This Book Will Change The Way You Look at Elections in the U.S.

Author: Fair Vote
Created: 20 April, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read

“Are American elections working well?”


“All of this said, things could work much better."

The first of these two sentences appears in Chapter 1 of Changing How America Votes, edited by Todd Donovan (published, 2017). The second caps off the end of Chapter 15. In the ellipses are 13 innovative ideas about how to assess our democracy and make elections in the United States better. FairVote’s reform vision is well-represented in the collection.

FairVote executive director Rob Richie and I contributed a chapter arguing for the proposed Fair Representation Act for Congress. In that chapter - most of which can be read in the book’s online preview - we rigorously make the case that the winner-take-all system we use to elect the United States House of Representatives is utterly broken, and that the Fair Representation Act represents a new system that can end winner-take-all politics and give voters a stronger voice. The Fair Representation Act would establish ranked choice voting in all states, used as an American form of proportional representation.

Our chapter comes at the end of the second of the book’s three parts, titled “Electoral Rules and Systems: Changing How We Vote.” Every chapter in that part touches on reforms and innovations that FairVote proudly supports:

  • Changing How America Votes for President - Caroline J. Tolbert and Kellen Gracey argue for three changes to our presidential elections: National Popular Vote, a national primary, and ranked choice voting in primaries and general elections. Professor Tolbert and the book’s editor Todd Donovan both are on FairVote’s ranked choice voting advisory committee, and were the lead researchers on our report on the impact of RCV on civility in campaigning.
  • Redistricting and Representation: Searching for “Fairness” Between the Lines - Vladimir Kogan and Eric McGhee clearly make the critical point that identifying “fairness” in the context of single-winner districts is difficult if not impossible. There are different conceptions of fairness, some of which conflict with others, and the most commonly cited reforms (like independent redistricting commissions) have mixed results. Professor McGhee was one of the scholars to promote the idea of the efficiency gap as a measure of partisan unfairness in lawsuits like the recent successful gerrymandering lawsuit in Wisconsin.
  • Ranked Choice Voting: A Different Way of Casting and Counting Votes - David C. Kimball and Joseph Anthony demonstrates that plurality voting rules have serious drawbacks that can be addressed by alternatives like ranked choice voting. Professor Kimball is also a member of FairVote’s ranked choice voting advisory committee, and he previously contributed a guest blog highlighting his research that shows that RCV elections do not hurt turnout and increase it compared to runoff elections. He cites to that research as well as research on campaigning, representation, and voter confusion to show that RCV is worthy of consideration.
  • The Impact of Electoral Rules on Minority Representation - Jason P. Casellas and Kenicia Wright address the impact of various approaches to elections on racial and ethnic minority populations. In the short-term, they conclude that the most promising avenue for improvement would be re-authorizing the preclearance portions of the Voting Rights Act. When discussing election types, they specifically advocate for expanding the use of fair representation voting in the United States.

The other two parts of the book also feature fascinating and important content, from Ron Hayduk’s chapter on the overlooked history (and future) of voting rights for non-citizen residents to Barry C. Burden and Jordan Hsu’s analysis of how high signature thresholds and other ballot access laws needlessly limit voter choice.

As the book’s preface explains, the 2016 election put reasons to change how we vote center stage. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both explicitly called for changes to primary election laws. After the election, both supporters of Trump and Hillary Clinton pointed to shortcomings in election rules, and outgoing president Barack Obama made improving voting and elections the final point of his farewell address. Changing How America Votes can help to frame that debate, by providing scholarly analysis of our current system along with viable proposals for how to make things better.

Editor's note: This article was written by Drew Penrose and originally published on FairVote's blog.

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Photo Source: AP