Americans dislike the two major parties, which are fighting more and compromising less. But does that open the way for the rise of third parties and the huge institutional changes necessary to bring it about? Lee Drutman finds that a new multi-party system is the only way out of our cycle of polarization and democratic decay. He sees opportunities on the horizon, favoring the adoption of ranked choice voting in larger, multi-member House districts. But Jack Santucci finds that the two parties have to face real third-party threats before they’re willing to reform away their advantages, focusing on the local reforms that have been tried in American history.
Studies: “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop” and “Maine Ranked-choice Voting as a Case of Electoral System Change”
Interviews: Lee Drutman, New America; Jack Santucci, Drexel University
Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science Of Politics, can America become a multi-party system? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Americans dislike the two major parties, and those parties are fighting more and compromising less, but does that open the way for the rise of third parties and the huge institutional changes necessary to bring that about? Today I talk to Lee Drutman of New America about his new Oxford book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop. He argues that a new multi-party system is the only way out of our cycle of polarization and democratic decay. He sees opportunities favoring the adoption of ranked-choice voting and more multi-member house districts.
Matt Grossmann: But I also talk to Jack Santucci of Drexel University about his recent representation article, Maine Ranked-Choice Voting as a Case of Electoral System Change, and his related work on the progressive era history of electoral reform. He finds that the two parties have to face real third party threats before they’re willing to reform away their advantages. Drutman makes a strong case for trying to change the two party system that is thoroughly broken.
Lee Drutman: This is a book that is part theory, part history and part argument. Basically I’m trying to answer three big questions in the book. First question is, how worried should we be about the state of American democracy? The answer to that is, I think, quite worried because we are in this hyper-partisan doom loop, and I don’t really see how it gets better before it gets worse.
Why now? I think the main argument in the book is that this is the first time that we’ve had a genuine two party system in the US, with two truly distinct national parties with no overlap, and this has really only been going on for a decade. Now I know a lot of people will say, “Well, haven’t we always had a two party system?” And yes, that’s true. But within the two parties, we had multiple overlapping parties and I think what we’ve lost is any overlap between the two parties, and now we have a genuine two party system. And it’s a disaster. It doesn’t work with our political institutions and it’s driving us all crazy.
And then to the question, “What do we do about it?” I think the answers that we change the way we vote, allow for more parties, become a multi-party democracy and break the the zero sum hyper partisanship that is a fundamental threat to our democracy in this moment.
Matt Grossmann: The two party system isn’t living up to its promise.
Lee Drutman: The longstanding argument for a two party system was that it produces moderation. This is largely derived from the Downsian theory of convergence on the median. Voter parties have to run to the center to win elections. I’m not sure if that theory was ever particularly right, but it seemed to fit the American experience for a period of time, and I think it may have been right descriptively but for the wrong reasons. We can get into that in a little bit more detail if we want to, but the basic benefit was that parties should converge on the center. They just had to be broad, big tent parties.
The reality is that parties have been moving further and further apart for quite a while. Now, a lot of people know Downs for the median convergence theory, although he says, “Well, there are a bunch of assumptions that apply to this theory.” And then on the very next page of his 1957 book he says, “Well, it’s also quite possible that we would have a bi-modal distribution, in which case two party democracy would become unstable and collapse.” By the evidence, the two parties have not converged. They’ve pulled further apart, somewhat asymmetrically, but they have not converged on the center.
A second argument made for the two party system was that it creates more responsibility and accountability because you can see parties make promises to the electorate, and then either they deliver or they don’t deliver. Now, I think this supposed benefit of a two party system maybe works much better in a Westminster-style system, in which a party has complete power, and then you can judge it on whether or not it made its promises and delivered economic growth. But in the US with a separated power system, there are so many veto points, it’s really hard for any party to get full accountability. And so it’s really hard to actually judge a party performance in government and hold it accountable. So if we don’t have median convergence and we don’t have accountability, the supposed benefits of the two party system, then what do we want a two party system for?
Matt Grossmann: Drutman finds lots of advantages of multi-party systems by comparing their results internationally.
