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How Democracy Dies at the Ballot Box

Getting elections right in the face of a pandemic—and a partisan meltdown

On Saturday, April 4, Wisconsin Republican state lawmakers gaveled in a special legislative session. Seconds later, they gaveled the session to a close. With the Covid-19 pandemic rapidly spreading, Democratic Governor Tony Evers had called the special session to postpone the scheduled April 7 spring election and switch to all-mail balloting. State Republicans wanted to go ahead, risk be damned. A state Supreme Court seat was up for grabs. If they could keep turnout low, they figured, they would have a better chance at holding the seat. After some last-minute litigation, the election went on as scheduled.


The gambit failed. Maybe it even backfired, motivating Democratic turnout. The liberal challenger in the state court race, Jill Karofsky, defeated the conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly, 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent, narrowing the Republicans’ advantage on the state Supreme Court to 4–3. Democratic voters took to the mail to vote, via Wisconsin’s no-excuse absentee ballot system, at much greater rates than their Republican counterparts. Turnout was very high for a spring election.


Perhaps the outcome of the bitterly contested race was an encouraging sign for Democrats. Even as GOP state legislators risked public health to limit turnout, Democrats could still win in a crucial swing state. Or maybe it was a discouraging harbinger of a chaotic and disputed November election to come—one in which the future of the country will not be fought over competing ideas and visions of the common good, but will hinge instead on gnat-straining procedural disputes over voting rules, with partisan legislators, lawyers, and judges playing a disproportionate role. In this grimmer version of democracy, one party (the Republicans) deliberately let voting be difficult and even dangerous, especially for those most likely to vote for the other party, as the price of victory. In this view of things, the April balloting in Wisconsin was yet another example of the kind of hyper-partisan calculus that now threatens the foundational definition of modern democracy—free and fair elections.


This final point poses a dark dilemma. In a healthy democracy, voting should be straightforward, fair, and equal. Any such system would make every effort to ensure that all parties should believe enough in their ideas to think that the more people participated, the better they would do. But what happens when only one party acts this way? In theory, the answer should be simple: That party should fight like hell to secure and sustain a democracy in which everybody can vote. In reality, though, it’s not so simple. The electoral rules are already stacked in such a way to make it difficult for Democrats to gain enough power to definitively change them—and as the stakes become higher, the fights over voting are destroying the shared sense of electoral legitimacy at the foundation of American democracy. Maybe we need not only to think about who is allowed to vote, but also to take a close look at just how we vote altogether.


It’s already clear that the 2020 election will be unlike any other in American history. Covid-19 is almost certain to linger well into November—which means that the share of Americans mailing their ballot, rather than casting it in person, will likely far eclipse the standing record of 22 percent ballots cast by mail or absentee ballot in 2018. This transition can be either relatively smooth and fair, or bumpy and unequal. Much depends on the political decisions that governors and legislators make. Should everyone get a ballot mailed automatically to them—or at least an application? Should the state pay the postage? Can election administrators act fast enough to ensure there are enough ballots printed for everyone who requests them? These shouldn’t be partisan decisions. But they already are.


Before 2020, voting by mail was not an especially partisan issue, in large part because it wasn’t really a national issue. Both blue and red states had been steadily making it easier to vote by mail, and countless academic studies had shown that the practice created no clear advantage for either major party. Among the states that had recently transitioned to all-mail voting was the solidly conservative Utah.


But in short order, President Donald Trump turned it partisan, echoing long-standing Republican talking points that any voting change making it easier to participate is bad for Republicans: “For whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” Trump tweeted in early April, urging Republicans to “fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting.”


“Mail ballots, they cheat. Okay, people cheat,” Trump said. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they are cheaters.” Who knows whether Trump believed this any more than the many other fables of mythic voter fraud he’s used to rile up his base? As in all matters Trump, questions of the empirical are irrelevant; as he had done when anticipating an adverse result in the 2016 election, Trump was likely summoning the sinister specter of unchecked voter fraud to set up a potential post-electoral protest. But regardless of the president’s intent, his outburst had a measurable impact on opinion on the question of voting by mail. Polls conducted at the time of his remarks showed a widening partisan gap over the practice. One survey found that 87 percent of Democrats thought any voter should be allowed to vote by mail if he or she wanted to; just 49 percent of Republican respondents held the same view. Never mind that Trump himself has twice previously voted by mail—just another inconvenient truth. Nothing to see here.


