Reflections at the end of a wild year

I wanted to say “hard year,” but that is something materially different. Either way, this has been quite a year. Consider this a diary entry on it.

Good news

The good news, at least for me, is that this has been a productive year. Part of the bad news, which I’ll get to below, is that some of the good news has strained lifelong friendships. But let’s cover the good news:

In June, I published “Variants of Ranked-choice Voting from a Strategic Perspective.” The paper does two new things: describes five types of RCV now floating around, then looks at each from the perspective of a “political strategist” (originally supposed to have been a “political operative”). The bulk of the writing happened in December 2020.

In the paper, I introduce a different perspective from the one that I think informs a lot of reform work: more important than the number of parties is whether coalitions can hold themselves together — and maybe replicate themselves at the next election.

The bigger news is my forthcoming book, More Parties or No Parties, which summarizes what I’ve learned by putting historic STV cases into comparative perspective. The result is a realignment theory of electoral reform, then an analytic history of the famous U.S. PR cities. I hope the book does two things: gives people tools for thinking about reform in general, then illuminates the sorts of mistakes that were made in the past. It is, I hope, a book for political scientists and practitioners alike.

One big theme of the book is the effort to get a better set of institutions (proportional representation) in the absence of the conditions that typically give rise to them (multiparty politics). This will color a lot of the bad news to follow.

Then there were a few commentaries on the New York City election. I am not sure whether to call these good or bad news. I entered the conversation reluctantly, then followed up with a piece that did not get much traction. However, one reformer did say it was thoughtful. A third piece led to new collaboration but also some controversy.

What the third piece taught me was interesting: political science was changing its views on a reform it opposed. And I was changing my views on the same — from agnostic to skeptical. The three New York pieces chart that trajectory, which was fairly rapid. But the seeds of skepticism were already in place, having seen the way that the reform was messaged, but especially having done the historical project.

There were other pieces on proportional alternatives, as well as a much earlier one on the idea of nonpartisan elections. Then there was an APSA short course at the end of September, with videos available here.

Bad news

Most of us, I think, are a bit depressed as I write this. The Congress will not be passing legislation to protect voting rights. That gives state governments quite a bit of latitude — to insulate themselves in the language of More Parties or No Parties. This fact, I think, will form a sort of ‘shell’ in which all future reform goes forward.

Let me get the politics out of the way. I view the modern Democratic Party as a paragon of policy centrism. Therefore, I was comfortable in proposing an insulating reform that might buy the party an extra two years in the House. Note what I am not saying: that PR makes all of our problems go away. It simply would have given the party — arguably a coalition of the left to center-right — two more years to work out policy change with teeth. I say “teeth” because something needs to happen, it seems to me, to stop middle-class people from deserting the party with the better record on voting rights. These arguments were filed in December 2020 and January 2021.

The main objection to the proposal was that it did not rest on ranked ballots. Indeed, the proposal’s core was to jettison the ranked ballot, as it is difficult to ‘get up and running’ in an administrative sense. This is not exactly what people want to hear when they’ve become committed to ranked ballots. And I am not just talking about reformers. We did find limited support in academic and journalistic circles. But, for the most part, the media seems to have preferred to keep focus on ranked ballots.

Meanwhile, two new reforms were gaining traction: the block-preferential system, covered in “Variants” above, and a new thing known as “Final Five Voting” (FFV). My objection to block had already created tension. My objection to FFV — maybe this belongs in good news? — was well-received by a few keen observers. But it became clear that both would go forward regardless.

There are reasons to worry about each in isolation, but my bigger worry was how they might interact with the federal failure to secure voting rights. And my really big worry about FFV — I am convinced it will disappoint if not backfire — is the attitude toward democracy that it represents.

It is a difficult and complex situation. There are very many reformers who want a better democracy, however defined, and they understandably focus on the task most at hand. It is not their job to worry about federal-level conditions. Further, the federal-level conditions are not their fault.

We all need rest. Happy Holidays.

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