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Open Primaries

It's Time to Break the 'Fixed' Two-Party Duopoly

"Most Americans believe our political system is a public institution that follows a set of detailed, impartial principles, structures and practices derived from the Constitution… It isn’t.” - Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter

Imagine an industry where consumer trust has dropped to marginal levels, but nothing in that industry changed. It’s hard to do, right? Even now in the midst of a pandemic and social turmoil we see businesses commit to doing better to adapt to consumer demands. 

After all, if people don't like their choices they could take their business elsewhere, right?

Competition is largely viewed as healthy and beneficial to the growth of any market. It gives consumers options and creates the right incentive structures for an industry to be accountable to consumers. 

But there is one industry where we are not seeing this emphasis on competition: the political industry.

Trust in the federal government continues to plummet -- dropping as low as 17% -- yet nothing ever changes. No matter how bad things get, the same people stay in power and seldom are public officials held accountable.

Voters largely look at this and think the system is broken. Yet, as former Gehl Foods CEO Katherine Gehl and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter point out, the political industry is not broken, it is working as it was intended to work.

Gehl discussed her collaborative work with Porter during a virtual discussion hosted by Open Primaries on Wednesday, June 10, which dates back to the publication of a groundbreaking 2017 Harvard Business School study and continues with their new book, “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Political Gridlock and Save Our Industry.”  

“This moment is super important,” she said. “People come to a call like this because they are concerned about people’s lives. They are concerned with how the government works.”

“Things are not alright with our country.”

Gehl and Porter’s work changes the way people view politics in America, as people don’t generally view the political system as an industry. Yet, they should, because it is controlled by private, gain-seeking organizations. 

Specifically, two organizations: The Republican and Democratic Parties.

The 2017 Harvard Business School Study, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America,” is often cited by nonpartisan, pro-voter reformers because it is easy to understand the myriad of problems that plague our political system when it is viewed as it truly is: a duopoly.

It is common sense, Gehl says, and there is nothing wrong with common sense.

“Sometimes the problems really are that simple and that basic and I think that is a reason we haven't been able to fix things -- because we have made things too complicated,” she said.

The nation’s private political industry controls public elections, the regulations, the flow of money, the national narrative -- everything. It is the only industry in America where, as Gehl puts it, “consumers are told competition is a bad thing.”

As a result, all the major players (policymakers, consultants, media figures, pollsters, academics, etc.) in the political industry all fall in line with this manufactured two-party system, and there is little incentive to put the public interest first.

The incentive policymakers have under the present system, including with the use of party primaries, is to make the party happy. It is not to address the needs and concerns of voters. Thus the consequence is legislative inaction and zero accountability.

“We all, together, need to bring this forward because there are so many other things that legitimately we can also be concerned about that it is up to us to elevate the concern of what the primary does in Washington, D.C,” said Gehl.

This is fundamental to the reform she proposes.

“What I work on the most is this combination of top-5 primaries with ranked choice voting -- I call it Final Five Voting,” she said.

To break it down: Final Five Voting would eliminate party primaries and implement a nonpartisan open primary in which all voters and candidates, regardless of political affiliation, participate on a single ballot. The top 5 vote-getters then move on to the general election.

The primary system is similar in nature to the top-two systems in place in California and Washington state, and has the same goal: Ensure meaningful voter participation, greater competition, and strengthen accountability.

The difference is not only do more candidates move on from the primary to the general election, but the general election uses ranked choice voting to determine which candidate has majority support among the electorate when the most voters participate.

This reform, Gehl says, is not only nonpartisan, but it changes the incentive structure: 

  • Voters have an incentive to participate; 
  • More candidates have an incentive to run; and 
  • Politicians have an incentive to consider a more diverse array of ideas and formulate long-lasting solutions from those ideas.

When competition is allowed to flourish and voters feel their participation matters, the incentive for politicians to be accountable to voters over their party’s leadership becomes much greater. This type of incentive structure exists in most industries -- why not the political industry?

Gehl says she knows party leaders won’t support nonpartisan reform like Final Five Voting. The status quo benefits them, after all. However, she says she has discovered “a real appetite among a lot of Democrats and Republicans,” and certainly independents.

There are also policymakers, frustrated by an inability to do anything, who would be open to support nonpartisan reform like Final Five Voting, and Gehl says it is incumbent upon committed members of the reform community to identify and bring these policymakers into the fold.

“What we need are both things,” she said, “this deeply engaged citizenry, and we need ideologies, we need parties, we need policy ideas, we need people to have opinions -- we need all of that. But, we need to match that with a government that is then capable of taking effective action when it becomes clear that something is not right.”

“The Politics Industry” is a nonpartisan guide that Gehl hopes will help voters better understand the direction the US political system needs to go to benefit everyone. It releases on June 23 and is available for pre-order now. Gehl says all proceeds will go to the group she is founding, The Institute for Political Innovation.

About the Author

Shawn Griffiths

Shawn, election reform expert and former editor for IVN.us, studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.

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