A modest and timely proposal

Democrats are fundamentally disadvantaged when it comes to winning U.S. House majorities. This is because their votes concentrate in population-dense areas. Independent redistricting cannot fix this. On all this, read Rodden (2019) and McGann, Smith, Latner, and Keena (2016).

Depending on the outcome of Georgia’s two Senate runoffs, Democrats may be in a unique position to fix their “geography problem.” Unified government would make it possible to adopt a modest form of proportional representation.

If Democrats do not do this, they are likely to lose the House again in 2022. That will mean a return to gridlock — and all that it entails for Democrats’ brand.

Here is one plan going forward:

1) Eliminate the Senate filibuster with respect to election legislation.

2) Adopt the Fair Representation Act, which calls for PR in districts of 3-5 seats.

3) Replace its ranked voting provision with open-list PR (OLPR). In a “one-vote” version of OLPR, the voter would pick their favorite candidate. That vote would count for a person and their party. Within a district, parties then receive seats in proportion to their vote shares. Within a party, votes for people determine which ones get the seats. One-vote OLPR is minimally disruptive for several reasons:

3a) From the voter’s perspective, there would be almost no change — pick your most preferred candidate.

3b) From the incumbent’s perspective, there would be almost no change. Have each incumbent campaign as they do now. Carve multi-seat districts into geographic areas that correspond to the old districts. In comparative politics, these regions are known as “bailiwicks.”

3c) For the purpose of winning seats not currently held, run new candidates in those regions.

3e) From the election official’s perspective, there would be almost no change — a larger ballot, but without any need to implement ranked-choice voting. Just count up the votes, and report the totals.

3f) Have each state’s chief election official allocate seats, based on party-level vote totals, via D’Hondt or Hare or whatever. There are many options.

4) Get over the allergy to third-party politics. Take a serious look at what states and districts are likely to produce third-party winners. Others may disagree with me, but I suspect gains would be isolated and modest.

No, this doesn’t “work” for states with one or two seats. Any “spoiler” problems would need to be solved without ranked voting (which requires coordination anyway).

What about nominations? I suggest letting (state) parties decide how to structure these. One option is to use “nominating districts,” i.e., the current single-member congressional districts (which might collapse into general-election multi-seat districts). Then there might need to be some provision for candidates not strong in any one “nominating district” — maybe a multi-seat-district-wide primary at the same time. Another option is just to get rid of primaries, then have a party committee (local, state, and/or district) decide whether some candidate can appear on its list. There are many options.

Let me stress: if Democrats win these runoffs, they will have a rare and brief opportunity to “fix their geography problem.”

I do not have a favorite reform

We are going into another season of reform. A friend asks: “do you have a favored electoral reform or does FPTP make the most sense given America’s racial diversity?”

The short answer is: no favorite, and my (personal) yea/nay mostly depends on comparing the specific status quo with the specific replacement proposal.

Beyond that, here are some things I tend to think about when evaluating reform proposals. These are just quick thoughts, written on my way to bed.

1. The composition of a reform coalition is a pretty good signal of possible policy effects.

2. Generally, the public does not shape its own preferences. We form opinions about candidates (and reforms!) by consuming media and talking to friends (who also consume media). The same probably goes for marking ballots.

3. Every community tends to cleave into two opposing camps. This is related to the process by which our views get shaped. It may not happen immediately, but if you have to place a bet, you should bet that it will happen.

4. No coalition lasts forever, which probably is good, but you still have to live with the winning one, which might (or might not) be bad.

5. Details are crucial, even if they tend to fly under the radar. Even with PR writ large. For example, is there some guarantee that the minority (which might be you) will be at the table?

6. The fact that we’re even talking about reform is interesting in itself.

7. We live in a context of diminishing voting rights. Things may or may not get worse.

8. Fundamentally, people matter more than rules. People make the rules!

Good luck!

Essential reading for reformers

The current PR (aka RCV) movement is very much a continuation of one that died in the 1960s. That is, this movement has come out of abeyance.

Since most of the work is concentrated in cities, here are two essential pieces of political science.

In the old days, winning PR (and ranked ballots in general) depended on political compromise — combining the desired reform with rules that other people wanted. And, as I have shown in research, this made it easy for many cities to remove PR from such “packages” on adoption.

1) Bridges, Amy and Richard Kronick. 1999. “Writing the Rules to Win the Game: The Middle-class Regimes of Municipal Reformers.” Urban Affairs Review 34 (5).

2) Trebbi, Francesco, Philippe Aghion, and Alberto Alesina. 2008. “Electoral Rules and Minority Representation in U.S. Cities.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 123 (1): 325-357.

The first piece argues that reformers were successful where (a) middle-class people could be made to fear immigrants and (b) Progressive Era voting restrictions allowed the middle class to constitute a referendum majority. Note that, in this paper, PR charters are not distinguished from non-PR charters.

The second piece argues that, after voting rights were restored, reforms developed during the Progressive Era spread throughout the American South, as a way to dilute the votes of re-enfranchised persons. Needless to say, these later “reforms” did not include PR.

Some are likely shaking their heads at a piece I co-authored last week. This is partly why I wrote it. Our generation can have effects that are unforeseeable, and that we might deeply regret.