Because the constitutional emergency is likely too deep to just turn the page, small-d democrats face an emergency of another kind. The need to adopt proportional representation has never been greater. The country simply can’t afford the risk that the Republican Party does nothing fundamental to reform itself, and wins back the House in 2022. A change to some form of moderate proportional representation (PR) is essential.
Given the current balance of power in the House, the Republicans would need to flip only about seven seats in 2022. (There are currently three vacancies.) With rare exceptions, presidents’ parties lose votes and seats in midterm elections. With the balance so tight, there is almost nothing to stop Republicans from winning back control of the House, other than perhaps if they descend into internal party chaos. They just might do that. They might even split. But I don’t like seeing the fate of the republic depend on Republicans finding yet another way to squander an easy electoral win that’s there for their taking.
I am not arguing for a change to PR only for the sake of the Democratic Party. In fact, my argument is that this is a way for Republicans to save their own party. The country needs functioning pro-democratic parties on both the center-left and the center-right. At the moment, it has such a party only on the center-left, and even that is a temporary ceasefire amidst a deepening internal division.
Cleavages in American politics today and the need for PR
I would identify three key cleavages in American politics at the moment. (Note: issue positions and cleavages are very much not my academic speciality at all. I admit I am simplifying, but the divisions I identify should be reasonably accurate as a broad summary.) There is the Republican–Democratic cleavage. This one is almost evenly divided, which explains a lot of the current partisan polarization. Hold together just enough–avoid the proverbial circular firing squad–and you can win. Then there is the democratic–authoritarian cleavage. On this one, the pro-democratic segment extends all the way from the leftmost large-d Democrats to somewhere near the middle of the Republican Party. The pro-Trump, white-supremacist, election-denying wing of the Republican Party has shown itself to be completely willing to set aside democracy, and even to promote/tolerate political violence, in order to advance its political agenda. This wing is a cancer that must be removed from the right-wing bloc that currently consists solely of the Republican Party. Then there is, for lack of a better term, the capitalist–socialist cleavage. This one obviously divides the Democratic Party. On one side are Democrats who generally take a more gradualist view of the need for economic policy change, plus nearly all of the right, in being free-market oriented. On the other, left or “progressive” side are Democrats who emphasize various proposals to remake the economic model (including less commitment to free trade), whether or not “socialist” is the correct term or even the term they favor. Think Bernie Sanders and his supporters, as well as some of the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Basically, the point is that there are (at least) two “rights” and two “lefts” but currently only one party on the right and one on the left. And the emergency is that one of the “rights” has abandoned democracy and shown a willingness to accept political violence.
The need for PR is to let the free-market small-d democrats in the currently existing parties act independently of their more extreme wings. This is precisely what PR systems permit–each side’s extreme can be its own party rather than a wing of one majority-seeking party, without raising concerns over “spoilers” that arise under plurality elections.1
As I already conceded, I am oversimplifying a complex political scene for the sake of argument. I also am not going to go into the details of how actual coalitions would work under this stylized latent four-party system that PR would allow to break forth. Both the need for electoral coalitions in single-winner offices (Senator, President, governors), and forging legislative coalitions among these parties in the House, would complicate the flexibility of alliances that one obtains when PR is used to elect a single dominant institution (as in many parliamentary systems). The point is simply that PR offers the best means of generating center-spanning coalitions to control House majority outcomes, in contrast to the current system’s generation of majorities that include a fringe–a nakedly authoritarian fringe in the case of the party most likely to win a majority in 2022 under current rules.
So, we need PR to save democracy. But what kind of PR? I would take any kind over the system we have now! But I think there is one that recommends itself because it is the easiest to implement, for voters to understand, and for election authorities to administer.
A model of open-list PR for the US
I favor open-list PR not because it is the “best” system or my personal favorite. Strong cases can be made for single transferable vote (STV, which is a form of ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts) or for mixed-member proportional (MMP). However, open-list proportional representation (OLPR) best meets the criteria of simplicity in implementation, voting, and administration. My argument for OLPR is inspired partly by my own sense of what is workable, but more largely by a post by Jack Santucci.
It literally could be made our electoral system tomorrow, as follows (I am setting aside the fact that there is a reapportionment and redistricting taking place in 2021-22 in my “tomorrow” scenario). Take 3–5 existing contiguous single-seat districts and merge them into the multi seat districts needed for PR. Thus the proposal is for districts with district magnitude (M) of three to five. (Later I will address states that have fewer than three Representatives.)