Lee Drutman: In our system of winner take all plurality elections, the reality is that very few votes matter. There are very few swing states, very few swing districts, and most voters don’t get to really vote in a competitive election very often. And, deeply unfair. It also over-privileges and over-represents communities that happen to be pivotal in those states and districts. Now, in a proportional system, every vote matters equally because every vote counts. There are no swing districts or swing states. Every vote contributes.
Lee Drutman: What that means is that parties are going to be reaching out to voters everywhere and engaging voters. So you will see higher voter turnout. Also the fact that people’s votes actually matter means that more people are going to vote, and the fact that are more parties means people are more likely to find a party that they feel will represent them and and excite them. That civic engagement and voter participation is really good for a healthy democracy. It adds to the legitimacy of the system. That’s on the voting side.
On the governing side, it actually tends to force broad coalition-building and broad compromise, which, one, is just good for democratic legitimacy and, as I think I said, as a theory of governance builds more stable, long-standing, fairer policies. Also builds more legitimate policies. And more people feel included. There’s less of a feeling like if your side loses you’re completely shut out of power. And policy tends to converge more on the median in a multi-party system because you tend to have pivotal groups in the center of the political spectrum wind up playing an important role at the party coalition. Although not necessarily the party themselves, but the party coalitions in government, have a strong pressure to move to the center.
Matt Grossmann: He says we do have a pendulum swinging between liberal and conservative policy, but each party still hopes for a permanent majority that never comes.
Lee Drutman: There’s long been a thermostatic quality to American politics in which whichever party is in office loses favorability. People like activist government until the activist government actually starts taking some actions. So we’re in a moment in which support for liberal policy has never been higher. If Democrats start making liberal policy, it will almost certainly go down in response.
But the challenge in that is, one, every time we get into this moment in which liberal policy support gets high, Democrats think, “Oh, well, we’re going to get this permanent majority and so we got to win the next election.” And Republicans fear, “Oh, Democrats are going to take over so we’ve got to push even harder.” So even in this period in which there is a lot of stasis because the natural thermostatic quality of American democracy prevents one party from being in unified power for very long, both parties think that that if they just do something more, they can get that permanent majority, even if it’s elusive. And that creates all kinds of dangerous incentives. The reality is is that most of this period over the last 20 years has been gridlocked. It’s been a lot of divided government and it’s not productive, cooperative divided government like it was in the ’70s and the ’80s, but it’s divided government that is gridlocked in stasis.
Matt Grossmann: A multi-party US system would still have left/right competition, but the coalitions would form after the elections, with some benefits.
Lee Drutman: There will always be some element of left and right in our politics, as there is in almost all Western democracies. There is some broad structure, certainly in most multiparty democracies in Western Europe there tends to be a left bloc and tends to be a right bloc. But the advantage of a multi-party system, as I see it, is that those blocs don’t have to stay fixed, and that you can build different coalitions at different times. Parties themselves don’t have to be so zero sum, because coalition building is essential to governing. In some sense the difference between multi-party democracy and two-party democracy is pretty straightforward. It’s that, do coalitions have to happen after the election or do coalitions happen before the election? And in two party systems, coalitions happen before the election and in a multi-party system coalition happen after the election.
I think despite that being a somewhat simple difference, it is actually a, I think, quite profound difference, because in the two party system you’re trying to build majority coalitions before the election, and the experience of that for voters is that, “Our side needs to get all the power and then we’re going to enact this big agenda.” And that inevitably leads to over-promising and disappointment, and a strong zero sum negative campaigning aspect in which you’re trying to cast the other side, the other party as extreme, awful, negative, bad.
Now, in a multiparty system, when voters don’t necessarily know the exact coalition they’re going to get, what they do is they support the party that they think is going to be their best representative and is closest to their values. And then they accept that, “Well, I’m not going to get everything I want because my party is just the 20% party, and they’re going to build a coalition in government, and it’s going to be bargain and compromise, and that’s okay. That’s how politics works.” There is just a lot less zero sum negative campaigning because, you know, the phrase lesser of two evils is common in American politics, but there’s no lesser of three evils or lesser of four evils. I mean, we see what’s in the democratic primary, we see what happens when candidates start getting really nasty with each other in a multi-person race, is that it hurts both of them.