The first major national fight over the effort to expand voting by mail (or at least, ensure that states had the resources to do so) in time for the 2020 general election landed where all Democratic-approved legislation has during the past 18 months: in the black hole known as the U.S. Senate, under the direction of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As Congress raced to put together a stimulus bill in late March, voting experts urged lawmakers to set aside at least $2 billion to help states and local governments upgrade and prepare for a massive increase in voting by mail, as well as expanded early voting initiatives. This outlay included costs of printing ballots, mailing ballots, and securing and speeding the process through high-tech signature verification technology and dedicated drop boxes, among other safeguards. Democrats proposed $4 billion. Congress appropriated a mere $400 million, leaving states scrambling. McConnell said he opposed the “federalization” of elections: “The federal government is not going to take over the way we do elections,” McConnell said in an interview. “They’re done at the state and local level and every state is different. They’re fully capable of doing that, as they have for many years.”


Whatever happens between now and November, it seems unlikely we will have a smooth election. The bigger question is whether we will have a free and fair election—and therefore a legitimate election.


Democracy expert and Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond recently laid out four baseline minimum conditions for free and fair elections.


1. Every adult citizen should be able to vote.

2. No group of people should be obstructed from voting as a result of their race, ethnicity, income, or party preference.

3. All votes should be honestly counted in a secure and timely manner, and any disputes should be heard and resolved in a politically neutral fashion.
4. The vote must actually determine who takes office and exercises power.

The 2020 disputes over ballot access may seem to be about the fairly technical question of how to implement voting by mail. But at bottom, they mark the latest installment in a larger and longer-running battle familiar to all observers of American politics. For the past two decades, elected Republicans and partisan operatives have added increasingly forbidding hurdles to the simple act of voting, through more stringent ID requirements, kicking infrequent voters off the rolls, and closing down polling places. Though these obstacles have been erected in the ostensible cause of preventing fraud, at various moments state-level Republican politicians have publicly boasted of their transparently partisan goals—to make it harder for constituencies that tend to back Democratic candidates to vote.


Democrats, meanwhile, have done the opposite. They’ve worked to simplify and expand access to the ballot. Typical measures to do this include automatic voter registration and same-day registration. A Republican critic would accuse Democrats of using the rhetoric of equal voting rights to obtain partisan advantages of their own, since the populations most likely to be denied the franchise are also most likely to vote Democratic.


But there’s a more obvious and consequential difference here. These two approaches to voting reflect two very different visions of democracy. One vision holds that democracy is better when as many people participate as possible—so voting deserves to be a fundamental right. The other vision regards voting as a privilege—something that should only be exercised once some obstacles are cleared. In this view of things, making it too easy for most citizens to vote is a path toward disastrous political and moral license, in which the unwashed and greedy masses will usher in chaos.


In reality, these two visions have been at odds for centuries, as America has matured into a mass democracy. For much of the nineteenth century, and even into the twentieth, these were live debates not only in the United States, but across then-developing democracies. The forces of inclusion and expansion largely won out in the second half of the twentieth century, producing along the way a much more expansive and inclusive vision of democracy. But now, in America, we are seeing this process lurch dramatically into reverse, harking back to the early days when conservative and elitist partisans across then-young Western democracies often viewed a limited franchise and stacked elections as their only path to victory. In key moments such as the American Civil War, this conflict produced nothing less than an existential challenge for the continuation of democracy. The question before us now is how did we backslide so far, in such a comparatively short time?
 

Slow-walking the vote: Voters in Atlanta wait in line in a chaos-ridden primary last week, after many mail-in ballots failed to materialize.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

The modern battle over the American ballot reached its apogee 55 years ago, with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. The landmark legislation outlawed the kinds of discriminatory voting rules that had long suffocated black participation throughout the South, thus guaranteeing full voting rights for racial minorities. In the assessment of Diamond and other democracy scholars, this was the moment when America truly became a full democracy, with free and fair elections open to all. In the Senate, Republicans supported the bill 30–2 (only senators from Texas and South Carolina opposed it), compared to 47–17 for Democrats. All opposition came from the South, which was still overwhelmingly Democratic (but not for much longer).


