Many Americans like to think of their democracy as the model for the world. If the U.S. is a model, however, then the world must really be in sad shape. Most U.S. citizens don’t actually bother to vote. According to a study of the PEW Charitable Trust, in 2012 fifty-one million eligible citizens (25% of the total) failed to register, but even those who are registered often don’t bother to turn out. In Oregon, for example, where one can vote in the privacy of one’s own home, only 33 percent of registered voters participated in the May primary, a sad commentary on our level of political engagement.
There are many causes of low participation. Some, like the lack of a stamp to mail in one’s ballot, are silly, while others, such as a loss of faith in the electoral system are very serious. We are not talking here about concerns regarding “vote rigging” or Russian interference in our elections, though the latter is of grave concern. We mean, rather, the widespread sense among the voters that a corrupt class of politicians monopolizes our political system, which provides few real choices and cannot satisfy their needs. It is this crisis of legitimacy, long in the making but now peaking in the Trump era, which is the most serious threat to our democracy.
One approach to overcoming this crisis is to break the Democratic and Republican Parties’ stranglehold over our system. Options from which to borrow abound, because few countries actually find the American electoral model attractive. Some use proportional representation, which allots assembly seats in proportion to each party’s percentage of the vote. Others insist that every winning candidate get at least 50% plus one of the votes in order to win a seat. Some countries use different combinations of these systems. The result is usually the creation of genuine multi-party systems with a wide variety of options (e.g., Socialist, Green, Conservative, Christian Democratic, Nationalists, etc.) from which voters can choose.
In contrast, the American “two-party” system is set up to exclude virtually any candidate not a Republican or Democrat. Plurality voting, in which the winning candidate simply needs the most votes, rather than a majority, dominates our system at the state and federal levels. Fearing that voting for an alternative candidate will result in a “wasted” vote, many voters often simply select the lesser of two evils, rather than vote for someone they really want. Such fears are reinforced by the institutional power of the Democratic and Republican Party machines, which have constructed a system designed to protect their interests and to convince citizens that there are no viable alternatives.
But there are options, especially on the local level, where matters are more open to change and a variety of approaches are in use from San Francisco to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Salem, for example, we already require candidates for City Council seats to win at least 50 percent of the vote plus one before one can claim victory. Failure of any candidate to achieve that threshold in the May “primary” elections trigger a run-off election between the top two candidates in the fall. The advantage of this method is that the winners can claim legitimacy based on the will of the majority. The disadvantage is it is that campaigning is prolonged by six months forcing candidates to expend enormous amounts of money, time, and energy to compete for what are volunteer jobs. Such a prospect is daunting, even if one has the resources to give it a try.
One way to improve matters for local races in Salem would be to introduce Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Sometimes called “preference” or “choice” voting, IRV allows voters to rank candidates for a single seat in preferential order. If no candidate is the first choice of 50 percent of the voters, then the candidate with the least number of first choice votes drops out of the running and voters’ ranked ballots of the remaining candidates are recalculated. This process repeats itself until one candidate has a majority.
In the short term, IRV would guarantee majority representation while allowing a greater range of voter choice. It would shorten the length of the campaign season by eliminating the primary election and putting the focus on the more high turnout fall election, thus saving time and money for all concerned. Long-term it would remind voters that electoral systems are not fixed in stone but can be changed for the better.