Each voter would have one vote for a candidate, just as now, but the ballot would list all the candidates of each party that are running in the larger multiseat district (up to M candidates per list). The initial allocation of seats would be based on summing votes of party candidates nominated to each list, using one of the standard PR allocation rules (I’d favor D’Hondt, but various others could be fine). Then, once each list’s seat total is determined through the application of the PR formula to its collective vote total, its top s vote-earners get the list’s seats (where s is simply the number of seats the list has won). This is standard OLPR, or more formally, it is quasi-list PR, because there is no opportunity to cast a vote for the list as a whole.2
An important question is how to handle nominations to the lists. Personally, I’d prefer to get rid of primaries, as when there is a wider range of choice of both party lists and candidates on those lists, primaries arguably are not needed. However, no proposal that abolishes primaries is likely to fly, politically. I would not let that bog the emergency reform down. I propose embracing ideas that are already out there and being pushed by the independent-politics reformers, such as “top two” and “top four”.
How would this work? One could continue to hold a “primary” in each of the existing single-seat districts; I will now call these nominating districts to distinguish them from the larger general-election districts. The goal here is to avoid making it as unwieldy as it could be if primaries were held in the larger districts to be used in the general election. The first round (call it a primary even though it would stretch the definition thereof) would advance the top c candidates from each nominating district, where c could be four but could be some other number agreed upon.3 Presumably, as is the case in California’s “top two” currently, the candidates themselves would indicate what party they affiliated with on the primary ballot, but use of the label would not be restricted by any central actor in the state (or other level) party.4
Then, between this primary and some date in advance of the general election, let the top cM candidates for the larger general-election district negotiate who goes on whose list and how those lists are branded. The party labels could be ones that are registered in advance of the election (i.e., before the primary) as is currently the case in many states, or it could be left completely open for actors to negotiate between rounds. This is an important detail, but not one I think should be essential to advancing the wider proposal. It could even be a matter of individual states to sort out.
The idea here is that the top-c first round in nominating districts, followed by negotiations over lists for the general, encourages those who have advanced to a slot on the general election ballot to cooperate in order to maximize their seat-winning potential in the OLPR process. At the same time, however, it allows these candidates and their allies to reject anyone who has qualified for a slot on the ballot from being on their list if he or she is too extreme for the brand they want to cultivate.
If general-election lists are restricted to M candidates, then in any case where two or more of the same party have qualified from a given nominating district, one will have to be left off the list, unless there is another nominating district where no candidate of that party qualified. The objective here is not to force any set of candidates to run together. Local actors, including the candidates, decide. They have to balance the supporters that a given candidate can bring with the risk that some candidate drives away other voters in a context in which any given list is likely to win 1 or 2 seats in a three-seat general-election district (or 1–3 in a 5-seat district), rather than 100% of the representation of the single-seat districts, as under the current system. I am not wedded to the various components of this idea, and am completely open to other ideas. The wider point is that there are reformers who dislike parties and there are reformers who want stronger parties. I am looking for a way to thread a narrow needle and build a reform coalition–under emergency conditions.
When coordination fails and candidates who have qualified for a given party exceed M in some district, but they can’t agree on which M get to use the name, what do we do? While I would not normally advocate multiple lists within a party, I’d be willing to allow it to make the idea of lists and PR work. Also, any candidates who, having qualified in the primary, do not find partners to go in together on a list should be free to run as independents.
I should conclude this section by noting that my OLPR proposal is totally severable from my nominating-districts and “top c” proposals. If the latter get in the way of OLPR, I am happy to drop either or both. My ambition is to help make the transition to OLPR politically smoother, by retaining smaller geographic entities as politically meaningful aspects of the implementation of PR (through the nominating districts), and retaining the “bottom up” qualification of general-election candidates that is a hallmark of the current system. The overriding objective is to let different wings of current parties compete separately, outside of a majoritarian context in which splits become spoilers, and general-election candidates are sometimes extremists themselves or are in debt to extremists in their party. Avoiding these pitfalls of the current system is the very essence of PR.
I am assuming this proposal stays within the current 435-member House. There are arguments to be made in favor of increasing the size of the House, but I have my doubts that a larger House is by itself inherently valuable. It certainly is not worth the risk of its becoming a poison pill that prevents PR. If advocates of electoral reform make a larger House seem like a condition of electoral reform, the cause of reform is probably doomed.