The broader civil rights revolution that led to the Voting Rights Act unraveled the long-standing but uneasy majority Democratic political coalition. Democrats and their vision of a moderate social welfare state had dominated American politics since 1932. But this governing coalition only worked because Northern liberals and Southern conservatives could work together on economic policy while politely disagreeing over civil rights (and keeping those disagreements quiet and private, while ensuring they remained off the national stage). The rights revolution of the 1960s cost Democrats their Southern wing, setting in motion a new unsettled era of American politics, in which parties were uniquely jumbled and fluid.


For about three decades, from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s, American politics went through an odd transition period. During this interim phase, liberals and conservatives inhabited both Democratic and Republican parties, and parties were nationally incoherent as a result. Many voters found themselves uncertain of their partisan allegiances, and thus generally made a practice of paying more attention to candidates than to parties. Analysts began to wonder if American politics had entered a post-partisan era. With more voters open to both parties, more states and congressional districts grew potentially more competitive, and more candidates focused on persuasion, especially as they crafted their campaign appeals for the new mass medium of television.


With the core allegiances of voters in flux, it didn’t make sense for parties to think about politics in the now-common terms of our voters and their voters. If anything, the more relevant dimension of conflict was the simple structural one that pitted incumbents against challengers. (And more often than not, the incumbent was a Democrat.) But without a clear and predictable partisan sense of our voters and their voters, neither party had a distinct advantage in conditions of lower or higher turnout. And for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, the Republican Party appeared to be ascendant, even (and perhaps especially) among younger voters.


From 1954 to 1994, Democrats had held a consistent and seemingly permanent majority in the House. They also controlled the Senate most of that stretch. Yet from 1968 through 1988, Republicans won five of six presidential elections, and likely would have won the sixth (1976) if not for Watergate. Many voters split their tickets, often voting Democrat for Congress, and Republican for president. For a while, it seemed as if the American public had reached a permanent split decision. With that dynamic in place, it seemed to make sense to have Democrats and Republicans work together, since that was what voters clearly wanted.


But by the mid-1990s, the long realignment of the two parties had begun to settle into a clearer binary. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House as a new kind of Democrat. In 1994, Newt Gingrich captained the Republicans to their first congressional majority in 40 years by nationalizing the election. Rather than pledging to work with Democrats (as previous Republicans had done), Gingrich militantly called them out as corrupt, even dangerous, agents of political and cultural subversion. With nationalized and identity-based culture-war politics now ascendant, both parties took clearer stands on hot-button issues such as abortion. Swing voters began to decline. Fewer voters changed their minds over the course of campaigns.


Yet even as most individual districts and states became more predictably lopsided in their support for one party or the other, control of Washington oscillated; it would lurch between election cycles from unified government for one party to divided government to unified government for the other party. Winning that precious sweet spot of unified control of the presidential and legislative (and by extension judiciary) branches of government depended more and more on small shifts in just a handful of battleground states and districts. In these jurisdictions, tens of thousands of votes in a nation of more than 200 million adults could determine the difference between two very disparate governing agendas.


The 2000 election highlighted the new 50–50 nature of American politics, and how just a few hundred votes in one key swing state could have enormous consequences. And in a development of still greater import, the outcome also demonstrated how results could hinge on small decisions of election administration (like, say, ballot design) and related litigation.


By 2004, campaigns were adjusting to a new world in which a 50–50 nation meant all the spoils could go to the 51 percent party. With a vanishingly small share of persuadable swing voters left, political strategists began to believe that the 51 percent party would be the party that best mobilized its own voters, through micro-targeting and organized get-out-the-vote initiatives, rather than wasting precious resources on flaky swing voters, who might not vote anyway. In 2004, Republicans built the more sophisticated such machine of voter mobilization, and won a national election as a result. As campaigns focused more on mobilization, elections became a martial contest of regimented turnout. The winner was the side that could get more of its people to the polls—or fewer of the other side’s people to vote, as the case may be. Mobilization replaced persuasion as the abiding logic of campaigns.


But by 2008, Democrats caught up with the Republicans’ competitive edge in the sophisticated new technologies of voter mobilization—and then some. And the more significant lesson of 2008 seemed to be that the prediction of an “emerging Democratic majority” (the title of an influential 2002 book by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira) appeared to be coming true. Young voters had supported Obama overwhelmingly. So had minority voters. As a new generation of young and diverse voters grew into an expanding share of the electorate, Republicans feared they might become a permanent minority party.


