Our political dysfunction seems to be getting more dire by the day. The House remains rudderless without a speaker as crises rage in Israel and Ukraine, and we again barrel toward a potential government shutdown in just four weeks.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. While some aspects of our polarised culture will take years to change, one of the most important can be fixed immediately – changing the electoral incentives that push our politicians away from compromise and toward the extremes.
A common-sense solution that is already showing promise is ranked choice voting (RCV), as used for elections in Maine and Alaska – not coincidentally, home to the two most bipartisan delegations in Congress, according to the Lugar Center.
Here’s the problem: After decades of lazer-focused partisan gerrymandering and increased “sorting” of Americans into politically uniform communities (think rural red areas or liberal blue ones), over 90 per cent of seats in the House of Representatives are so one-sided that the election is effectively decided in party primaries.
And in most states, candidates don’t even need to win a majority in their own party primary. Candidates routinely win crowded primaries with way less than 50 per cent of the vote by attacking their opponents and revving up a narrow (and often extreme) base.
Candidates routinely win crowded primaries with way less than 50 per cent of the vote by attacking their opponents and revving up a narrow (and often extreme) base.
Matt Gaetz, who nearly caused a government shutdown just two weeks ago before re-focusing his efforts on removing then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, first won his deep-red seat with just 36% of the vote in a crowded, low-turnout summer GOP primary. Almost two-thirds of Republican voters wanted someone else.
A shift to RCV primaries would flip the incentives for politicians like Gaetz. With RCV, candidates need the support of a majority of voters to win, something that’s difficult to do by just pandering (and governing) to the extremes. Gov. Glenn Youngkin – a conservative able to appeal to moderate voters – won this way when Virginia’s Republican primaries switched to RCV in 2021.
It’s not just congressional elections where ranked choice voting could be a helpful lever against extremism and gridlock. If ranked choice voting were used to elect the House speaker, much of the current cycle of chaos and concession might have been avoided.
It might not solve all the infighting within the factions of the Republican Party. But in both the Republican caucus vote to nominate their party’s speaker candidate and the full House election of the Speaker, RCV would identify a majority winner without rewarding the loudest and most intransigent holdouts.
Contrast what’s playing out in Congress with examples from Maine and Alaska, which have reformed their elections with ranked choice voting. Our joint research suggests that Maine’s use of RCV has led to its Democratic congressman, Jared Golden, co-sponsoring more bipartisan bills. While Gaetz and McCarthy bickered through September, Golden introduced the “Bipartisan Keep America Open” Act – which would have kept the government open for three months, continued funding to Ukraine, and strengthened border security.
Maine’s use of ranked choice voting has led to its Democratic congressman, Jared Golden, co-sponsoring more bipartisan bills.
And in a more transformative version of the reform, Alaska pairs RCV with a nonpartisan blanket primary. Everyone runs on the same primary ballot, and the top four candidates move on to face the larger and more representative electorate in November. In this system, candidates don’t need to win just a majority of their party’s voters – they need to win a majority of all voters.
What were the results after Alaska used this system for the first time in 2022? In both the state House and Senate, legislators formed bipartisan coalitions. The legislature passed a bipartisan budget this spring with little drama. Republicans didn’t get everything they wanted; neither did Democrats. The speaker of the Alaska House was not deposed.
It’s a level of government function that Congress could only dream of. Research from one of us, Ben Reilly, suggests that Alaska’s election system played a big role in incentivizing this year’s budget compromise (which will run the full fiscal year rather than a six-week stopgap at the whim of a yet-to-be-named speaker).
Ultimately, RCV is showing promising signs of reducing the exact partisan rancor and extremism that have brought Congress to its knees. Reformers – and members of Congress – would be wise to look north to Maine or west to Alaska.
For the House of Representatives, there is nowhere to go but up. Ranked choice voting would be a good place to start.