By Rob Richie
Backers of a multi-party politics independent of the two-party system often assume that the major parties will oppose any reforms that encourage more voter choice.You will hear the same argument from people who despair about achieving any major changes in voting rules. They resort to the common refrain “why would people elected by one set of rules ever support new ones?”
But our history is replete with examples of those elected by one set of rules backing change. The key is context – and being ready to seize the day and build a winning coalition when a reform opportunity presents itself.
Consider our history of suffrage expansion. Initially, an overwhelming majority of Americans were blocked from participation – nearly all women, people of color, teenagers and people without property and multi-year residency. But leaders elected by a smaller electorate repeatedly acted to expand suffrage, including constitutional amendments extending suffrage to African Americans (the 15th amendment), women (19th amendment) and 18-year-olds (26th amendment).
The U.S. Senate backed a constitutional amendment to require all senators to be elected. Congress adopted campaign finance reform. Southern Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to protect African American voting rights. Many states have reduced barriers to ballot access, and major party nominees for Congress and governor have welcomed third parties to debates.
Rather than dismiss chances for reform or believe that change is only possible by initiative, third party reformers must be ready to build winning coalitions with major party backers. Current examples of what’s possible include the movement for ranked choice voting in Maine and the growing chance to replace winner-take-all elections for Congress.
Maine has had strong independent politics for decades. Of the last 10 gubernatorial elections, a major party nominee has only once won with more than 50%. Three of the past five elections have been won with less than 40% — one each by an independent, Democrat and Republican. Paul LePage’s 37.6% win in 2010 was particularly controversial, as he clearly would have lost badly in a match-up with second-place finisher Eliot Cutler.
In 2012, independent Angus King was elected to the U.S. Senate, with the Democrat again finishing a weak third.
Looking to the 2014 governor’s race, Republican LePage, independent Cutler and a Democrat are all expected to run. Polls show that LePage would lose badly to either Cutler or a Democrat, but wins with a plurality vote against both of them. These conditions create a perfect storm for support for ranked choice voting (RCV), the instant runoff system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice and use those rankings to simulate a runoff between the top two candidates. RCV gives voters the chance to vote for their sincere first choice and still help a lesser choice defeat their last choice.
Of great interest to third parties wanting to escape the “spoiler” epithet, adoption of RCV for governor has drawn the backing of more than 40 Maine state legislators, including Democrats, independents and Republicans. If the governor vetoes the bill, a measure could be put on the ballot by a coalition of insiders and outsiders ready to work together to improve elections for all Mainers.
Nationally, there’s a similar dynamic in replacing winner-take all voting rules for electing Congress. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Congress can pass a simple statute to establish fair voting systems of proportional representation for congressional elections. Winner-take-all, single-member districts are no more the historic norm than having 435 House seats.
What we need is the political will to replace the thoroughly discredited status quo with rules that give every voter a meaningful vote in every election – and that leave few voters stuck with representation from only one party. Fair Vote presents plans for all 50 states in an interactive map at Fair Voting. US, with associated fact sheets and analyses describing the impact and legality of reform. Skeptics should remember the lessons of our own history—and the fact that even though hardly anyone in 1985 thought the people of South Africa and Eastern Europe had any chance of throwing off the chains of dictatorship, within a decade their nations all held democratic elections.
For replacing winner-take-all elections for Congress, potential allies include:
Democrats: In 2012, Democratic House candidates won more votes than Republicans and had an underlying voter preference of some four percentage points. But they won only 46% of seats, and likely needed a ten percentage point edge to earn a simple majority.
Democrats had been victimized by gerrymandering in several states, but their real problem is structural: Democratic voters today are more concentrated in urban areas, and even “fair” redistricting done by commissions would leave Republicans with a significant edge.
Republicans: House Republicans may benefit in the short term from winner-take-all rules, but their party does not. Since their 1994 takeover of the House, Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once – George Bush’s narrow re-election in 2004. In 2012 they lost badly to a weakened Barack Obama and won fewer U.S. Senate seats than any major party a half century. Defined by House leaders who in turn are shaped by their strong holds, Republicans are unlikely to become a majority party again until able to run and win across the country, with a more representative mix of winners.
The discontented center: Single-member districts result in a highly partisan House –with every Democrat now to the left of every Republican. While many in Washington wish for representatives able to build bridges between the major parties, they fail to see that the bridge has been washed away by winner take all voting rules. With the public seeing each party as quite distinct, it is nearly impossible today to win in a district leaning toward the other party – but it is precisely those Members who used to help Congress get things done.
Under-represented constituencies such as third parties, women and people of color: The share of the electorate registering to vote outside the major parties keeps growing, but has almost no representation in Congress. More than 80% of Congress is men, with little progress for women for two decades. People of color are bumping up against a winner-take-all election ceiling that caps representation — and even that representation is at risk if the Supreme Court weakens the Voting Rights Act.
All these constituencies have a common interest: having a chance for the left, center and right in all parts of each state to earn fair representation – something that would happen with even modest forms off air voting in larger districts. In a fair voting election for Connecticut’s five House seats, for example, a candidate would win with the strong backing of 17% of voters. Just as in the opportunity to win RCV in Maine, building a reform coalition will take smarts – and realizing that prophecies of failure are self-fulfilling.It’s time to think big, find allies and win real reform to take action when the political opportunity arises, as it inevitably will.
Rob Richie has directed Fair Vote since 1992. His office is in Takoma Park, Maryland. He is co-author of Whose Votes Count. He is a guest on many national media including NPR, C-SPAN, NBC News, CNN, and FOX. Rob has been a speaker at the American Political Science Association conventions, National Latino Congresso, and the national Conference of State Legislatures. He and his wife Cynthia Terrell live with their three children in Takoma Park.