Like most Americans, I grew up with the comforting illusion that our democracy and electoral system worked fairly well. The 2016 election not only shattered that illusion, but also sparked curiosity about what was wrong and how it might be fixed. I had just published a book that included a chapter on why humans are vulnerable to leaders of religious cults—a pattern I had also seen in the rise of Donald Trump. I wrote a few articles on this, one of which led me to an unexpected and rewarding friendship with Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player and amateur mathematician who had studied voting algorithms in college. I read his short but dense book on the subject, and suddenly many flaws in our electoral system became obvious. I was convinced that insights from science and math could help fix our broken democracy. I wrote more blog posts about this, but they have mostly languished in obscurity.
As we approach the 2020 primary and general elections, I thought I should collect in one place a summary of my thoughts on electoral reform, along with links to previous posts on the subject. I’ve been studying promising algorithms for turning a stack of ballots into a decision that truly and fairly represents the will of the voters. For about the last six months, I’ve also been working on a long article that ties the main ideas together and incorporates some new ones, with the hope that a prominent publication might want it. I’ve not yet found any takers, so for now this post must suffice.
- Our electoral system does not reflect the will of the majority. It doesn’t even come close. Most Americans have a vague idea that the electoral college introduces some distortions, but the problem is far worse than that and extends well beyond the electoral college and presidential elections.
- This is not a partisan issue. The flaws in our electoral system hurt all citizens by corroding democracy and undermining the responsiveness and legitimacy of government.
- Electoral defects breed polarization. We rightly lament the extreme political polarization that now paralyzes our government and poisons the national conversation on real and serious problems that need solving, yet we seem blind to the way our broken electoral system divides us into warring tribes.
- The primary defect in American democracy is the primary system. The nomination process is far more important than the general election, yet most voters assume the opposite. Primaries are characterized by low turnout dominated by ideologues, staggered elections (in the case of presidential primaries), and first-past-the-post selection from a large field of contenders. These defects all conspire to put unqualified candidates on the general election ballot. The primary system cannot be reformed. It must be abolished.
- The most widely touted mechanism for eliminating the primaries—instant runoff voting—is fatally flawed. Instant runoff elections begin with ranked choice voting, which is a good idea and an essential part of the solution, but the instant runoff way of picking a winner from the ranked choice ballots is defective. The problem is that instant runoff ignores most of the voters’ preferences when it rejects a candidate.
- There are good voting algorithms we should be using. The right way to eliminate the primaries is to replace them with a single general election that uses ranked choice voting, coupled with a robust algorithm for choosing the winner. If possible, the winner should be the candidate who would defeat all other contenders in all possible pairwise contests. If no candidate meets that criterion, then the algorithm must choose the one who comes closest to meeting it. There are several good algorithms for doing this, but instant runoff isn’t one of them.
- Presidential elections are not the only problem. There are glaring defects in the way we choose Congressional representatives, the worst being winner-take-all voting in single-seat Congressional districts. Gerrymandering is a minor problem by comparison, but one that can and should be fixed. Also, there are better ways for choosing vice presidents and Supreme Court justices.
- Political parties must be allowed to rise, evolve, and go extinct. The stranglehold of the two major parties must be broken. We need a system in which third party candidates have a real chance of winning if voters sincerely prefer them. Minor parties must be able to evolve into major ones. Ossified and unresponsive parties must be vulnerable to extinction. Properly implemented, ranked choice voting provides this degree of evolvability.
- We can get there from here. The hurdles to electoral reform are not as great as commonly assumed. Contrary to popular belief, the electoral college can be effectively eliminated without a Constitutional amendment. The same is true for most of the primary system and for single-seat Congressional districts. Although the complete elimination of presidential primaries will ultimately require a Constitutional amendment, there is a realistic pathway of intermediate reforms that can take us there.
Blog Posts On Electoral Reform
Podcast Interview on Electoral Reform
Blog Posts On the Trump Phenomenon
Danny Kleinman’s book. Danny’s book, One Man, One Vote: A Ballot for Americans, is a short, concise, and mind-stretching read on electoral reform. He goes into much greater depth and mathematical detail than I have in my writings on the subject. To buy a copy in PDF form, contact him directly at this address:
I also highly recommend this video by Represent.Us. Although the video doesn’t discuss ranked choice voting in any detail, the algorithm they are advocating here is almost certainly the fatally flawed instant runoff method.Unbreaking America: A NEW Short Film about Solving the Corruption Crisis Share this: