Political Competition Hits Historic Low: Part One

The Anti-Competitive Impact of Winner-Take-All Voting and Partisan Redistricting

Democracy cannot be just defined by the right to vote. Voters must also be offered meaningful choices between candidates and a genuine degree of electoral competition.

Outside of a few battleground states, competition was hard to find in 2016.

In the House, just 37 out of 435 Congressional seats were considered competitive before the election, the lowest number since World War II. As it turned out, only 33 House races were even close. Three-quarters were won by landslide margins for 20 points or more or went uncontested. Partisan gerrymandering plays no small part. This is increasingly the case with the newfound capacity of political parties to meld modern technology with rich voter, consumer and government databases to draw congressional district boundaries in a way that ensures only one party has any chance of winning in that district.

In the race for president the Electoral College stifles competition and voter participation in a different but fundamental way, ensuring the presidency is decided in only a handful of battleground states. Last year 147 million voters, two-thirds of the electorate, in the 36 non-battleground states were left without a meaningful choice. The campaigns devoted 95% of candidate visits and 99% of ad dollars to 14 targeted states. Over half of appearances and spending went to just four – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Unfreezing our 18th century democracy

Low election competition in the U.S. is rooted in four features of 18th century elections, largely unchanged and inherited from colonial England when representative democracy was new, voters were few, and election methods were simple by default. They are:

  1. Winner-take-all, plurality voting – how we vote.
  2. Partisan Redistricting – the way we create election jurisdictions
  3. Electoral College – the constitutional compromise still used to elect our president
  4. Unregulated Campaign Financing – how candidates get the resources to run for office

Let’s look at the history and inherent problems of each and solutions already put in place in many states and countries.  First, Plurality Voting and Partisan Redistricting. Next week, the Electoral College and History of Campaign Finance.

Winner Take All, Plurality Voting

History

U.S. elections still use the original British system of winner-take-all, plurality voting, used in single-winner elections in a local or statewide jurisdiction. The winner need only have a plurality of votes regardless of how small that plurality is.

Problem

The immediate problem is a candidate can win even though the majority of voters voted against them. If five candidates are on the ballot, one could win with just 21% of the vote. With three candidates it’s 34%. Leaving us wondering if the third place candidate hadn’t run who would have been the consensus choice of the majority.

We want to represent minority views in policy and debates, but the winner of an election should have the support of a majority of the electorate. The legislature in a democracy is meant to represent the will of the majority – checked by a division of powers between branches, regular elections, and laws and a constitution that protect the right of all the voices to be heard.

More problematic is that the underlying math of simple plurality voting restricts debate and limits competition to two major parties, known in political science as Duvergey’s Law. Independent or third parties become spoilers. Without the ability to indicate a second choice, voters risk “wasting” their vote and handing the election to someone who they strongly oppose.

Solution: Ranked Choice Voting

A runoff election is an option but not a good one. It does little to open up competition and costs money and time. In addition, voter turnout can vary greatly between the first and second round.

A simple solution, popular among democracies that inherited plurality voting from England, is Ranked Choice Voting. Rather than marking only one name, voters rank candidates for a given office by their preference—first choice, second choice, etc. The votes are tallied and ranked based on the first choice on every ballot. If no candidate wins a majority in the first-round, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their votes go to the voters’ second choice. The count continues in this way until eventually one candidate receives a majority.

Ranked Choice Voting sets up entirely different incentives.

  • Makes campaigns less partisan and negative: Candidates can’t rely on only base voters. They must broaden their appeal to ask voters for their second choice vote. Campaigns are less negative as candidates gain less and risk more with attacks, and are more respectful of the views of others as they seek second and third place votes.
  • Allows more candidates and parties to compete: A third party or independent candidate can run without being a spoiler for a candidate with similar views.
  • Broadens the debate: For voters, it enriches the conversation. More points of view can be heard, as more candidates run and compete. Voters are free to show a strong preference for the candidate of their choice, with the safety of having a second choice.

Some worry Ranked Choice Voting is “complicated”. In reality it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3. Voters understand quickly how to rank their choices and like doing it. The results are available right away and the public can see and understand how votes transferred from one candidate to another.

In 2016, Maine became the first state to enact ranked choice voting statewide. It’s already used in cities in Colorado, Maryland, California, Minnesota and Maine, as well as for overseas and military voters in states in like Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ranked choice voting is used in Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand.

Partisan Redistricting

History

In colonial days the first election districts naturally emerged out of town or county borders. Equal population was not required. Districts were drawn by the elected bodies themselves. It took only to 1812 for Massachusetts Governor Gerry to combine towns in a twisted way for partisan gain. A cartoonist dubbed his salamander looking district a “Gerry-Mander” and the gerrymander was born. Today, gerrymandering has become a sophisticated science.

Problem

It is officeholders themselves who draw their district boundaries. Incumbents choose their voters before the voters choose them, in essence democracy in reverse. Parties can now pair sophisticated mapping tools and centralized voter databases with unlimited data on voter demographics, voting history and political preferences and have precision methods to draw districts for partisan gain, limiting voter choice in the process.

Solution: Nonpartisan Redistricting Commissions

The preferred solution adopted by most democracies that, like the U.S. hold elections in single winner districts, are citizen-led, nonpartisan redistricting commissions. These have worked well in England, Canada and other countries as well as here in Arizona and California after voters passed ballot measures to create them. In Iowa, nonpartisan government map makers create a set of districts using nonpartisan criteria.

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