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Election 2020

Principles of democratic reform on the ballot in 2020

What to watch for Election Night

There are many election reform measures today. Some deal with redistricting, others with campaign finance, and Daniel Nichanian gives a comprehensive list. A ranked-choice-voting-specific list is here. My focus in this post is on competing principles —with respect to minority representation and the role of parties in electoral politics — and how they are playing out in four major ballot measures.

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

These competing principles relate to competing visions for U.S. House elections. By now, many readers know how ranked-choice voting (RCV) works. In a single-seat election, it is the Alternative Vote (AV). In a multi-seat election, it is the single transferable vote (STV). I will not go into hyper-specifics. AV is winner-take-all, in that the winner (one) takes all seats (one). STV uses multi-seat districts. It might lead to more parties, or at least to factional politics.

I am reluctant to “make meaning” of four ballot measures, but it is common to do just that in designing later reforms.

Minority representation and the single transferable vote

Albany (CA) will vote on Measure BB, which would apply STV to a five-seat city council, now elected at-large. STV is a candidate-based form of proportional representation — the only type that works with nonpartisan elections. Measure BB essentially asks voters whether STV is a good way to have minority representation.

In the case of a city with at-large elections, the usual strategy has been to go to single-seat districts. This remedy falters when a group is too small, or when it is too geographically dispersed. STV does not guarantee solutions to those problems — voting behavior matters, as do other aspects of the rules — but other “alternative” electoral systems have had good records.

If BB passes, Albany would be third city to adopt STV with an eye to improving minority representation. The others are Eastpointe (MI) and Palm Desert (CA). Earlier efforts have not been successful: Lowell (MA) in 2009 and 2019; Cincinnati in 2008, 1991, and 1988. There may have been others that I do not remember.

Primary reform — parties or not?

Two states are voting on the Alternative Vote (AV), commonly known as single-seat ranked-choice voting (RCV). The states are Massachusetts and Alaska. A third state, Florida, is voting on what we might call a “nonpartisan two-round system.” Some call it “open primaries.” Others call it “top two.”

Digression: Massachusetts would not apply AV to presidential general elections. Alaska would, and Maine does.

Massachusetts Question 2 mirrors what some are calling the “Maine model.” Broadly, it calls for competition among parties. Maine passed AV in November 2016, then again in June 2018, and has seen the system repeatedly challenged in court. The “Maine model” uses AV for party primaries, permitting each party to advance a slate to the general election. Then AV is used to decide among party slates (which, in a single-seat race, become “nominees”).

Another model aims for competition among candidates, who may come from the same party, or from no party at all. Amendment 3 in Florida would set up a “top two” system, reminiscent of what exists in California (since 2010), Washington (since 2004), then Louisiana (on and off but mostly on since 1975) and Nebraska (since 1934). In Alaska, Measure 2 would use AV in a second-round-runoff among the top four candidates from the first round. Note that these states use (or would use) nonpartisan-two-round for different sets of offices. Such two-round systems were common in Western Europe, before the emergence of mass parties.

Another conceivable model, present in some local governments, is a single-round AV election with nomination by petition.

This is where I get in trouble for glossing over key details. Others know more about the inner workings of what I have lumped into “nonpartisan two-round systems.” Christian Grose, Seth Masket, Eric McGhee, and others have researched these systems explicitly. Further, in evaluating specific proposals, one should consider whatever primary rules already exist, as reform may or may not be that a big departure. In Massachusetts, for example, unaffiliated voters can choose whatever primary they want. The same goes for Maine. In Alaska, current rules vary by office and party.

My point is that, as a principle, competition-among-candidates takes us in the direction of dispensing with parties— either as agents of nomination, or as sources of cues to voters. In Alaska, for example, candidates would decide what party label appears by their name on the ballot. In Florida, by contrast, anyone might self-nominate, but the party would decide whether some candidate may use its label. (The Florida measure leaves this matter to a separate state law.) I do not know off the top of my head what rules obtain in Louisiana. Nebraska, of course, has not had party labels on state-legislative ballots for decades.

Therefore, Alaska and Florida, where the focus is on parties, may have more in common than Alaska and Massachusetts, where the focus is on ranked voting qua AV. Albany, meanwhile, may tell us about prospects for STV.

From principles to sausage

How might competing principles get resolved, especially (but not only) in a push to reform Congress?

One option is the “Maine’’ model, essentially using AV to reinforce two-party politics. Another option is AV with a weak-parties model. A third option is “nonpartisan two-round,” which Florida will consider in 2022. Others may have views on how either (or both) would affect Congress and/or the sorts of people elected to it. My sense is that, in either, the main goal would be “to set up the best possible second round.”

The other options are STV, with or without weakened parties. Weak-parties STV might be easier to win, especially when people on both sides dislike their parties, but we would have been there before.



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Jack Santucci

Jack Santucci


Political scientist at Drexel University. American party politics and electoral reform.