Election Science
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Election Science

Ending Two-Party Domination in the USA

Election reformers have seen a lot of ideas go viral in recent years, such as the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter. We know that voting reform would do more to actually fix the systemic problems at the heart of those movements, yet it barely registers in the public dialog and has yet to galvanize a true movement. I believe that movement might be possible, if only we election reformers can hone in on a clear and provocative message.

FairVote began as Citizens for Proportional Representation. Proportional representation is a clear idea but still not in most people’s lexicon. They then became Citizens for Voting and Democracy. Easier to understand, but also vague. Then they ultimately settled on FairVote. Catchy, although you have to really understand what they do; the name doesn’t really tell you much.

Center for Election Science decided to make it all about the “science of democracy”. Game theory and all that esoteric stuff. Very much important and needed, but not exactly resonant.

The Equal Vote Coalition centered on the idea of equal (symmetrical) voting methods, which generally means cardinal voting methods. Although technically their criterion applies to Borda! And this symmetry criterion is still essentially esoteric voting theory. It’s not catching fire.

Lighting a Fire

I believe it may be time for something more…bold. According to a February 2021 article by Gallup, support for a third party is at a high point, with 62% of Americans saying a third party is needed, up from 57% in September 2020. And the figure was 63% among Republicans.

This naturally leads to the question: is escaping the two-party system a potential galvanizing focal point for the electoral reform movement?

Gallup — https://news.gallup.com/poll/329639/support-third-political-party-high-point.aspx
Gallup — https://news.gallup.com/poll/329639/support-third-political-party-high-point.aspx

Playing Nice

Since FairVote kicked off the modern electoral reform movement in the early 1990s, reformers have generally been careful to present themselves as “civil society” organizations, working to promote broadly positive values such as fairness and inclusivity. They have assiduously avoided confrontational language that might raise the hackles of the partisan elected officials with whom they seek productive working relationships. While this may have maximized their fundraising success with institutions such as the MacArthur Foundation, it’s unfortunately not resonating at the grass roots level. Consider these Twitter metrics for instance.

@5starvoting 1,406 Followers
@ElectionScience 3,231 Followers
@fairvote 26,000 Followers
@womensmarch 623,000 Followers
@NORML 304.8K Followers (marijuana policy reform)
@HRC 834.2K Followers (Human Rights Campaign—LGBTQ rights)

If we want to create a movement as transformative as marijuana decriminalization or gay marriage have been in the past decade, this trajectory is not going to cut it. We need more traction.

Simple Ideas

I suspect the major cause of this mismatch, between impact and popular support, has a lot to do with the simplicity and clarity of the core idea. Voting reform is foundational. It is a few steps removed from its ultimate impact on policy, and because it affects every policy, it cannot be specifically connected to any single policy. It is abstract.

In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek says:

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

This is us in the context of entrepreneurship, but the same principle applies to building movements. The specific mechanistic changes championed by voting reformers are the what. But in order to excite people, we need to focus on the higher level why. Sinek tells us that we connect these with the how. For voting reform, the primary answer to that seems to be via the ballot initiative.

There are a lot of potential answers to this question of why, but the most powerful will tend to be those which are specific and clear. This has clearly started to click with the proportional representation crowd in at least one instance. The group Represent Women, apparently an offshoot of FairVote, specifically promotes proportional representation as the salve to underrepresentation of women in congress and other political bodies. While it is as of yet not clear that this specific vision resonates strongly enough with enough people to build a robust viral movement, this clarity of why is precisely what I’m getting at.

Duopoly: The Ultimate Why

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson encourage entrepreneurs to pick a fight. The point is not to be negative, it’s simply that effective movements tend to thrive on a clearly defined objective, particularly one that can be cast in adversarial terms. The why is even more powerful when it feels like an injustice. Lack of women’s representation, for example, is certainly an injustice—but it’s one of degree. Women make up just over a quarter of all members of the 117th Congress. Whereas when women couldn’t even vote, that was an all-or-nothing proposition, which understandably led to the women’s suffrage movement. An outright prohibition was a clearly defined adversary.

Two-party domination on the other hand, while not absolute (third party and independent candidates do occasionally win an election), may be a sufficiently bright line to serve as the ultimate adversary and thus the ultimate why for the voting reform movement, particularly the specific niche that is alternative voting methods. It is simple. It is clear. But it also happens to point to a specific strategy that is in line with the more esoteric lines of reasoning around game theory and utilitarian welfare maximization. Namely, to expand the use of cardinal (score/rated) voting methods. This is because ranked voting methods won’t escape duopoly.

PRISM: Free the Political Spectrum

I thus invoke the concept of a prism, as a metaphor for the splitting of our big tent political parties into smaller more focused parties.

Photo by John Anvik on Unsplash

Why should Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren be squeezed into the same party as Joe Manchin. Why are Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney in the same party as Donald Trump? If you believe voters need a greater menu of clear options, then it makes sense to free the political spectrum.

I propose a grassroots organization, possibly called PRISM, (or perhaps Beyond Two Parties, or even simply Beyond Two or Beyond 2 or Beyond2) solely devoted to the dismantling of the two-party system. (Initially Prism, it has been cheekily proposed as an acronym for Political Reform Institute for Systemic Modernization by one activist, hence uppercase PRISM.) The strategy would be relatively straightforward:

  1. Advocate for any of the general class of voting methods which both: a) incentivize voters to support candidates they like, without regard to electability/viability, and b) transparently reveal the support for all candidates, even those who do not win. (Note: this explicitly excludes IRV and ranked voting methods in general.)
  2. Coordinate fundraising and logistics for ballot measures to advance any of these methods, openly and without particular bias for any of them.
  3. Leverage the ensuing diminution of political parties to advance modern systems of proportional representation which are compatible with (play nicely with) those single-winner reforms. This nominally includes Reweighted Range Voting as well as several other options, but must be generally thought of as a further out strategy, given how difficult PR is in the current political context.

I believe that by explicitly stating the clear and tangible goals of ending two-party domination and (longer-term) proportional representation, there is a greater chance for building a broad grassroots movement, as well as having our criticisms of IRV taken more seriously. If you have thoughts and/or would like to be a founding member of such an initiative, please reach out to me.



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Clay Shentrup

advocate of score voting and approval voting. software engineer.