Advice for the reform-curious

I recently received a thoughtful email from a young person “concerned about the state of democracy in the US.” This person found me via Fix Our House tweets, which he’d found via Andrew Yang/Final Five tweets. His question:

I know there is no such thing as “the best reform that once we get passed all of our problems will go away”…it’s just, I keep reading about this stuff and how to help and want to be sure I am pursuing efficient and meaningful avenues towards improvement. But it all seems to go in circles sometimes…

My reply:

Thanks for reading so much of my work but especially for this set of questions. It’s easy to forget that I am in the weeds.

I am busy visiting family right now, but I would be happy to chat at greater length some time. For now, two or three thoughts:

1) A bigger priority than changing rules should be strengthening parties — their connections to community groups, ability to mobilize voters, and thus hold politicians accountable. If one’s politics are conservative, an added task might cultivating respect for democracy (and knowledge of the country’s troubled history with voting rights) among conservative politicians (as well as self-styled moderates/centrists).

2) If the people doing that work also understand electoral systems, that is even better. That knowledge can be used to fight bad reforms as well as promote good ones. Bad reforms often pass because they’re not well-understood by the underlying communities, and many people therefore abstain.

3) I used to be an “RCV” supporter as long as that was understood to mean partisan systems of PR via STV. Now I have new worries about even that system. That’s for a much longer discussion. The point for this short email is that don’t see the RCV lobby building strategies to move us toward such systems, let alone less complicated forms of proportional representation. Rather, I see many reformers promoting systems that can break connections among voters, parties, and intermediary interest groups.

Related ideas are expressed in my recent brief on ballot fusion and an accompanying blog post.

Cross-endorsement fusion is better than instant runoff (and approval)

I spent a chunk of Memorial Day weekend writing up some thoughts on fusion. They apparently are part of this case (which does not affect my views). Here is the opening paragraph:

I have been asked to share some thoughts on political parties, democratic stability, and the relationship of each to ballot fusion (understood here to mean cross-endorsement). What follows is based on my doctoral education and ongoing research into so-called ‘multiparty reforms.’ A key theme will be that the number of parties matters less than whether the electoral rules facilitate coalition, then make such coalitions unambiguously known to voters. Cross-endorsement fusion has desirable properties on both fronts: promoting coalition, then telling voters on the ballot what coalition they aim to place in control of government.

The ideas in the ‘expert report’ are based partly on material from an early draft of my book, but which I decided to save for stand-alone publication.

That part of the book deals with “making reform work,” especially against the joint backdrop of presidentialism and the Electoral College. I might as well share the language now.

No consideration of multiparty American democracy is complete without attention to the presidential system of government. There are two big problems: the Electoral College unit rule, then the so-called separation of powers. I will suggest ballot fusion as a way to deal with both. The reason is that it promotes more efficient bargaining than the leading alternatives, namely, ranked-choice voting and runoffs.

In the American system of presidential elections, a third-party candidacy poses two big threats. One is that the trailing candidate may win the election — not only because the system advantages low-population states, but also due to spoilers in electorally pivotal states. Another is that there may not be a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives (where each state delegation votes in block). The strongest institutional explanation for our two-party system is the “unit rule” allocation of a state’s electors to the popular-vote winner in said state. This system solidified in 1836, not accidentally alongside the two-party system itself (E. J. Engstrom 2004). Had we become democratic in the era of multiparty democracy, it is likely we would use some other method to elect the President. Clearly, if we are to have majority rule and multiparty government, there needs to be some new mechanism for presidential elections.

With either problem, the issue is to promote bargaining, leading to some coalition with majority support. One possible option is electoral fusion. Under fusion, two or more parties nominate a single candidate, and voters may support that candidate on as many ballot lines as there are nominating parties.

Fusion is not the same cross-filing, which allows the candidate to choose which party labels appear near their name (Masket 2009) […]

Fans of other systems (e.g., runoffs, single-seat RCV) may counter that their preferred remedies achieve the same result. […] One thing is certain, however. Under fusion, the incentive is for two or more parties to agree on just one candidate. They do not compete for votes: first-choice, second-choice, or otherwise. Rather, they pool effort behind victory for the coalition. Evidence also suggests that fusion increases voter turnout, mainly by mobilizing voters who do not turn out for either major party (Michelson and Susin 2004; Kantack 2017). For more information on fusion, including its history in American elections, see a comprehensive book by Lisa Disch (2002).

At this point, some may note that no proposal deals with the Senate. Even if we can design a system for multiparty coalition within the separation of powers, the Senate still entrenches a minority veto. Further, the critical determinant of this veto — an equal number of Senators per state, regardless of population — cannot be removed from the Constitution.

My expert report only deals indirectly with the presidentialism issues above.

What is Duverger’s Law?

Most people know it as the observation that plurality elections in single-seat districts tend to come with just two parties. Except that the correlation is weak. As for causation, see Riker (1982):

The direction one must go, I believe, is to turn attention away from the expected utility calculus of the individual voter and to the expected utility calculus of the politician and other more substantial participants in the system. The groups and individuals who buy access and the politicians who buy a future have substantial interests, and it is their actions to maximize expected utility that have the effect of maintaining the two-party system under plurality voting.


So the answer to the question of failure is that third parties are rejected in the rational calculus of expected utility especially by leaders, though also in the calculus by many simple voters. Any adequate theory to subsume Duverger’s law must, I believe, begin there, which is a task for scholars in the next decade.