So there’s a strong incentive to be more positive, to be more issue-focused, to be more policy-focused in a multiparty campaigning system. That shapes the voter experience and the voter expectation, and I think it translates into more productive policy-making.
Matt Grossmann: He outlines a national plan to reform the US, but thinks action will start locally.
Lee Drutman: My big package of reforms, what I call the Save American Democracy Act, is for the House, multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting, also increasing the size of the House to 700 members. Single winner ranked-choice voting for the Senate, and getting rid of congressional primaries. I would also like to move to a national popular vote for president with ranked-choice voting, but that would require a constitutional amendment so I don’t put that in the initial package.
Now, that’s a bold package of reforms in contrast to what’s in HR 1, which is a lot of reforms that deal with campaign finance problems, and make it easier to vote. I’m highly supportive of those reforms, but unfortunately, campaign finance, voting rights have have become partisan issues in our politics. And I think one advantage of this set of reforms that I’ve proposed, even though it’s bolder, it is, in a sense, bipartisan in that it is an equal opportunity destroyer of both political parties and it doesn’t help one side or the other.
What it offers is a peace treaty in which we say, “Look, we’re at a stalemate. Neither side is going to win in this political moment. And a lot of us who work in Congress feel like we would like to solve some big problems and we hate this hyper-partisan warfare in which we don’t get to do any problem solving. We’re just scoring points, and this offers us a way out.” I know that that would be a big change, but I do note that lots of other countries have made changes of their electoral rules. I recognize this probably won’t start in Washington, although I would point to the Fair Representation Act sponsored by Don Beyer, which creates multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting for the House. I think what we’ll see, more likely, is what we’ve seen in the history of reform in the United States, which is that it starts at the state level and it spreads to the states, and then eventually it becomes the national standard.
We’ve already seen a bit of this activity. A lot of cities have moved to ranked-choice voting, mostly single winner, although Eastpointe, Michigan has moved to multi-winner ranked-choice voting. And Maine now has ranked-choice voting. I think it will be on the ballot in Massachusetts this year, possibly Alaska. So the movement is building. I think there’s more and more sense that the political system as it operates doesn’t work. And people want more parties. Two-thirds of Americans say they’d like to have more than two parties. More Americans than ever are deciding to register as independents as a sign of rejection of both political parties. And they vote for one party or the other, but as [inaudible 00:15:02] once said, “If you give people only rascals to to vote for, they’ll vote for the rascals.”
Matt Grossmann: Jack Santucci looks at one piece of recent reform in Maine.
Jack Santucci: Maine implemented something known as ranked-choice voting, single seat ranked-choice voting, and that is, the voter ranks candidates in order of preference and if no candidate has a majority of first choice votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and ballots for that candidate flow to the next rank picks on each. This process repeats until somebody has 50% plus one of ballots that are still alive and active. And the intent of the reform was intended to be used for gubernatorial elections there, because Maine had a long history, about 40 or 50 years of governors winning with less than a majority, less than 50% of the votes. So it was really a ripe place. It was like, “Wow, this just makes sense. Why the heck aren’t we doing instant runoff voting here?”
I was like, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why did it take these reformers so long to finally win this ranked-choice or instant runoff voting system?” And the short answer is that nobody really knew what they would do with their second choice, if that makes sense. So I want to vote for the Green Party in Maine, but it’s not clear whether I’m going to go for the Republican or the Democrat after that. And in 2014 you see the reelection of governor Paul LePage, who can be described as a right wing populist, in another one of these spoiled gubernatorial elections. And everyone’s like, “That’s enough.” Everyone just agrees, “We can’t have more of this kind of person winning.” So the reform coalition comes together and they pass it in a ballot initiative, and the state legislature tries to block it. You had, I think 11 Democrats in the state senate team up with the Republican party to basically kill the thing, so it ends up coming up for a second vote in 2018 and it wins again, but due to some language in the state constitution, state constitution says plurality, it can not be used for gubernatorial elections. So they’re using it for federal elections up there.
