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If We’re Serious About Saving American Democracy, This Voting System Might Be the Key

8 minute read
Gehl is a former CEO, the founder of The Institute for Political Innovation, and the co-author of “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save our Democracy.”
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

New York City has chosen its next Mayor. It happened more than four months before election day, November 2, when Eric Adams won the Democratic primary.

Why is the general election in one of the most important cities in the world seen as a non-event—and why doesn’t anybody seem to care?

Because we’re all used to it. Across the country, the importance of general elections (aside from the presidential one, of course) has been in decline for decades as party primaries have become the deciding elections.

According to recent studies, general elections are virtually meaningless in over 80% of races for the U.S. House of Representatives. In each of those races, as Mr. Adams can confidently assume in NYC, the winner was chosen in the primary. Republicans who win primaries in safe red districts are virtually guaranteed to win the general, and in safe blue havens, the winner of the Democratic primary similarly coasts to office.

That has to change. General elections, a hallmark of healthy, competitive democracies, should be as determinative as they are sacred. And while the health of New York City is critical, Congress, which has the same “primary problem,” is the most pressing concern.

Thankfully, there is a much better way to elect leaders: It’s called Final-Five Voting, and it was described by one of us (Gehl) as part of a 2017 Harvard Business School report on political competition, with co-author Michael Porter. It’s also happening; one of the most important Senate races in the country next year will follow the methodology (more on that later.)

Final-Five Voting (FFV) is the combination of two simple changes: First, replace separate party primaries with a single primary offering one slate of candidates (all Republicans, Democrats, Independents and third parties on the same ballot) in which every registered voter is eligible to participate. The top five finishers from that open primary advance to the general election. Second, do what New York City should have done: use ranked-choice voting in the general election that follows the single open primary to determine the majority winner. Ranked-choice—also known as instant-runoff voting—is perfectly suited to a five-way general election because while five candidates delivers the benefits of dynamic competition, those benefits would be diminished if one of the five candidates were to win with a narrow plurality. Instant-runoff voting narrows the field to the final two before the winner emerges with a true majority.

Had New York City implemented Final-Five Voting, Adams’ mayorship would not be a fait accompli four months before the election.

But of even greater import, by running a single open primary that sends multiple candidates—regardless of party—to the general, the votes and ideas of the currently disenfranchised Big Apple Republicans and Independents would begin to matter, even while Democrat voters would likely continue to dominate. Instead, by keeping the party primary intact, it’s just more of the same election theater: fewer than 1 million Democrats—less than the number of active registered voters in some individual boroughs—have chosen the leader for the 8.3 million citizens.

If you followed this year’s primary closely, you noticed the New York narrative revolved around how the botched administrative process hurt the perception of RCV, but the biggest miss came earlier when leaders left the party primary intact.

We need to cancel party primaries. They are the single greatest reason Congress can’t deliver consensus solutions to our most pressing national challenges. In most jurisdictions, Senators and Congresspeople answer to that small subset of more politically extreme primary voters and that means they can’t really afford to work on behalf of all of the constituents they are supposed to represent. It’s logical; if they can’t win their party primary, they can’t get to the general election.

“The effects [of party primaries] on Congress are plain for all to see,” writes AEI resident scholar Kevin Kosar. “Legislators fear working across party lines on any issues that might tick off their most passionate voters. Republicans refuse to cut a deal on immigration that looks like ‘amnesty’ and Democrats flee any talk of reigning in entitlements, which consume about 70 percent of the budget. Many legislators want to reach compromises on pressing issues like these, but they don’t. Nobody wants to get primaried.”

What was once a noun—the “primary”—has become the most powerful verb in American politics—“to primary.” As a result, 10% of voters (i.e., those voting in the determinative primary in any state or district) dictate what is and isn’t possible in D.C. And there is something on which substantial portions of both extreme factions agree: don’t work with the other side, don’t negotiate consensus, don’t give in.

FFV is not a pipe dream. It can be enacted in the states without any need for Congressional approval. Alaska has proven that: Leaders in Alaska used Gehl’s 2017 work to shape a ballot initiative for a close sibling of Final-Five—top-four primaries with RCV general elections—and in November 2020, Alaska voters gave it the go-ahead. In 2022, we expect citizens in multiple states to have the same opportunity to vote yes on Final-Five Voting ballot initiatives.

FFV changes the dynamics of elections, and in so doing it changes the incentives and behaviors of politicians before and after they are elected. It is a system that prioritizes healthy competition—with its incentives for innovation, results, and accountability. Here are five of its benefits:

  • Solving problems is rewarded: FFV is not designed primarily to change who wins but rather to change what those winners are incented to do. Freed from the fear of being “primaried,” politicians can work across the aisle, deal with tradeoffs, bargain effectively and find consensus on complex challenges. Sure, extremists in their parties will still get angry at them, but they cannot keep an incumbent politician out of the top five in an open primary. Senators elected under FFV will create a bench of players ideally suited to form the gangs of six or four or eight at the heart of most compromise. Imagine a Senate where we don’t have to abandon bipartisanship; we could retain the filibuster and still get things done.
  • General elections are most important: November general elections are when most people pay attention, learn about the candidates, and turn out to vote (upwards of 60% of registered voters on average—versus the10% in each party’s primaries). With FFV, the winner isn’t picked months before most voters tune in.
  • More diverse candidates: Candidates who may have a hard time getting into the game in the existing election system will find a wider, more open path with FFV. Data from existing RCV elections indicates that women and people of color are more likely to run and win under this system.
  • Accountability through competition: FFV makes it easier for new competitors and parties to enter the market. That competitive pressure incentivizes existing players (in this case, the Ds and the Rs) to serve their customers (i.e., their general election voters) better. To be clear, our problem isn’t that we have only two parties; our problem is that the current two are guaranteed to be the only two regardless of what they do or don’t get done on behalf of their voters. Under FFV, if these parties satisfy voters, they’ll keep their power, and if they don’t then political entrepreneurs will compete to do so.
  • Let politicians use their skills: We have met many congresspeople. They are generally smart, hardworking, very socially skilled, and very frustrated. They want to do great work, they want to solve problems, they want to work across the aisle, but upon arrival they are told that they must fight in the trenches and avoid fraternizing with the enemy. They hate it, Americans hate congress, and nobody wins. FFV can change that.
  • For most of our lives Americans have believed that liberal democracy fostered progress; we believed that America and its constitution was a role model for the “free world.” These last two decades have seen a decline in our confidence as our federal government lurches from crisis to crisis, only able to take major actions in those brief periods when one party happens to control the White House and both chambers of Congress. This is no way to run a country. We must match the promise of our constitution with an election system that helps our leaders to work together on our common challenges.

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