voting booth the point

Editor’s Note: Katherine M. Gehl is a former CEO and the originator of “Politics Industry Theory,” which applies the lens of industry competition to the American political system. She is the designer of “Final-Five Voting,” an electoral reform that combines open, top-five primaries with instant-runoff voting in general elections, and the co-author of “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

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Congress just passed another enormously consequential piece of legislation – the American Rescue Plan Act – and, yet again, they did so along party lines. This time it was done by the Democrats, with a Covid-19 recovery package constructed with limited input from the opposition and fast-tracked thanks to an arcane procedural process. In 2017, it was the Republicans who did the same thing with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Katherine Gehl

In today’s political reality, the alternatives to hyper-partisan lawmaking are not negotiation or compromise, but rather gridlock and inaction.

It wasn’t always like this. Monumental reforms like the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Medicare and Medicaid Act in 1965 were passed with significant support from members of both parties. But strong, sustainable bipartisan legislation is mostly a thing of the past.

The problem is not that there are too many conservatives or too many progressives or too few moderates in Congress. The problem is the incentives that drive members of Congress, and those incentives often boil down to one imperative: winning their party’s next primary election. Since so many seats in Congress are “safe” for one party or the other – approximately 86% of House districts are solidly Democratic or Republican – the primary has, in most cases, become the determinative election (and the subsequent general election has become little more than a rubber stamp).

And because these primaries have devolved into low-turnout affairs dominated by highly ideological voters, they become tests of fealty to these small bands of gatekeepers, not the broader electorate. This may be the most powerful structural determinant of legislator behavior – and not in a good way.

Once just a noun, “primary” has become the most powerful verb in American politics. The threat of getting “primaried” is wielded early and often by party leaders to keep their conferences in line. Republicans who have challenged the GOP’s new orthodoxy are racking up primary threats as fast as you can refresh Twitter. Across the aisle, the progressive left attacks fellow Democrats who seek compromise.

And the truth is it doesn’t even take threats, much less verified primary challengers, to effectively pressure congressional Republicans and Democrats further to the right and left – so far apart that they can’t risk working together. The pressure of the primary is baked into the calculus of almost every decision they make.

Imagine you’re a member of Congress. In front of you sits a bipartisan bill on an important national issue. You inspect the fundamentals and weigh them against the objective needs of your constituents and the country at large, right?

Wrong. Instead, you likely ask yourself: Could I lose my next party primary if I vote for this cross-party effort? The answer, for Democrats and Republicans alike, is often yes. Party primaries create a proverbial “eye of the needle” through which few problem-solving politicians can pass.

This dilemma has resulted in some states experimenting with alternatives to party primaries. For example, in 2010, after a successful ballot measure, California abandoned party primaries for all congressional races, and for all other elections except for president, county central committees and local offices. This reform substituted open, nonpartisan primaries in which the top two candidates advance to the general election.

While California offers evidence that reform is possible, its model has fallen short of many of its goals. Allowing for only two candidates in the general election still limits voter choice and creates little opportunity for new challengers, especially if they come from outside the established parties. This system can also lead to enough vote splitting on either side that, for example, two Republicans can end up competing for a primarily Democratic Congressional district, as happened in California’s 31st district election in 2012, or vice versa.

The better, cross-partisan solution is what I call “Final-Five Voting” (FFV), which involves two targeted innovations in our elections for Congress.

First, we get rid of those party primaries in which you vote only in the Democratic primary or the Republican primary. Instead, when you vote in the primary, there’s only one ballot, which includes all the candidates running – regardless of party status. When the votes are counted, the top five finishers advance to the general election – again, regardless of party. This change eliminates the eye-of-the-needle party primary problem and allows legislators more leeway to legislate in the public interest.

Second, we replace plurality voting (i.e., whoever gets the most votes, wins) with instant runoff voting in the general election. Having the healthy competition of five candidates is ideal, but we wouldn’t want to inadvertently elect one of the five candidates with only 21% of the vote if, for example, the vote split almost equally five ways.

Instant runoff voting eliminates that possibility by allowing voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. In each round of vote tallying, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their first-choice votes are transferred to their voters’ second-choice candidates, and so on until one candidate secures more than 50% of the vote.

The most important benefit of instant runoff voting is that it opens the possibility of new competition. By eliminating the possibility that a vote for certain candidates could be wasted or could spoil the race, it opens the system to new, dynamic competitors.

The purpose of FFV is not necessarily to change who wins, but to change what the winners are incentivized to do. The message to Congress is do your job or lose your job. Innovate, reach across the aisle whenever it’s helpful and come up with real solutions to our problems. Represent a broader swath of your district – not just the thin layer of polarized party-primary voters – or you can expect healthy competition in your next general election.

And given that nearly 30% of registered voters in states that require registration are now independents, the candidate who can successfully run on practical accomplishments rather than just their party label will be at an advantage in many states and districts.

And the best part? FFV is as achievable as it is powerful – and we’re starting to see proof.

In 2017, I published a Harvard Business School report with Professor Michael Porter that addressed the unhealthy competition in politics created by party primaries and plurality voting, and first proposed this combination of open primaries and instant runoff general elections. The report made its way to Alaska and to Republican political operative Scott Kendall, who had worked for both Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and independent former Gov. Bill Walker. Inspired, Kendall wrote a bold ballot initiative around Final-Four Voting, a close sibling to Final-Five.

It passed. No more party primaries in Alaska.

The effect is already evident. As one of only two US senators in the country with virtual immunity against getting primaried, Murkowski has been empowered to chart an independent course, speak out early and forcefully against the Capitol building insurrection and vote to convict former President Donald Trump in his Senate impeachment trial. One does not have to agree with Murkowski’s politics to see the benefits of eliminating the party primary – among them freedom from the tyranny of the extreme wings of both parties.

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    Murkowski doesn’t need to be alone for long. If just four more states rid themselves of party primaries and plurality voting – through legislation or ballot measures – and send delegations to Washington, DC, who are elected through FFV, we’d immediately have 10 senators and dozens of representatives who could serve as a new, vital fulcrum bucking the binary, zero-sum stranglehold on governing.

    To paraphrase James Carville’s admonition to former President Bill Clinton campaign’s in 1992, “It’s the primary, stupid!” Once we fix this systemic problem, Congress will be incentivized to address our common challenges – together. While there may be no guarantee Congress solves our problems, FFV ends the guarantee they won’t.