Matt Grossmann: He says it came about after a new coalition, rather than creating it.
Jack Santucci: It basically asked why did it take so long for these reformers in Maine who had been pushing what then was known as instant runoff voting for about 15 years, and the answer to that question was that the state really needed to polarize, public opinion really needed to polarize. So the takeaway on single winner reform, what they call single winner reform, was that IRV fits perfectly where you’ve got a majority that can’t agree on a single candidate, but they all agree on what they don’t want. A broader point that comes out of that Maine study for this electoral reform stuff in general is that instant runoff voting, when it passed there, represented the ascendance of a new coalition, and that happened in the context of polarization. So I’m not totally sold that instant runoff voting is going to reduce polarization, so much as come in when there’s a new coalition that’s ready to take command.
Matt Grossmann: It draws on America’s long history of reforming our institutions, to argue that it’s possible again.
Lee Drutman: American history is the history of occasional bursts of democracy reform, you can think of it in big cycles. There was the Revolutionary War, major democracy reform, [inaudible 00:18:57] franchise in the 1830s, Jacksonian democracy, the progressive era was a major burst of democracy reform, when we went from having appointed senators to directly elected senators, from no primaries to primaries, reforming initiative at the state level, and suffrage for women. And all of those seemed impossible at one point, and the civil rights era of the 1960s, which also felt like nothing was going to happen for a while, and something happened. And I note that those eras of reform are about 60 years apart, and if you do the math from the 1960s, that takes us to the decade that we are entering now, the 2020s. And all of these periods of reform have a lot in common, they’re all periods in which politics did feel stuck, but there was a moral energy building, people were getting engaged, demanding change.
There were social movements building, big social movements, and there was also a change in the media structure, that new changes to media technology created new outlets and new voices, and periods in which the status quo felt like it was broken. I note that over the last decade the whole neoliberal consensus around economics has collapsed, there’s more and more challenges to the existing hierarchies in society, and frankly, Trump’s presidency has I think blown up the idea that America has the best system of democracy in the world, and has created a real opening. The expansion of big ideas in the last few years has really been something remarkable, at a time when it felt like all the tenets of modern liberal capitalism and democracy had more or less been agreed on. So I think we will see a big decade of reform, and it’s an exciting time to be in the political reform space.
Matt Grossmann: Santucci has been studying that long history, especially the agitation for a multiparty system, but he finds that reforms did not really produce it.
Jack Santucci: The core of this ranked choice voting movement is about, and has been about since 1983, proportional representation and multiparty democracy. Proportional representation, the ranked choice form of it has been in place in 24 cities around the country from 1915 to about 1961, and all of that stops. The only one of those cities that’s still around is Cambridge. So the research started with trying to get a handle on all of that, and then Maine starts doing this, this single winner ranked choice voting thing, and what’s the relationship between the single winner cause and that movement in the PRed option?
So I decided to write a paper that cheekily tried to educate people, like this is not proportional representation, this is something else, and actually it’s a winner take all rule. We don’t tend to talk about instant runoff or single winner ranked choice in those terms, but let’s be honest, that’s what it is. There’s going to be one winner and they get all the seats, because there’s only one. So, what does all that mean? Maine is like 1915 in a sense, because wow, this reform impulse that has been around for about 20 years, we’re starting to see some real serious wins, and it’s not PR, it’s single winner ranked choice voting, but here we are again. We’re getting serious about reform.
Matt Grossmann: He agrees with [inaudible 00:22:47] that the current anger at polarization and corruption mirror that in the 19th century.
Jack Santucci: In 1893, when if I may, Fair Vote 1.0 was founded at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, you have sky high levels of polarization in congress, we’re in the period of Reid’s rules here, and getting control of floor time. So there’s a lot of anger about this new polarization thing that’s all over the place, they call it party responsibility at that point, and then in cities as well, everyone’s talking about “corruption” in machines. So there’s polarization, anger with party discipline, but there’s also a strong third party element in American politics at this point. This is when we have the populist party trying to run on fusion tickets in various states. This is where the original impulse comes from to start changing the electoral system in the United States, and broadly speaking people sort into two camps.
There’s let’s have proportional representation and multiparty government, and then there’s people who think that single winner reform is fine, where they’re not even thinking about proportional representation, and that is largely because of what happens in 1912, when you have a four way presidential election, really three of the candidates are serious, you have Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, and Roosevelt takes half of the republican party over to a new party, and essentially delivers the presidential election to Wilson. So people are just up in arms over this, and that’s what really shoots … that’s a shot in the arm for single winner reform, and it’s a shot in the arm for attention to reform in general.
Matt Grossmann: Although many cities did adopt reforms, they were eventually killed off by the 1960s through labor, communist ties, reform coalition failures, and minority voting alternatives.
Jack Santucci: My best guess right now is that the organized labor, I need more systematic measures of this, but the more research I do, particularly on proportional representation, the more I find that organized labor was supportive of proportional representation, largely because it was not in either of the party coalitions in a meaningful way, and then after 1955 with the merger of the AFLCIO, what few remaining cases there are of proportional representation just start dropping very quickly. So, if you go through the Wooster city council minutes, their roll call records, you find somebody reading the following into the record; “The Massachusetts AFLCIO,” and this is in 1959, “has recommended to all cities no more proportional representation.” So that’s one part of the story.
I think that the unions no longer need proportional representation to have leverage in government, and in fact they experienced some pretty negative policy outcomes in one place I’ve studied closely in particular, Cincinnati. There are glimmers that it might not have been good for them in Massachusetts either. So the unions is one part of the story. I think the other part of the story is that we solve our big minority representation problem in the United States with the voting rights act, and there’s a settlement on using single member districts to do that.
So that’s the end of the movement. It drops this ranked voting stuff completely, people have been saying that it’s confusing since 1893, well in the 1950s they finally say, “Yeah, I guess it’s confusing. Let’s promote other things like limited voting or cumulative voting.” And that’s interesting, that’s why if you go to a lot of cities around the country you’ll see, okay, we have seven at large seats, no party can have more than five of them, and that’s a result of the limited voting system, that’s this late movement advocacy, but it’s done.
There are a couple of key defeats, New York City in particular really hurts the movement because there’s an activist Walter Millard. Walter J. Millard, he’s once described in Cincinnati Enquirer as a self-described Fabian socialist, and Millard after proportional representation is repealed in New York City, Millard leaves the movement to go work directly in housing policy. Millard is important because Millard seems to have known how to stitch together these reform coalitions on the ground in cities, and what I’m through the roll call record in New York City is there’s a story that communists got elected, and oh boy, that’s why this got repealed. The communists actually had been in city council for six years before the republican party decided it was done with them.
What I’m finding in the roll call record is that the republican party itself had trouble maintaining immunity on postwar redevelopment and housing issues. So it’s interesting that Millard, this guy who could really build a reform coalition in some place, leaves the movement after the housing fight in New York City. And then of course, we get the stories that some listeners will be familiar with, “Oh well, African-Americans and communists got elected and that’s why all of this stuff was repealed.” I think it comes to be understood as a black reform, or a communist reform, and that is the deliberate work of people who didn’t like it anyway, but that’s not the primary reason it’s repealed in New York City, or really I don’t think any of these other places.
Matt Grossmann: The modern reform movement started in California, but again was focused on single winner reforms.
Jack Santucci: California always ends up being the initial testing ground for this stuff. It’s interesting, back in 1913, the PR movement held its first referendum on PR in Los Angeles, and it fails for reasons I can get into, and they learn from that, and that’s how we end up with the single transferable vote thing. You would know, you might even know better than I would, but in California in the mid ’90s they were trying to do proportional representation again, the single transferable vote in San Francisco, and that proves unsuccessful. So the movement decides instead, “Hey, we’re going to do single winner reform, we’re going to do instant runoff voting.” And San Francisco has a very strong green party, you’ve had the traumatic 2000 presidential election, so reform is on everybody’s minds, and the democratic party organization is falling apart in San Francisco.