At this point, the Republican Party had two paths forward. One was to compete for young and minority voters. This meant following a version of the path already laid out by George W. Bush, who had made some inroads among socially conservative African Americans in 2004 and benefited from the largest contingent of African Americans identifying as Republican in any presidential cycle since 1960. He also won 44 percent of Hispanic voters in 2004, a 10 percentage point improvement over his 2000 share, taking a relatively pro-immigration approach. The famed “autopsy report” on the 2012 presidential cycle commissioned by the Republican National Committee echoed the same basic conclusion: court a younger, more diverse electorate, or prepare to accept the GOP’s quasi-permanent state of demographic and historical irrelevance.


The other path forward for Republicans was to give up on winning over younger and minority voters. Instead of trying to appeal to them, GOP strategists and statewide officials could simply try to make it harder for them to vote. In 2005, Indiana and Georgia became the first states to pass strict voter rules requiring (rather than just requesting) identification to vote. Republicans around the country turned their attention to the alleged scourge of voter fraud as a pretense to enact ever tougher voting rules. Now 10 states have “strict” voter ID laws, including Wisconsin. Other Republican-controlled states, notably Ohio and Georgia, have “purged” voter rolls—which is to say, they kick irregular voters off voting lists, a move that targets disproportionately Democratic-leaning voter populations, such as minorities, and less affluent voters who frequently change their addresses. Wisconsin sought to remove 340,000 registered voters (14 percent of the state’s voting-age population) between 2016 and 2018. It has tried to remove another 209,000 ahead of 2020, but so far has been blocked by the courts.


One reason Republicans have been able to achieve so many of the party’s voter-restriction goals over the last decade is the 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder. In that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upended voting rights protections, essentially removing the goal of equal ballot access by undermining Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Under that provision, states with a history of voting discrimination (predominantly but not exclusively in the South) had been subject to something called “preclearance” before they could make any changes to voting rules. That is, the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had to approve any changes to voting protocols, in order to ensure that those changes were not discriminatory. The process had worked well—so well, in fact, that opponents of the law successfully argued that it was no longer needed.


In her dissent, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Sure enough, as soon as the high court’s conservative majority cast aside that preclearance umbrella, the rains came pouring down—and the pretense of free and fair elections got waterlogged. States freed from federal oversight disproportionately closed down polling places in predominantly minority districts. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called it the “Great Poll Closure.”


In 2017, Donald Trump became president. One of his reliable authoritarian refrains is the baseless claim that Democrats can only win elections by cheating and fraud and illegal voting. These toxic myths continue to undermine popular faith on the right in the integrity of our electoral processes; they also encourage fellow Republicans to see dark motives everywhere on the left—motives that help justify the battery of hardball tactics designed to shrink the power of the Democratic electorate, via voter ID laws, voter purges, the closing of polling stations—and, as we’re now seeing, nihilistic efforts to force people to risk their lives in order to vote.

 


In January 2019, the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives made its first priority a sweeping democracy reform bill, H.R. 1. Among other things, this measure would mandate automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and institute a series of voter protection laws. McConnell, a longtime foe of voting rights and campaign finance reform, promptly relabeled the legislation the “Democrat Politician Protection Act,” alleging that “Democrats want to rewrite the rules to favor themselves and their friends.” A separate bill, H.R. 4, would have restored and modernized the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Both were left to gather dust on McConnell’s desk.


This might seem like just so much more intramural jousting on Capitol Hill—so to understand the real stakes in such disputes, it’s important to return to Wisconsin. In 2012, Barack Obama got 205,204 more votes in the state than Mitt Romney did. In 2016, Donald Trump received 22,748 more votes than Hillary Clinton. In heavily urban Milwaukee County, turnout dropped between 2012 and 2016 from 492,576 to 441,053—more than twice Trump’s statewide margin of victory. The Center for American Progress estimated a 19 percentage point statewide drop in African American voting, from 74 percent in 2012 to 55.3 percent in 2016.


Why? Perhaps without Obama at the top of the ticket, African American voters were less motivated to vote. Certainly black vote turnout was down across the country in 2016. But the national falloff was just 4.5 percentage points. Why should Wisconsin’s decline in black voting be more than four times the national average? Another far more plausible explanation was that a new voter ID law in Wisconsin, passed in 2011, depressed black turnout.


