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American democracy is changing right now in important and optimistic ways in red and blue states.
Anger at the lack of choices in the two-party system fueled the ranked-choice voting experiment in reliably Republican Alaska, which pairs with a similar experiment in the liberal haven of New York City. In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Learn about the entire process.
There is ranked-choice voting in Maine. There are nonpartisan primaries in California and technically no primary at all in Louisiana.
While political parties are consolidating their power with redistricting in states where they can – Texas and Illinois, for instance – voters, given the chance, often choose to take power away from the parties.
I talked to Nick Troiano, executive director of the nonprofit Unite America Institute, one of a number of state and national groups pushing to overhaul American democracy by taking control of primaries away from political parties.
Our conversation, conducted by phone and edited for flow, is below.
What’s the problem with primaries and democracy?
WHAT MATTERS: In a nutshell, what’s wrong with the primary system?
TROIANO: I think the primary system is the biggest solvable problem fueling political polarization today. And that’s because:
- First, most of our elections are in safe districts that are effectively decided in primaries.
- Second, turnout in those primaries is very low.
- And third, those who do turn out aren’t very representative of the electorate as a whole.
And so, therefore, candidates and elected officials are rewarded for pandering to their base and punished for reaching across the aisle to solve problems.
Why do nonpartisan primaries help?
WHAT MATTERS: Your group pushes nonpartisan primaries. Why do those solve the problem, if you’re still relying on a small subset of voters in a primary?
TROIANO: Fundamentally, nonpartisan primaries make the general election the election of consequence, when most voters are turning out.
In a system of nonpartisan primaries, every voter gets to participate and cast a ballot that matters, not just those who belong to the majority party in a given state or district.
It gives a lot more power to voters, as well as better choices too.
How do we know these work?
WHAT MATTERS: Is there any hard evidence that these actually cut down on polarization?
TROIANO: Yes, plenty.
Several states have had nonpartisan primaries for a long time, including Louisiana, which doesn’t have primaries, essentially. California, Washington and Nebraska and now most recently, Alaska.
At least one study from USC found that new members of Congress elected under nonpartisan primaries are 18 percentage points less extreme than new members elected under partisan primaries.
The reality is that these reforms take some time not only to implement but to truly affect who runs for office and who gets elected. There is sometimes a delay in us seeing results from the moment of adaption. That’s why I think we’re still learning a lot.
There is still partisanship
WHAT MATTERS: Let’s take the examples there – California and Washington are reliably blue states with mostly Democratic congressional delegations. Nebraska and Alaska are reliably red states with mostly or entirely Republican delegations. We still have the problem, or the reality, of two parties controlling things, right?
TROIANO: Well, I think the Alaska system is an improvement over top two, because it not only advances four candidates to the general election, but it includes ranked-choice voting, which levels the playing field for independent and third-party candidates by eliminating that spoiler effect.
So I would expect to see more competition in the Alaska system versus states that have had other kinds of nonpartisan primaries.
Nationwide, bipartisan movement
WHAT MATTERS: I think a lot of Americans would be kind of surprised that these experiments are going on right now. What is the larger lay of the land? Are there other states moving in this direction?
TROIANO: Yes, there’s a growing movement across the country to solve the primary problem in different ways.
Just within the last year, several states have expanded the use of ranked-choice voting on a bipartisan basis, including Virginia, Colorado and Utah, and other states have opened primaries to independent voters, such as Maine.
In November, Nevada will be the next state to have a ballot initiative with the same Alaska policy of top five primaries and ranked-choice voting.
So there are different flavors of reform bubbling up across the country in recognition that if we truly want to change the outcomes of the political system, we have to reform our elections.
Red states, blue states
WHAT MATTERS: You have real reform happening in a blue state like Maine and a red state like Alaska. It’s happening in California and Utah, which runs counter to the idea that Americans can’t agree on anything.
TROIANO: Exactly. I think this issue can unite Americans left, right and center that they should have the power to choose their representatives – and that their representatives should represent them, not the party bosses or special interests.
And so much like the Progressive Era reforms 100 years ago, I think we’re entering a new era of reimagining what democracy can be in the 21st century.
Recognizing that what we have now not only isn’t working, but it’s actually a threat to the republic, in terms of growing extremism.
Opposition based on power, not party
WHAT MATTERS: The people or entities that stand to lose in this kind of change are political parties. What kind of opposition do these kind of movements run into from the parties?