So there’s an opening there to pass instant runoff voting, which is how we get this initial iconic case of instant runoff, or single winner ranked choice voting in the United States, and then it spreads outward into other cities in the Bay Area, and then I think Minneapolis is the next major case, around 2006 or something like that, mid 2000s, we’ve got some limited use for military and overseas voters, mainly in the deep south. There are a lot of runoff elections in the south, and if you are stationed overseas somewhere, we’re worried that you don’t have enough time in the event of a runoff to get that second ballot in. So, IRV seems to make sense there. Maine is big, because Maine is all people power, and that’s the story we’re getting out of Maine, and then in 2019 we come to New York City, and a charter review commission. Not a popular initiative, mind you, a charter review commission agrees that instant runoff voting seems like a good idea in New York City. That’s a brief history of instant runoff voting.
I should mention as well that East Point, Michigan has gone with the single transferable vote, proportional representation, in order to resolve a voting rights minority … a minority votes dilution case. So that’s worth keeping an eye on, but we’re not yet at the point where there’s … we’re still mainly talking about single winner reform. We haven’t gotten to that point where we’re talking about proportional representation on a very wide scale.
Matt Grossmann: The main system continues that tradition that required support from political elites, and was mostly a democratic partisan action.
Jack Santucci: Who are the elites? They’re people in the democratic party who are unhappy with that’s going on in the gubernatorial races and they want to see some solution to that problem, and I don’t measure the correspondence directly between elite endorsements for the RCV measure and what voters opinions are, but you see both of them move in the same direction, and I think that’s important because regular people are not well versed in the gory details of electoral system design. For them, it’s all hashtag ranked choice voting.
So when a question like, “Do we adopt RCV in Maine?” comes up, it’s reasonable to assume that most people are going to turn to trusted political elites to figure out what to do about that, which is why when you study the referendum returns you find that 85% of people who voted democratic in the 2016 presidential election voted for ranked choice voting, and a very small share of republicans supported it. In particular, the wing of the party that was on its way out, that was losing control of the party to that more populist wing. And it’s interesting, you reminded me of this; at one point that wing, that embattled moderate wing of the party endorsed ranked choice voting, interestingly enough, and you can no longer find that video on the internet.
Matt Grossmann: Drutman agrees that early experiments have not built multiparty systems, but they have shown benefits.
Lee Drutman: The experiments we have seen so far have been with single winner ranked choice voting, so until we move to multi winner districts with ranked choice voting, we’re not going to get enough of a proportional system to really stimulate the development of a multiparty system. So that’s probably why we haven’t seen more parties emerge. Also, in some cities the elections are nonpartisan. So I think what we’ve learned from ranked choice voting in the cities where it’s been enacted, is that it’s led to a kinder, gentler form of political campaigning and coalition building, and less negative campaigning. Voters feel better about being able to rank their choices, and they do rank their choices and they do understand it, and you see more women run, more minorities run, particularly minority female candidates. I think it’s largely been a positive experience and it’s largely been a positive experience, and that’s probably why more and more cities are deciding that they want to get in on rank choice voting.
Matt Grossmann: He sees hope in people’s hunger for broader reform.
Lee Drutman: I think more and more people in this country feel like there’s something broken, fundamentally broken in our political system, and they are hungry for big structural reforms that will unbreak the system and create new political coalitions. They want more parties. And I think as people begin to understand the reason that our political system is so broken, is because we have an electoral and party system that is generating this two-party hyper partisanship that is fundamentally at odds with our political institutions and is driving us all crazy, they will get excited about electoral reform. I mean, I really feel like electoral reform is on the verge of a big breakthrough in this country.
Matt Grossmann: And he thinks we can learn from other successful multi-party systems.
Lee Drutman: The U.S. is a unique country in terms of its size, in terms of its political culture, in terms of its history. There are obviously cautions in doing comparative politics. But I think we can certainly learn something. And I think on the whole, the most comparable countries to the US in terms of economic development, in terms of political culture, are Western European countries. And those are all examples of I would say successful multi-party democracies.
