Policy Grab Bag: 3 Ways to Make Our Democracy More Representative

August 11, 2021 A look at ranked choice voting, multi-member districts, and a national popular vote for president.

One would be hard-pressed to claim that the U.S. government is a well-oiled machine that accurately represents its people, with Congress legislating less and its members still disproportionately white, male, and elderly when compared to the U.S. population.

It’s also silly to claim that our systems of electing leaders are truly fair, with national popular vote losers making it to the White House twice in the last 20 years.

The, uh …will of the people. (Photo from New York Magazine.)

Meanwhile, public trust in government is low, particularly in Congress. In 2019 (before the pandemic, mind you), a decent plurality of polled Americans said government itself was one of the most important problems to tackle.

One way to recapture some of that trust is to make our federal government more reflective of us, the people, and ensuring that we pick our leaders more fairly. But how do we make our government more representative and more democratic? Here’s are three policy changes that would help.

Ranked Choice Voting

101PCers already know that ranked choice voting (RCV) would do a lot to improve our elections, namely by eliminating the “spoiler candidate” effect, promoting positive campaigning, and producing election results that better represent the views of the voters.

Here’s a quick review of how RCV works: Voters rank the candidates by preference on their ballots. If no candidate earns a majority of the votes, we enter a second round of ballot counting. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those orphan ballots are put toward whichever candidates are listed as choice #2. This goes on until a candidate wins the majority.

RCV is one of those things that is fairly simple yet seems complicated because explaining it takes longer than two seconds. (Like this.) It’s often called “hard to understand” or complicated, but research shows that voters get the gist pretty easily.

RCV is especially useful for primary elections, which often conclude with the winning candidate earning less than 50% of all votes. This can propel a party candidate who doesn’t represent the views of most of the voters. When this happens for all parties involved in the election, voters are stuck with the classic “lesser of two or three evils” situation people understandably groan about. These primaries can also ice out or dissuade independent/third party voters from participating. But with RCV, these problems disappear.

To see RCV in action, let’s revisit the recent mayoral primaries for New York City. For the Democrats, Eric Adams defeated at least a dozen other candidates, eventually winning 50.5% of the counted votes after three rounds of tabulation.

City Board of Elections snafus notwithstanding, the primary demonstrated the following:

  1. More voters have a say in the final outcome through ranked choice voting. Only 15% of ballots were “exhausted” (having all ranked choices eliminated) during this primary. Compare this to the last competitive primary in NYC in 2013, when 33% of ballots cast for candidates who didn’t take first or second place.
  2. Ranked choice voting incentivizes nicer campaigning among candidates. Weeks before Election Day, candidates Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang campaigned together to promote each other as a second option to their supporters. While neither ultimately won, the move helped propel Garcia to earning 49.5% of the final count.

Apply these findings to future primaries or general elections for federal offices, and we can imagine House or Senate races that result in more representative (or at least more tolerated) winners. We could also look to these jurisdictions for insight.

Multi-member Legislative Districts

RCV would greatly improve how well the elected candidate would correspond to voters’ preference, but it wouldn’t fully account for divisions among the voters. Despite the several rounds of vote-counting, there are still ballots exhausted and voters dissatisfied with the results because they diametrically oppose the views of the winner.

We could say “that’s elections for ya” and call it a day like we do now, or we could go further and incorporate multi-member districts (MMDs). In MMDs, voters select multiple people to hold an office within a district. For instance, instead of one member of Congress representing their entire district (the “single-member districts” status quo), voters would select multiple representatives to better reflect the political makeup of that district.

There are a few ways voters could pick their representatives. Here’s how Ballotpedia explains them:

  1. Bloc: Voters receive as many votes as there are open seats, and can vote once for a particular candidate. All votes must be used.
  2. Bloc with partial abstention (BPA): Same as bloc, except voters can elect not to use all of their votes.
  3. Cumulative: Voters may use their votes however they wish, such as splitting their votes between multiple candidates or using all of them on a single candidate. This system was not used in state legislative elections as of 2020. The last state to use the system was Illinois, which ended the practice in 1982.
  4. Staggered: Two legislators represent the same district with elections happening in different years.
  5. Seat/post: Instead of running in a pool of candidates with the aim of finishing strongly enough, candidates run for a specific seat as in a single-member district.