In approving that measure, the Republican state legislature required all voters to present photo IDs before casting ballots. GOP lawmakers leaned, typically, on a mythical saga of rampant voter fraud, which they claimed had sabotaged their statewide chances in the 2000 and 2004 elections, thanks to electoral mischief in urban Milwaukee. But after three years of litigation, a federal district judge ruled the law discriminatory; the decision found that black voters were roughly 50 percent likelier to lack such IDs. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision later in 2014, letting the law go into effect in 2016. Political scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison estimated that in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane Counties, somewhere between 11,700 and 23,300 voters were deterred from voting—representing between 7.8 percent and 15.5 percent of the prospective black turnout there. A 2018 survey estimated that 5 percent of Wisconsinites said they or someone in their household was told they lacked the necessary documents to vote.


So did the new voter ID law give Trump Wisconsin in 2016? It’s hard to say for sure. Political scientists have struggled to measure the impact of different types of voter ID laws. Some voters may say they were deterred in retrospective surveys. But we don’t know whether they actually planned to vote in reality. And many of the voters most likely to be affected by voter ID laws are those who otherwise tend to be least likely to vote. Conventional political science models suggest that most individual-level voting decisions are not so much rational choices as they are a combination of habit and mobilization. The vast majority of voters are either habitual voters (who almost always vote) or habitual nonvoters (who never vote). Close elections will motivate the more marginal voters (those who sometimes vote) to turn out, both because they are likely to feel that their vote actually matters, and because others around them who care about politics (including campaign volunteers) are doing their best to mobilize them to vote. There’s even some evidence that efforts to limit voting have a backfire effect, encouraging voters to turn out to spite the designs to suppress their ballots, as may have happened this April in Wisconsin.


Another way to explain Trump’s 2016 victory in Wisconsin was that he spoke (however crudely) to the frustrations of many Wisconsinites who just wanted to blow the system up, while Hillary Clinton simply failed to inspire many traditional Democratic voters. Or perhaps Trump won because he activated racial animus, and Clinton failed to counter the animus with a populist economic message, such as the one run during the successful 2012 Obama reelection bid, which painted his superrich Republican plutocrat opponent as a superrich Republican plutocrat. If we reran the 2016 election 100 times, and tweaked the campaigns and rules slightly each time, we might have a better answer. But absent that, we don’t know.


And this is where things get tricky. On the margins, voting rules almost certainly have some partisan impact. The bulk of political science analysis suggests it may be somewhat smaller than many Democrats believe, but it is certainly nonzero. And as we’ve seen in most presidential cycles in the first decades of this century, in a close election, sometimes a small difference is all it takes. Which is why, presumably, Republicans have become so aggressive in pushing measures designed to yield marginal advantages via suppressed voter turnout. In today’s 50–50 politics, the balance of power can hinge on these small differences.



As Election Day approaches, 2020 feels like a welter of alarmingly unanswerable questions: Will everyone who requests an absentee ballot get one? Will all such absentee ballots get counted properly? How, and how much, will the Russians be able to interfere—or manage to create the destabilizing impression that they did interfere? Will the election be close enough that it will end up being settled, as in 2000, by the inevitable barrage of litigation a close election invites? And if so, will the losing side concede, or declare the results illegitimate? And, most troubling: Will these results objectively be illegitimate?


Whatever scramble toward a fair and legitimate election that might take place between now and Election Day should clarify the need for a simpler, fairer system. In such a system, we’d have automatic voter registration, so that registration is not a complex hurdle. Every registered voter who wants an absentee ballot should be able to request one easily, and should also be able to mail it back without having to track down a stamp. Each such voter should be able to follow the progress of their ballot online and be notified immediately if there are any problems. Same-day registration should be available in case something goes wrong with automatic voter registration, or if a voter had moved between elections. And there should always be an auditable paper trail, so that if there are irregularities, we can go back and double-check. In short, in a modern democracy administered by the richest nation in the world, we can invest in the best technology to make sure our voting process is fair and broadly accessible, so that everybody’s ballot gets counted.