Lee Drutman: And I think what we see from those countries is that you have coalition building and compromise as an essential part of government. You have broadly stable, moderate, incremental policy making over time. You have an engaged citizenry which votes at very high rates and you have I think those are the countries that are always at the top of the list of every list of economic, whether it’s political freedom, democratic stability. So I think those are other good examples and we should look to them as we think about how we want to solve our current crisis of hyper partisanship.
Matt Grossmann: Santucci agrees we can learn from comparative politics but he thinks our own history is most relevant.
Jack Santucci: The best hope we have given the durability of two-party politics to understand how these things operate is to study the way they operated here. But we should do that with an eye to how proportional representation or even what’s known as preference voting or the alternative vote in Australia has operated there.
Americans have a lot to learn from Ireland and Australia because there these systems seem to “work.” Whereas here the news is almost always negative. There’s this persistent concern about voter confusion, which goes back to 1893. And my hunch is that this is because in the case of ranked voting to the extent that ranked voting is a multi-party reform, and that’s your term, multi-party reform and it’s a good one, it operates in a multi-party system in these other places, not here.
And that may have something to do with why you see ballot exhaustion, for example, skipped rankings, for example, which you do not see in these other countries, right? Because these multi-party systems, when you have a multi-party system, the parties have incentives to have, to get voters to get it right.
Matt Grossmann: Drutman acknowledges it’s harder to make it work in a presidential system, but he isn’t deterred.
Lee Drutman: If I could wave a magic wand, I’d certainly move us to a parliamentary system, but I think that would require a major constitutional rewriting.
Now, I would note that the US presidential system in the menagerie of presidential systems around the world has one of the weakest presidential powers in it. In our constitution the president doesn’t have all that much power, except for what Congress delegates to the president. And the reason presidential power has grown so much is because Congress has given up on a lot of its responsibilities. And that’s because the hyper partisan Congress is really a broken Congress.
You have two conditions in Congress. Either you have unified government in which Congress basically says, “Well, we don’t want to do anything to make the president look bad, so we’re not really going to do any oversight and we’re going to just do more or less what the president wants us to do.” And then you have divided government in which the opposition party says, “Well, we just want to make the president look bad. So everything that the president proposes is dead on arrival.” And both of those conditions kind of shut down debate and deliberation in Congress.
Now, I think if we had a multi-party Congress, neither of those conditions would hold because the president would need to build coalition support for his or her policy. But I think also what you’d see is that Congress would be more productive. And remember, Congress is the first branch of government and should be … Congress should be the source of legislation and policy innovation. And I think it would be again, and we would look less to the presidency to decide on all policy matters.
Matt Grossmann: But Santucci says it’s hard to create a multi-party system out of a two-party one.
Jack Santucci: The absence of a preexisting multi-party system shapes the reforms themselves. In other words, if we lived in a multi-party system and someone had incentives to change the voting system, we would be talking about list-based forms of proportional representation. But what we’re trying to do here is induce a multi-party system. And that means that Democrats and Republicans need to bargain with each other over what those voting rules are going to look like.
And people in this country, rather than discontent with the two-party system in America, does not really get expressed as third party voting. It gets expressed as, I hate parties. So you’ve got to build electoral systems that accommodate those preferences, which is why we talk about ranking choices, not voting, not circling the green party logo on a list PR ballot.
Matt Grossmann: And national adoption does not seem to happen without a third party threat.
Jack Santucci: I don’t see the national adoption. And this is not even from my research. This is just from reading the literature on why some countries have PR and others don’t. Right? And what you find is that a country’s legislature or a legislative majority adopts PR because there’s some problem that it needs to solve. Maybe it thinks it’s going to get shellacked at the next election or maybe it sees some other coalition forming on the horizon and it wants to split that coalition. PR is a great way to do that. You let the liberal party and the socialist party have their separate existences.
So how do you end up with a PR adoption in the American Congress? Either Congress says, “Gee, what a great idea. We should have a multi-party democracy.” I don’t see that happening. Or there’s some sort of … There’s got to be some self-interested reason for it, which usually implicates some preexisting multi-party system. So that’s the story on Congress.
