Competing reform packages

More parties, two weak parties, or no parties?

Historically in the U.S., electoral system reforms have come as part of larger packages. Two new packages have caught my eye, so I thought it might be helpful to note them in one place.

First, a bit of background. During the Progressive Era, it took quite a bit of bargaining to arrive at the “representative council plan” of city government — city managers, small assemblies, non-partisan ballots, nomination by petition, and STV in citywide districts. Some of the important bargaining dimensions were:

1. Whether to have single- or multi-winner districts, i.e., proportional representation.

2. Whether parties should control nominations and/or use of their labels on ballots.

3. How large assemblies ought to be, i.e., how materially difficult it should be to build a winning electoral coalition.

A similar conversation seems to have grown up over the past two years. This is evident from two recent reform proposals.

The first, which I’ll call “top-four-IRV,” is laid out in Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America: A Strategy for Reinvigorating Our Democracy (Harvard Business School, 2017). It builds on California’s top-two system and has support from the Independent Voter Project:

Establish nonpartisan top-four primaries…

Institute ranked-choice voting with instant runoff in general elections…

Institute nonpartisan redistricting…

Rewrite debate access rules for presidential elections…

The report is very interesting and tends to cast “strong parties” as a problem.

A second reform bundle, which I’ll call “multiparty-PR,” appears in What Comes Next? Lessons for the Recovery of Liberal Democracy (Carnegie Endowment and Democracy Fund, 2018), also available here:

supporting ranked choice voting…

supporting efforts at the state or municipal level to open ballot systems skewed against new entrants…

supporting voting reform measures such as enhanced ranked choice voting or the use of fusion parties…

By “enhanced” RCV, the report must mean some proportional system, as it cites this at the end of the respective sentence. The note about fusion also is worth pause, as this is how you reconcile a multi-party system with a presidential constitution.

This second report is as interesting to read as the first. Whereas the first takes issue with partisanship, the second tends to cast the problem as one of voter detachment from parties. It also calls explicitly for the development of more parties.

Addendum, 2019-10-02: Hans von Spakovsky has written a brief for the Heritage Foundation, “Ranked Choice Voting Is a Bad Choice.” It calls for top-two runoffs. It does not say whether parties should control nominations, which makes it hard to say where this plan fits on a spectrum running from “no parties” to “more parties.”

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