The darkness of anti-party reform

Compare this recent comment from Nevada…

It may take some time to educate voters, but that’s OK if it allows us to break away from this wretched two-party system, in which both parties put forth horrible candidates.

…to an older one from 1911:

The Grand Junction plan has destroyed all municipal political machines. It provides for non-partisan nominations by twenty-five individual petitioners. The headless non-partisan and short ballot was adopted. Such a ballot results practically in an educational qualification for voters, and greatly reduces the number of ignorant and corrupt votes.

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.

Key moving parts and 2022

Early last month, I suggested that Democrats use their trifecta to pass open-list proportional representation (OLPR). The argument for OLPR was that it would be incredibly easy to implement, i.e., it can be done in a emergency-motivated hurry. The argument for PR of any type is now familiar: partisan geography. Related to this is the need to stop/slow down realignment by retaining House control in 2022. Republican congressional obstruction will allow Republicans to claim that Democrats get nothing done, then keep chipping away at the party’s working-class base. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, continued threats to voting access make doing something even more urgent.

In short, Democrats are subject to coalition-raiding, and the overall right to vote is in danger (and has been for seven years).

A natural question to ask is: can the bleeding be stopped by retaining single-seat districts (SSD)? This is an open question. It does seem like any federal-level redistricting legislation will include “partisan fairness criteria,” i.e., provision that new maps not systematically advantage one or the other party. Here are two more relevant considerations:

1) How easy is it to draw fair SSD maps, both as a function of partisan geography, and given operational realities of redistricting within states?

2) Assuming it is doable, does this assessment account for changing district partisanship? In short, are we so far down the realignment road that “fair” districts, drawn using retrospective data, will miss the mark anyway?

As far as I know, the answer to (1) is “well, it seems doable.” With respect to (2), I have not heard anything.