These are posted on Medium.
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.
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?
What follows is from a conference paper given in 1985, at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (New Orleans). Hermens was wrong about a lot. An example is his insistence on the phrase “majority voting,” which he used to describe anything other than “PR” (which also does not convey much information). On other things, he seems to have been right.
The paper was written in a period of re-polarization. The advice to embrace “majority voting” should be viewed with that development in mind.
Dr. Hallett, who has carried the American banner for P.R. for so many years, recently published an essay entitled “Proportional Representation with the Single Transferable Vote: A Basic Requirement for Legislative Elections.” He considers P.R. a logical implication of the “one-man one-vote” rule and has expressed hope that the Supreme Court will declare it a requirement of the Constitution. This point will apparently be argued before the Court in the case of Davis vs. Bandemer, which centers on gerrymandering, but has caused proponents of P.R. to state that no redistricting under majority voting will do; it has to be P.R. all the way, and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) at that.
In an examination of the issues involved it might be useful to recall what Walter Lippmann wrote two generations ago: “For the most part, we do not first see and then define; we define first and then see.” This statement is more relevant now than it was when originally made, and nowhere more so than in a discussion of electoral systems. In the case of P.R. all essential problems arise from the fact that its proponents first use a concept of representation which takes much for granted of which they ought to prove, and then sees everything in light of that concept. They are thereby depriving themselves of a chance to observe any of the drawbacks which result from the application of P.R. while ignoring the positive aspects of what majority voting contributes to the democratic process.