Changes to elections may quiet extremes
By Sam Mar - Houston Chronicle JN 14, 2021
Maine used ranked-choice voting in the Nov. 3 election, and New York City will use it to elect its mayor and city council this year.
The horrific images of a Confederate flag-waving mob storming Congress mark a dark day in our nation’s democracy, but it is perhaps even scarier to realize that this insurrection is a mere symptom of a deeper disease infecting our nation.
People like President Donald Trump and his supporters have always been around, and they will always be around. Media echo chambers are not new. Neither is fake news or conspiracy theories. While all of these have their fair share of blame, they are not the root problem of what we witnessed.
Our current political system suffers from a sickness that runs much deeper — one that actually encourages this type of hatred and violence. If we want this doom loop to end, then we need to look under the hood at what’s causing it.
As Charlie Munger famously said, “Show me the incentives, and I’ll show you the outcome.”
So what are those incentives?
First, partisan primaries discourage compromise. Extremist groups may be a small sliver of total voters, but they can be a powerful bloc in low turnout primaries — especially closed primaries that restrict who can participate. Candidates who reach across the aisle are treated as fake by these extremist groups, who often recruit challengers to “primary” the incumbent.
Second, first-past-the-post plurality elections encourage negativity. Candidates don’t need to win over the other side to get elected. They just need to pander to and turn out their base. So how do they excite base voters? Demonizing an opponent to the point of dehumanization works. The louder and more viciously a candidate can attack the other side, the more their base gets excited and the more money they can raise, which will in turn, help them demonize and dehumanize more with a bigger megaphone.
These two facets of our electoral system mean that small groups of extremist voices exercise asymmetric political power. It’s why Trump’s message of threatening to primary anyone who didn’t vote to overturn the election results was so powerful, particularly in the House, where gerrymandered safe districts lead to partisan primaries becoming the only election that matters.
If it hasn’t been clear thus far, hopefully it is now — this brand of politics is destroying the very fabric of our nation. Most Americans are not eager to storm the Capitol and make our country the laughingstock of the world. Most Americans are not frothing at the mouth for a chance to denigrate someone with a different political ideology. Most Americans are open-minded, empathetic and believe that we are one nation under God, indivisible.
So how do we fix this mess?
Americans actually have a few policy tools at their disposal to change political incentives.
It should be obvious by now that primaries are a problem. Most people either can’t or don’t participate in them. We need to open up closed primaries so that a broader cross-section of the electorate has a voice and encourage greater voter participation in primaries so that they are no longer dominated by the extreme ends of our political spectrum. The state of Florida nearly passed an open primary ballot initiative in November, winning 57 percent of the vote in a state with a 60 percent threshold.
States can also adopt ranked-choice voting. Our current system of plurality voting means the candidate with the most votes wins, whether or not they have a majority. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference, requiring a winner with majority support. In doing so, the system encourages each candidate to reach out to all voters to win second or third choice votes. This incentive structure changes how candidates campaign, how they view the opposition, and how they govern once elected. Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016, and New York City will be using the system to elect its mayor and city council this year.
Leading the country is Alaska, which in November passed both an open primary and ranked-choice voting, in a reform known as final-four voting. The top four candidates in the non-partisan open primary advance to the general election where ranked-choice voting will be used. Because of this reform, Sen. Lisa Murkowski no longer needs to bend the knee to threats by Trump and his base of supporters to primary her unless she falls in line.
These structural changes to our electoral system can help disempower extreme voices that seek nothing but destruction and instead bolster a political system that rewards action, compromise and mass appeal.
As a nation, we can do better. As we reflect on the tragedy in our nation’s capital, let’s dig beneath the surface level blame game and get to the bones of what’s causing a country as great as ours to tear itself apart. We owe it to ourselves to find a way to heal and show the world who Americans really are.
Mar is a vice president at Arnold Ventures.