One can imagine this working well with RCV, too (a scenario called “multi-winner ranked choice voting”). Depending on how the MMD is set up, voters could simultaneously avoid the spoiler effect, end up with reps that they like, and have representation for both the majority and minority political preferences within their community. Plus, MMDs would be better immunized against gerrymandering and redistricting committees would be less inclined to enact that practice.

MMDs are used in some state legislatures but not at the federal level. This has real consequences for how the House of Representatives—the “people’s house”—reflects the electorate. As this NYTimes opinion piece points out, “Consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Arkansas Democrats who can’t elect a representative to Congress, even though they account for more than a third of the state’s voters.”

With MMDs, those Democratic voters in Arkansas as well as Republican voters in overwhelmingly blue states would more likely have a representation in Congress. Outside of political parties, communities would likely be more proportionally represented in regards to race, gender, age, and economic background, too.

A National Popular Vote for President

Finally, we come to the most obvious of the three changes.

The Electoral College is a group of individuals (electors) representing the states and D.C. who elect the president and vice president of the U.S. How they vote is determined by the popular vote in their states; if a candidate wins California, then that candidate wins the votes of California’s electors.

The number of electors per state coincides with the state’s representation in Congress—a state gets one elector for each representative and senator. For instance, California has 53 reps and two senators, so it has 55 electoral votes. There are a total of 538 electoral votes; a candidate needs to earn 270 to win.

The Electoral College was created to protect the interests of the individual states, the interests of slaveholders and the institution of slavery itself, and the interests of landholding and affluent Americans over those of the common folk.

While it’s seen some changes over the years, the system is still hardly fair. Most states use a “winner-take-all” concept during presidential elections. If a candidate wins the popular vote in California, they get all of California’s electors—there are no considerations for the other candidates, no matter how close they lost. Rather than the state splitting electors to mirror the final vote, all electors vote the same. By itself, that’s undemocratic; when almost all states do this, you can see why the system doesn’t accurately represent the voters.

Conversely, the Electoral College makes no adjustments for a candidate trouncing their opponent among the voters. Someone can win California handily or narrowly. Either way, they get 55 electoral votes. There’s no consideration for how much that victory contributes to the national popular vote.

The College sucks in other ways too, like how it compels candidates to focus heavily on swing states and ignore many other states, or how it favors smaller states since every state is guaranteed at least three electoral votes. (As Vox’s Andrew Prokop put it in 2016, “The way this shakes out in the math, the 4 percent of the country’s population in the smallest states end up being allotted 8 percent of Electoral College votes.”)

All of this flies in the face of “one person, one vote” since it places more weight among voters in select states. It also gives a strategic advantage to candidates who seek out the support of select groups, like those in rural and less populated states. And it ultimately means the will of a minority can trump that of a majority, as has been the case a few times.

The simplest solution is to trash this process—no tweaks or changes, just the abolition of the system itself. Just elect presidents through a national popular vote, more in line with how we elect members of Congress and leaders in other levels of government.

This can be done through a constitutional amendment, but that’s not currently viable since it would require consent from both parties and one of these parties is benefitting greatly from the current system. But there are other ways, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Those who have joined the compact—15 states and D.C.—agree to pledge their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. This only goes into effect when the compact has enough electoral votes to pick a candidate (270). Right now, the NPV totals 196.

This issue and the compact received considerable attention after 2016, when Donald Trump won the race despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million to Hillary Clinton. With 2020 decided more affirmatively (despite what some folks spew), there’s a fear that the National Popular Vote plan will lose steam. Luckily, there are other groups like FairVote that try to keep the wheels greased.

“But what about the Founders and what they intended?” Well, we have an idea of what they wanted for the U.S. (good and bad stuff there), but in the end the system they created isn’t fair or modern. We cannot continue to bind ourselves to what we think dead guys—who ironically weren’t model citizens—might have wanted, especially when this system disenfranchises people. Those dudes are dead, and it’s our responsibility to take what they set up and improve it.

In any case, there are other changes we can make in addition to the ones outlined above, like expanding voter access, banning gerrymandering, or incorporating D.C. and territories as states if they choose. (Hell, we could go for broke and just abolish the Senate itself since it’s undemocratic thanks to the “malapportionment” problem. I’m neither advocating for or against this …but it is something to consider in this context.) But these are topics for another post.

Anyway, these changes aren’t a panacea individually or together. But they would vastly improve the thing supposed to represent and respect the people who live here—our democracy.

Pup pic, for your troubles.

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