adopted Ranked Choice Voting, she can say to her district (or state): “Make your first choice a vote for a workable Congress—me. If I don’t make it, your vote won’t be wasted. If no one gets a majority of first-preference votes and I finish last, your vote will be transferred to your second preference. But you know what, if enough people start saying they want to put country over party, I will make it, and the country will be better for it.”

With Ranked Choice Voting and an end to the sore loser, the system will start to unfreeze. At least some members of congress will find the courage to do the right and necessary thing, even if it means departing from party orthodoxy. I do not submit—in an era of alarming acceleration in climate change and income inequality—that every policy answer is to be found in the center, or that moderation is an end in itself. But most ordinary voters—even many pretty far to the left or right—feel that our elections have become dull, tired, and wooden affairs. Why bother turning out in November if the outcome is more or less pre-determined, or if neither of the alternatives excites? Ranked choice voting would restore life and creativity to the process, enabling not just independents but third parties like the Greens and the Libertarians to have a shot at being heard and considered in an election campaign. It would make elections more civil, because it is hard to go negative in a scorched-earth campaign against your rival when there is the possibility that the winner in the end could be a third candidate who refuses to play the game of mutually assured destruction via campaign advertising. Or, you might need the second-preference votes of that other candidate to win.

Of course, the two party establishments are not going to welcome ranked choice voting. It is rare when a group that has benefited from constraints on competition recognizes that in the long run it, too, will be better off—becoming a more vigorous and innovative competitor—with more competition. But the ground is shifting in America. Twice—in November 2016, and again (and by a larger margin, when the politicians stole their initial victory) in June 2018—the voters of Maine have voted to adopt Ranked Choice Voting for their elections. Reformers have taken note of this remarkable victory, and interest is now growing in states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Colorado, among others. A growing number of political reformers in California now see that the state’s 2010 electoral reform—which eliminated party primaries and simply selects the “top two” finishers to face off in November—has disappointed, for a simple reason: It is still the more ideologically committed voters who dominate the low-turnout primaries. They are now asking, “What if California instead chose the top four candidates from the non-partisan primary to then face off in November, with a ranked-choice election?” Almost all elections would then have at least one Democrat and one Republican, and in many instances, maybe an independent, too. It could get interesting. It could stimulate participation. And in some districts, it might wind up really rewarding moderation.

Every electoral reform is in some sense a venture into the unknown. You can’t be certain how it will work until you try it out. The beauty of the American federal system is that it allows many forms of experimentation and innovation in the pursuit of a better and more workable democracy. That is the long game of democratic reform in the United States, and it will quietly begin to play out in 2020 even as the country fixates on the contest between Donald Trump and his democratic rival—a contest that, like almost every other in modern American history, will lack a third serious alternative because of the polarizing logic of our plurality electoral system.

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