TROIANO: The good news is that I’d be worried if we were not attracting political opposition – that would mean the status quo isn’t threatened by these reforms.
I think there is bipartisan support and there is bipartisan opposition to reform, and the fault line is not based on party. It’s based on power.
On one hand, you have those who want to protect their power at all costs. And on the other, you have leaders who want to put country over party. And I think the politicians would be smart to know where the voters are on this issue. Because the current system is not sustainable in its current form.
Given the chance, voters choose to change things. Politicians fight them
WHAT MATTERS: It was voters who chose ranked-choice voting in Maine and Alaska, not legislatures. Voters in Maine had to vote for change twice. When voters are given the option to change the system, they take it. But that often the requires overcoming the institutions that have built up around them.
TROIANO: Winning these reforms at the ballot is necessary but not sufficient. The movement needs to remain engaged to protect them as well, because the political establishment will fight tooth and nail to keep its power over a dysfunctional system. But as we’ve seen time and time again, people will ultimately prevail.
What about long waits for results?
WHAT MATTERS: One major gripe with ranked-choice voting in particular – you see the same thing with automatic runoffs in Louisiana and Georgia – is that it takes time to count these votes or wait for the runoff to occur. You don’t have the immediate decision. We see that in Alaska. That was the case in New York, where it took quite a long time to figure out who won the Democratic mayoral primary. Is that a flaw?
TROIANO: The extended post-election counting period in those cases were because those municipalities and states were required to wait a certain length of time to count mail ballots. The actual tabulation for ranked-choice voting happens very quickly, which is why it is also called instant runoff.
And so ranked-choice voting is a much better, faster and cheaper way of holding runoff elections than we see in states that require voters to actually go back to the polls.
Changing the outcome of elections is not the point
WHAT MATTERS: One of the big opponents to ranked-choice voting was then-Gov. Paul LePage of Maine. He won without a clear majority some years ago. Is there another example of an election in recent US history that you think might have had a different outcome under ranked-choice voting?
TROIANO: I think the main purpose of these reforms isn’t necessarily about changing who wins, but in giving every voter an opportunity to fully express themselves and to improve the incentives that our elected leaders have to represent them.
Right now, we only have about 10% of the public electing more than 80% of Congress because of partisan primaries. And that’s what produces a very unaccountable Congress.
The larger effect could be on Congress
WHAT MATERS: Is Congress more important in terms of ranked-choice voting than the presidential election would be?
TROIANO: I think all elections can benefit by ensuring that whoever wins has majority support.
The power of the Alaska reform is that it doesn’t have to exist in all 50 states for it to have a transformative impact on Congress.
Imagine if five more states voted the way Alaska did. That’s 10 more US senators who would be liberated from the grips of party primaries and empowered to put country over party. And that’s a coalition that could truly help address some of the country’s largest challenges in Congress.
The goal is for Congress to represent more of the country
WHAT MATTERS: What is the ideal future for US presidential and congressional elections?
TROIANO: Instead of 10% of the country electing 83% of Congress, the ideal future is that Congress actually represents a majority of Americans so that the public can see their hopes and desires translated into public policy. That’s what democracy is all about.
WHAT MATTERS: What are the specific places to keep an eye on?
TROIANO: I think I touched on Nevada because that’s going to be a significant ballot campaign for November.
I should mention eight municipalities will have ranked-choice voting on the ballot in November as well, including Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. There are many legislative campaigns underway, whether for reforms like ranked-choice voting or open primaries across the country.
How did this start?
WHAT MATTERS: Is there a tipping point in recent history or some moment that you can point to when these reforms started happening more quickly?
TROIANO: We’re giving an award to (former) Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger in the coming weeks, and recognizing the 10-year anniversary of passing both redistricting reform and nonpartisan primaries in the largest state in the country, California.
And I think Gov. Schwarzenegger was ahead of his time in seeing growing political polarization and knowing that part of his legacy was going to be solving that in a generational way.
Primary reform and redistricting reform in California a decade ago proved that even the hardest reforms can pass in the biggest states, and others have followed suit. Ranked-choice voting passed in 2016 in Maine, and the combination of nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting passed in Alaska in 2020. And now we’re seeing an accelerating movement.
I can’t help but draw the parallel again to the Progressive Era a century ago. Direct primaries were invented in 1904 in Wisconsin, and within four years, a majority of states adopted them. So there’s historical precedent for the notion that a proof of concept can be established in one state and spread like wildfire once people realize its true value.