With a 435-seat House, and even with any House of reasonably achievable larger size, there will remain states with only one or two members. These states will obviously not be able to have districts that elect 3–5 members apiece. So what? Many PR systems have a few districts with one or two members, even when their national average magnitude is larger. This is not a reason to reject a proposal for reform. States that have one Representative could be encouraged to adopt ranked-choice voting, but should not be required to do so.
I should address why I do not advocate STV as the overall system for the House, given the current fashion in some circles for ranked-choice voting solutions. This is not the place to go into reasons why STV may not be desirable in its own right. It has some strong positive features, but also some negative ones. The biggest negatives are the need for voter education, substantially changed ballot formats, and already overstretched election administrators having to adapt their routines to make the more complex counts work. OLPR allows all of this to be as close to the status quo as possible, while still getting PR.5
What about MMP? I have been known to argue it is a good system. However, absent substantial increase in House size, it has some real drawbacks. The single-seat districts have to become considerably larger geographically for MMP to work with the existing state delegation sizes. (The list tier for MMP in the US surely would be state-by-state, or regions within larger states, not nationwide or otherwise multi-state.) The OLPR proposal that I am advancing here also means larger general-election districts, but has the advantage of having more than one member elected from each of these larger districts, while also retaining the more compact districts for nominations. An additional drawback of MMP in the American national context is in how you implement the list tier. It is either closed lists, which might be politically unpalatable, or it is open lists alongside the two-tier structure, adding a considerable further complication.6
So, no, I have not abandoned my general preference for MMP, nor am I claiming STV is a “bad” system. I simply am arguing that OLPR is a good solution to an immediate emergency for democracy.
We must find a way to prevent a new House majority from being elected in 2022 that is under the effective control of an anti-democratic wing. The voters who prefer a center-right party are not going to vote for the existing Democratic Party as long as they fear (rightly or wrongly) that that party is coming under the control of its own extreme “socialist” wing. Voters need choices that are more moderate, as well as parties that can represent voters with grievances that lead them to reject mainstream politics. What we need to avoid is a mainstream party winning a majority of seats while under the control of its grievance-based authoritarian extreme.
I am under no illusions that this will be easy. I certainly accept that any PR proposal is less likely to pass than likely. It requires more institutionally oriented Republicans to see a clear and present danger from continuing to work within a party that has a strong and undeniable anti-democratic tendency, as well as to believe that tendency is too large to be contained within. It also is not going to be immediately embraced by the Democratic establishment that just won all three elected components of the federal government, and so requires them to realize just how fragile and transient their control is.
Difficult though it is to get this proposal accepted, we are in a situation where an emergency exists for democracy. So let’s get to work!
[Over the years I have done many posts on the idea of adopting proportional representation (of some form) in the US. Please click here and scroll to see them all.]
- Advocates of ranked-choice voting in single-seat districts (also known as the “alternative vote: or “instant runoff”/IRV) will say that their preferred system also avoids the spoiler problem. This is not fully correct. The issue is that this view takes a district-level perspective. The point of PR is to avoid “spoilers” in larger ideological blocs. Getting the same result from IRV requires something approaching uniform distribution of those blocs across districts, or at least for each group within a bloc to have its own local strongholds, so that the parties/factions within a bloc can meaningfully trade preferences. Otherwise, it mostly leads to the same issues as plurality voting, whereby to win, the larger party/faction within the bloc must appeal to voters of the other. The case for IRV in the current emergency would rest on an assumption that, within the right, the authoritarians are the smaller component. If they are not, they will either win from preferences of those on the moderate right, or will potentially win pluralities of the vote when many voters don’t give second preferences. (We can’t be certain that voters for the mainstream center-right will preference a party on the mainstream left. Maybe they will, maybe not.) This brings me to the final issue: IRV advocates tend to overlook that the best case for the system assumes compulsory preferences, which are unlikely to be adopted (and may even be held unconstitutional) in the US. If many voters give only first choices, then IRV is more or less the same as plurality.
- Such an option could be added, but I am trying to keep it as familiar as possible while still getting PR.
- It might be wise to set c to the same value as the general-election M; it certainly should not be much smaller than M.
- I don’t think anything that generates such control over labels is politically palatable in current American politics, even though most political scientists would say it is desirable.
- If the reform included a clause allowing individual states to opt for STV instead of OLPR, I would not object.
- There is also the need to prevent parties from gaming MMP with “dummy” lists. This has been discussed previously on this blog. It can’t be dismissed as a serious problem, and so I’d rather just sidestep it in designing a proportional system for the US in the present moment.