And yet, as the partisan rivalries continue to dominate the debate over fair ballot access—and as administrative battles spring up over just how and how much to allow for expanded absentee balloting—it’s clear that we are nowhere near that ideal. It’s true that both sides want voting rules that each thinks will help its party win more elections. But the both-sides analysis ends there. Democrats are on the side of modern democracy. Republicans, at least to judge by a caste of leaders who continue to erect hurdles to voting, are on the side of the nineteenth century. And in order for this fight over voting to come to some peaceful resolution, something big needs to shake up our closely contested, zero-sum binary politics.


The most obvious solution would be for Democrats to win a decisive enough series of electoral victories that they are able to implement the full suite of (small-d) democratic voting rights proposals. Under such conditions, Republicans might realize that restricting the vote is a doomed proposition and therefore would be forced to come up with another way to win elections. Of course, the proof of concept for Democrats in this scenario involves them mobilizing impressively high turnouts among core constituencies who typically don’t vote, especially in states like Texas and Georgia. But to win the Senate, they’ll also need to appeal to voters in more conservative rural states such as Montana and Maine. In a nationalized political environment, it’s hard to be all things to all people.


Perhaps come November, Democrats will win the White House, and enough of a Senate majority to eliminate the filibuster. That would give them the firepower to enact the full battery of national voting rights provisions introduced under H.R. 1. But the likelihood of this is small. The politics of early 2021 will probably be devoted entirely to responding to Covid-19, and preparations to avoid the next pandemic.


Perhaps amid this push, 2021 Democrats would be able to succeed with voting by mail and electoral security upgrades where 2020 Democrats have so far failed. But beyond that, Democrats will mostly have to fight at the state level. If Democrats want to play hardball in reclaiming a voting rights agenda, they need to enact an allied range of voting reforms at the state level, when the party has secured both executive and legislative power. Under new Democratic control, for example, Virginia enacted automatic voter registration, repealed a strict voter ID law, ended felon disenfranchisement, and passed an amendment to the state constitution to reform redistricting, which will go to the ballot in November. Virginia’s aggressive pro-democracy turn stands as a model for other states that might be able to produce significant, substantive voting rights reforms.


But is it enough for only blue states to do this? Again, there’s no easy answer here. In a deeply polarized two-party system where partisan voting patterns are so locked into place, the rational strategy is not to persuade; the rational strategy is to mobilize. A politics of turnout is a politics of numbers. And there are two ways to win a game of numbers: get more of your voters to the polls, or make it harder for the other party’s voters to vote.


When one party benefits from making it easier to vote (because more of their voters are likely to struggle through a complicated process) and one party benefits from making it harder to vote (for the same reason), we shouldn’t be surprised to see a deadlock on voting rights. And over time, these seemingly intractable battles over voting will almost certainly threaten the legitimacy of our electoral process.


So what’s the alternative? Perhaps we need to think even more radically. Perhaps we need to think not just about who can vote, but how we vote. In almost all discussions about voting rights, we take for granted that we have just two parties. But this makes voting a virtual zero-sum proposition—especially under current highly partisan conditions. In reality, the main reason we have just two parties is that we have a set of voting rules that punish third parties. Our “first-past-the-post” system of plurality elections makes it hard for third parties to compete as anything other than spoilers. This system also renders the majority of elections safe for one party or the other, as it has for most of American political history—and all the more so in our own era of parties acutely polarized by geography. What’s more, the status quo electoral system disproportionately hurts progressives, who overconcentrate their votes in urban districts, while more conservative suburban swing-districts pull Democrats ineluctably toward the middle.


What if we changed how we vote altogether by adopting ranked-choice voting and multimember districts for the House—a form of proportional representation used in Australia and Ireland? This would likely give us a multiparty system. It may sound radical and unlikely, but consider: It is one voting reform that doesn’t have any partisan benefit, because it hurts both Democrats and Republicans equally by essentially breaking them up into their constituent factions. In a five-party system, any voting reform that helped one party would be dead on arrival, since it could never get a majority. And the zero-sum mobilization dynamics that lay behind much of our recent backsliding on voting rights would vanish as a result. With more parties and more choices, more voters would be up for grabs, bringing back a politics of persuasion and ideas.


We should of course continue to fight like hell to expand the right to vote. But in our hyper-partisan politics, this effort all too often feels like running headlong into a wall. And when there’s an overwhelming obstacle in the way, the shortest path between two points may not be a straight line. It may involve finding creative new ways around the wall.