Why Democrats cannot change the rules even though it would be good for them: Presidential edition

The impetus for this post is a recent, casual discussion with a Green Party voter. I suggested that their cause might be well-served by withdrawing Howie Hawkins and instead endorsing Biden. The alternative is to run a spoiler campaign (in appearance or reality).

The result would be, in essence, a fusion candidacy. This would signal willingness to govern — and contest office, which would need to happen in our presidential system — in coalition with Democrats. In turn, the Greens might secure support for the sorts of reforms they are likely to want, e.g., a larger US House, instant runoff voting, you name it. And even if those reforms were not forthcoming, Greens at least would have signaled that they are open to coalition — a fancy way of saying “playing nice.”

The response was as you might expect. The only way that Democrats will come to back reform is by facing threats from spoilers.

The rest of this post focuses on my interlocutor’s theory of reform. As far as Democrats go, some are indeed open to the idea of coalition.

Below is a list of the top ten closet states in the 2016 presidential election, via US News, verbatim. I have added asterisks to those states with divided government, i.e., where Republicans control enough of government to block instant runoff voting. The data on party control are from Ballotpedia.

My post assumes that Republicans are unanimous in their opposition to IRV, based on expectations about the 2020 election. Maybe true; maybe not.

Further, I am not saying that IRV even would matter here. All chatter I’ve seen so far suggests less third-party voting this year than we saw in 2016.

A fuller analysis might cover all 50 states, but this is a good start. The smallest margin in this list is 0.3 percentage points (Michigan). The largest margin is 3.9 points (Arizona). Just for argument, let’s say my friend’s theory of reform does not operate at larger victory margins.

Republicans control enough government to block reform in 8 of these 10 states. There are just two Democratic trifectas. One is in Maine, which will use instant runoff this November. The other is in Nevada. I don’t know what is happening in state government there, but Nevadans for Election Reform did try for a ballot measure.

The list

1. Michigan 0.3 percent*

Trump 47.6 percent, Clinton 47.3 percent

Difference: 13,080 votes

2. New Hampshire 0.4 percent*

Clinton 47.6 percent, Trump 47.2 percent

Difference: 2,701 votes

3. Wisconsin 1 percent*

Trump 47.9 percent, Clinton 46.9 percent

Difference: 27,257 votes

4. Pennsylvania 1.2 percent*

Trump 48.8 percent, Clinton 47.6 percent

Difference: 68,236 votes (99 percent reporting)

5. Florida 1.2 percent (R trifecta)

Trump 49 percent, Clinton 47.8 percent

Difference: 114,455 votes

6. Minnesota 1.5 percent*

Clinton 46.4 percent, Trump 44.9 percent

Difference: 44,470 votes

7. Nevada 2.4 percent (D trifecta)

Clinton 47.9 percent, Trump 45.5 percent

Difference: 26,434 votes

8. Maine 2.7 percent (D trifecta)

Clinton 47.9 percent, Trump 45.2 percent

Difference: 19,995 votes

9. North Carolina 3.8 percent*

Trump 49.9 percent, Clinton 46.1 percent

Difference: 177,009 votes

10. Arizona 3.9 percent (R trifecta)

Trump 49.3 percent, Clinton 45.4 percent

Difference: 91,682 votes

Thoughts on Massachusetts Question 2

This fall, Massachusetts voters will decide on preferential (aka ranked choice) voting. Political science is polarizing on the larger issue, although there is an impressive and diverse list of scholarly endorsers, at least in this case. Here are some observations on the Massachusetts measure.

First, let’s be precise about what’s on the ballot. RCV will apply to “all state and federal elections in Massachusetts, both primary and general elections,” but not presidential elections (per the Yes on 2 website).

The measure would not affect the composition of primary electorates. In other words, it would not let Republicans influence Democratic nominations, nor vice-versa, any more than the current rules. Under those rules, according to the group Open Primaries, unaffiliated voters already may vote in the primary of either party. Registered Republicans and Democrats, however, must vote in their respective parties’ primaries (or not at all). RCV in Massachusetts would not change this rules constellation.

Other recent RCV proposals would change primary electorates. These proposals incorporate California-style “top two,” better understood as a nonpartisan two-round system. Such systems do not let a party advance a single candidate (or slate) to the decisive election. My understanding of “top two” is that it has been hard on Democratic Party establishments, and organized labor in particular. One can imagine those fortunes changing, but, for now, this seems to be the big effect.

Also, it is crucial to understand the reform coalition itself. In Massachusetts, as far as we can tell, it is Libertarians, “libertarians,” and a good chunk of the Democratic Party establishment. The measure therefore reflects a broader, ongoing realignment in American politics. I suspect these groups would coordinate anyway, in the absence of a ranked ballot, given the current state of the Republican Party brand.

One common argument in reform circles is that RCV stimulates candidate entry, and victory, by women and people of color. The fact that it worked out this way in the California Bay Area may have more to do with the reform coalition than the reform itself. One of my current research projects is to see whether the reform itself plausibly has this effect. My priors really are not sharp. On the one hand, the Alternative Vote is a very modest reform. Far more important are district magnitude and the size of an assembly. On the other hand, at least recently, women have tended to do well in both single-seat RCV and runoff systems. The runoff evidence is from Cynthia McClintock and Joseph Cerrone, who presented yesterday in my APSA panel. Their evidence comes from Latin America and shows that, in recent years, women have done better under runoffs than in single-round systems. The RCV evidence is from Represent Women (and does not cover non-RCV cases). Finally, some have argued that MA needs RCV because its primaries already are crowded. Maybe that says something about the effect of reform itself.

It also is worth noting that, historically, in foreign countries, single-seat RCV has been used to stop the economic left from winning. British Columbia in the 1950s and Australia in the 1910s are glaringly obvious cases of this. Again, however, this may have more to do with reform coalitions than the substance of reform itself. A similar reform (runoffs) once was used to insulate a liberal-labor coalition. Many left-labor-type groups formally support the MA measure: an SEIU local, Our Revolution, etc.

Overall, the Massachusetts package feels pretty “safe.” If anything, it seems like it will let people do what they plan to do anyway.

Basic historic facts about ranked choice voting

Below are two key dates for anyone writing about “ranked choice” or “preferential” voting in US elections.

1909: first adoption of majoritarian form for public elections (Grand Junction, CO);

1915: first adoption of proportional form for public elections (Ashtabula, OH).

There was use of the majoritarian form in some party primaries, but I cannot find any evidence of this prior to the Grand Junction adoption.

And there was earlier use of the proportional form, around 1911 and/or 1912, in the single-tax colonies of Arden (DE) and Halidon (ME).

The motivation for this post is a recent article flagging the 1940s as the start of US experimentation with preferential voting rules. As far as I can tell, this information passed to the journalist from a political scientist.