The parties’ asymmetric problems and the difficulty of electoral reform

People on both sides of politics agree on the need for some kind of electoral reform. “The current system isn’t working,” we hear often.

Yet the reformers on each side face a different set of problems. This leads to diverging institutional preferences: in terms of seats/votes proportionality and expected effects on party discipline. The result will be no reform at all, state/local efforts to promote “proportional ranked-choice voting,” or a set of compromises (policy- and office-seeking) that neither side seems willing to make.

The Democrats’ problems

Democrats face two related problems. One is insufficient party discipline. Witness the failure last December to shepherd voting-rights legislation through the Congress. Or the scuttling of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

A second problem, well-documented by Rodden and the gerrymandering crew, is the concentration of their voters in population-dense regions. This is why we hear that Democrats are disadvantaged, relative to Republicans, when it comes to translating votes into proportional (or better) shares of seats.

These problems are related because, to win congressional majorities, Democrats must appeal to voters in conservative areas. Hence the production of a caucus whose own members defeat its priorities.

If I have captured the problems accurately, the institutional prescription is straightforward. Find a reform that undoes the geography problem, then makes individual members more beholden to party leadership: list PR.

The Republicans’ problem

Republicans’ problem is much different. The NeverTrump wing of the party has a #PrimaryProblem. Solving the #PrimaryProblem requires replicating the Murkowski coalition. In turn, that requires permitting two Republican parties to present themselves on one ballot, then getting a sufficiently large group of Democrats to cross over.

The reform solution is accordingly different: preserve single-seat districts, and break the major parties into factions.

Prospects for reform

If I have characterized the situation accurately, there is little hope for a congressionally imposed solution. Democrats need proportionality and more leadership control of nominations. Republicans need disproportionality (i.e., the district-structure status quo) and less leadership control of nominations. Democrats from conservative districts may face similar incentives.

What about how the expected number of parties affects reform prospects? Some Democrats likely do not want the party’s left wing to bolt. Republicans likely do not want a governing coalition to include that party. Hence some opposition to PR in both camps. And others may be steeped in the idea that multiple parties equal instability.

For various reasons, I don’t think the bolt is likely. Even if it happened, it might not matter — if reform made parties stronger, leading to the style of coalition politics that we find in most other democracies.

Further implications

Very few observers are making any sort of case for list PR. One possible reason is precisely that list PR implies greater leadership control of nominations.

Further, list PR does not ‘work’ with a system of nonpartisan elections. Only the single transferable vote (STV) can show progress if the goal is to create “demonstration cases.” Given the analysis of congressional prospects above, demonstration cases may be the best a reformer can do.

Is there a way out?

No, probably not without some policy concessions.

For Democrats, the Republican reforms mean leaving Republicans in control of the House. For Republicans, the Democratic reforms mean splitting the GOP in two — full-blown parties, not factions, to regulate the party lists — as well as ceding House control for the foreseeable future. It also might mean giving up the White House, unless the two Republican parties fused to contest those races.

Should there be a way out?

Yes, I think we are at a pivotal moment. I think our grandkids will speak poorly of us for failing (a second time) on voting rights, then leaning into ‘incremental’ reforms with an iffy track record.

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.

General effects of Final Five Voting

I am reproducing here a Tweet thread from last week:

I expect a two-serious-candidate equilibrium, with ballot exhaustion driven by the supply of hopeless candidates.

The basic logic comes from Cox (1997). Winning-minded elites will be thinking about the IRV round when deciding whom to back in the “final five” round.

That means we need to think about the strategic context of an IRV election, which will ‘contaminate’ the first round.

What does a winning-minded-elite do in an IRV election? They get together with other winning-minded-elites and coordinate on the person most likely to win.

It turns out that humans have routinized such coordination. The general term for this is “political party.”

It follows that ‘resources’ will not flow to hopeless candidates, leading us straight back to two-party equilibrium. Or, in lopsided districts, two-faction equilibrium.

I covered these issues in my Apr. 2021 review of The Politics Industry. That review included discussion of ‘nonpartisan IRV’ in a two-party-competitive city (Cleveland, 1913-19). TLDR: lots of ballot exhaustion, no independents elected.

People (like me) who oppose Final Five are aware of the dynamics above. Our worry, I think, is that all we’ll have done is weakened political parties even more.

You can’t get parties out of politics… but you can confuse voters in the short term

…and we don’t know what the world would have looked like if all these nonpartisan elections had never been adopted. Small changes have big consequences… even if parties adapt to nonpartisan elections.