Missouri, Nevada, and the fate of the Republic

Three things strike me now about American national politics. One is the importance of the Senate for blocking policy change. Another is the Senate’s narrow partisan division. Then there are Missouri and Nevada, where the ranked-choice movement now heads.

This post suggests that one way to save the Republic — by which I mean create a Senate that can block policy change, should the next few elections not go very well — is to get Democratic voters to help elect anti-populist Republicans in key states.

In turn, that could require state Democratic parties to stand down in the respective elections — basically what we have seen in Alaska.

I am not saying that this strategy is good or bad. Nor am I commenting on long-term implications for democratic practice. It may be that there is no other choice.

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.

Why I worry about approval voting

Stephen Wolf and a few others have asked me to compile my views. This post is an attempt to do that.

1) For all of their apparent differences, RCV and approval (and derivative ballot reforms) are philosophical bedfellows. Both proceed from the assumption that ‘better rules’ can get us closer to the general will. They therefore presume that such a thing even exists. This presumption is bolstered by inattention to well-known determinants of vote choice (e.g., party identification, cues from preferred candidates).

2) The foregoing philosophical orientation makes either cause a likely ally of those who want to eliminate political parties. Some of those people are frustrated voters (lacking, as they do, leadership to the contrary). Others are would-be elite political actors who want to replace party cues, as determinants of vote choice, with direction from the media and independent expenditures and so forth.

3) RCV may well discredit itself. Its record in the last century is one of failure. Election officials tend to dislike it, and evidence is accumulating that voters are easy to persuade to repeal it.

4) The sorts of elites described in (2) above may therefore have an easier time getting what they want through the ‘cardinal methods’ movement instead. I say “therefore” because approval has not had a chance to show its warts — at least in recent memory — and because it is objectively easier to administer.

5) Cardinal methods will fail, just as ranked ones did in the last century. The approval version of ‘ballot exhaustion’ is ‘approval truncation.’ This is a special version of the spoiler effect in which winning-minded candidates encourage bullet voting. Elite cues matter. Politics is not an unmediated transaction between citizen and state. And the result will be failure of the rule to fulfill its core promise: majority winners.

6) So the question is what other compromises the movement will make in order to get ‘demonstration cases’ of the approval ballot. In other words, what will be left in its wake? The St. Louis experience is a good signal: fully and newly nonpartisan elections.

7) Problems with nonpartisan elections are beyond the scope of this short post. For many readers, they do not need review. Other readers may be so angry at the current party system — rightly so, in my view — that some comment is warranted. I recommend this historical essay.