With respect to cities and states, yeah, sure. You can see adoptions. Does that generate multi-party politics in those places? Historically no. The only place with a robust multi-party system that had proportional representation in the old days was New York City. And that’s because it had a preexisting multi-party system which left its imprint on the reforms that were adopted there. So for example, you saw party labels on ballots in New York City, which you did not see in other places. And gee, isn’t that interesting?
One other point on the question of whether there can be some transition from instant runoff voting to proportional representation, probably not for on a theoretical level because someone needs to have the incentives to make that transition. And empirically there’s only one city in the United States that ever did so. There were 39 cities experimenting with single winner reforms during the Progressive Era and only one of them, Cleveland, makes the transition.
Matt Grossmann: Santucci agrees it would be a good reform, but he doesn’t see as much chance for success.
Jack Santucci: I’m open to the possibility of Congress reforming itself, but I just don’t see much precedent for it in the comparative literature on electoral system change unless there’s some sort of like high levels of new party entry which generates coalitional … which generates basically party discipline problems in Congress and therefore PR becomes seen as a way to deal with that. But broadly, I’ve read Lee’s book, and I think he makes a pretty compelling case for why multi-party democracy might be better than a strict two-party system.
Our projects differ. In any way I think that the core of the difference is this. I would say that the preexisting multi-party system is important for the types of reforms that you get. In other words, if you’re going to have reform, if we must have reform, it’s probably better that it proceed in the context of a preexisting multi-party system.
Matt Grossmann: This year Drutman says that new crises and work on the ground could mean that the reform movement grows.
Lee Drutman: The more the flaws of our current electoral system are on display, the more likely reform is to get a boost. I don’t wish for a crisis, but I do think crisis is an incredible spur for action. And I think a lot of people saw Donald Trump’s presidency as a crisis, and that has created a tremendous amount of energy around reform already.
I think we’ll see more, more and more cities adopting forms of rank choice voting. I think we’ll see a ballot initiative in Massachusetts and possibly in Alaska. And I think we’ll see more, I hope with this book that and I’m starting a conversation about what we want democracy, reform, and renewal to look like in the decade ahead, and that that conversation continues as we get into the 2020 election.
Matt Grossmann: Santucci sees a possible transition with reformers moving toward an elite supported system to control populism.
Jack Santucci: We are in the middle of that transition right now. I think 2019, 2020 is the transition. This is our version of 1913, 1914. The types of activists who are involved with it change. The sort of bottom up reform via citizen initiative, kind of we see less of that and more of incumbent governments adopting it. The nature of elite support for it kind of changes. And to be blunt, I think we might be seeing it go from a more populist sort of reform to a reform that is used to manage populism.
Matt Grossmann: But he warns that electoral reform sometimes inadvertently hurt voting rights, and so electoral reformers need to work with other reformers.
Jack Santucci: If we’re going to go forward with this stuff, right? If we must have ranked voting systems, we need to do that. The first question we need to ask, whenever we go forward with one of these things is, will it diminish, will it make things worse, worse for the voting rights world? And I say that for two reasons.
The first reason is that if we don’t ask that question, these reforms simply will not go forward and it quite could possibly bring another end to the movement. But the other reason to say that the reform world needs to take voting rights seriously, is that there’s tremendous potential for unintended consequences. Because coming back to your question about what’s the relative role of elites versus public understanding of electoral reform, the last PR movement unwittingly became a vehicle for plurality at large elections, which if you know the urban politics literature, you know is not great for racial minorities. There’s some evidence that it’s good for women but not racial minorities.
How did the last PR movement unwittingly become a vehicle for what some might describe as a voter suppression device? The answer is that in order to pass the single transferable vote, it had to bake it into a larger reform package. So when this thing comes up in front of voters, think #rankchoicevoting in our time or machine rule and corruption in the old days, voters are really thinking about corruption #rankchoicevoting. So elites who are importing the reform package into their city can quietly remove the proportional representation provisions and leave everything else intact, which is an at-large plurality, non-partisan election.
So, for those two reasons, both for the potential for unintended consequences and in order to push the reforms forward, you’ve got to take voting rights super seriously.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Lee Drutman and Jack Santucci for joining me. Please check out Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop and Maine ranked-choice voting as a case of electoral-system change, and then listen in next time.