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New Book: The Need for Political Innovation Greater Now Than before Pandemic

Created: 21 May, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
12 min read

Many are aware by now that US Rep. Justin Amash has decided not to run for president -- citing the cumbersome realities the current political system presents to candidates outside the two major parties.

“After much reflection, I’ve concluded that circumstances don’t lend themselves to my success as a candidate for president this year, and therefore I will not be a candidate,” said Amash.

However, what got less attention in the mainstream conversation is what Amash said after this.

The risks Amash is no doubt referring to includes the infamous “spoiler argument.” “Now is not the time for a third party candidacy -- the fate of the country is at stake.” This argument is heard from politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle.

And that’s important to remember: The most prominent voices making this argument and talking about the “risks” of viable change are people with a political and/or financial investment in the preservation of the two-party duopoly.

Imagine if consumers were only allowed to hear from two companies on their options for goods or services.It would be unheard of in any industry -- except the US political industry. 

Some may look at this and think the political system clearly isn’t working. Yet former Gehl Foods CEO Katherine Gehl and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter say the system is, in fact, working exactly the way it was designed to work -- just not for the people.

Gehl and Porter are the authors of a new book. “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy,” which is now available for pre-order. It follows up on their groundbreaking 2017 Harvard Business School study in which they challenge the conventional way of looking at US politics and the electoral process. 

Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so. It is, in fact, an industry—most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations.”

Chief among these organizations are the Republican and Democratic Parties themselves, which control every facet of the US political system-- meaning they have a tightly-held duopoly on voter choice, access to the ballot, the political narrative, governance, etc.

Voters are told time and time again by the major players in the US political industry that they have two options, and only two options in elections, and should not talk about change or reform. It is the only industry in America, as Gehl says, “where people are told competition is bad for the consumer.”

The tragic result, both authors observe, is what voters see today: A political system “incapable of delivering solutions to America's key economic and social challenges.”

This becomes especially apparent in a time of crisis. People, as US Rep. Amash notes, “are understandably more interested in what life will look like tomorrow.” And for many Americans, there is a great deal of uncertainty.

In response to the current pandemic, Gehl and Porter added a last minute author’s note to their book. They released the following preview:

“…The pandemic and its aftermath will define generations. But it could also redefine our politics. When a new normal comes, there will be a moment; a window for big, sweeping change. For the good of all Americans, and to honor those we will have lost and the sacrifices made by so many, we pray that enough of us will put country over party and invest in the political innovation that can revivify our politics with healthy competition—and make sure we don’t get caught unprepared again.”
While much in our world remains uncertain, we’re sure about at least one thing: The need for non-partisan political innovation is even greater today than it was before this pandemic.”

They add that it is their job, as authors, to believe in the importance of their work, and to show their commitment to a growing reform movement all proceeds from the book will go to the Institute for Political Innovation. The organization, Gehl says, is being founded “to pursue the critical changes to our political system that we prescribe in the book.”

"The Political Industry" releases on June 23. Pre-order it here.

Gehl and Porter are also honorary co-chairs of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, a coalition of over 30 organizations across the country committed to the same underlying goal: transforming the political process so that it is “representative of and responsive to the people.”

Despite the pandemic, this broad community of nonpartisan reform groups has kept activists and voters across the political spectrum connected through Zoom calls and other online and social media activities. These groups have mobilized thousands of voters to support various electoral reforms that create fairer elections that level the playing field for all voters.

Here are some examples of innovative ideas to reform our elections that have had major developments in the last week:

Proposition D for Democracy Campaign Discusses Novel St. Louis Ballot Initiative

Voters in St. Louis will have an opportunity to completely transform the way they elect their city officials in 2020 under Proposition D -- D for Democracy. The initiative will, according to advocates, correct an electoral system that has completely failed St. Louis voters.

“We have what is known as the worst type of elections here in St. Louis, which party primaries with plurality voting,” said Benjamin Singer of St. Louis Approves, the campaign that got Proposition D on the ballot.

Singer joined other advocates on a Zoom call hosted by Open Primaries on Wednesday, May 20, to discuss the reform. The initiative would implement nonpartisan, top-two open primaries with approval voting for city elections -- a novel combination of reforms to transform the political process.

“By consulting with election experts across the country […] it was very clear to us that the way to move forward was with a nonpartisan open primary system where you can vote for as many candidates as you’d like,” said Singer.

All voters and candidates, regardless of party, would participate on a single primary ballot. If there are 5 candidates running in a race, and a voter likes 3 of them, they can vote for all 3 candidates under approval voting. The two candidates with the highest vote totals move on to the November election.

Approval voting is brand new to government elections. It will be used for the first time in Fargo, ND, during the city’s June 9 primary. St. Louis will be the second city to adopt its use in two years if voters approve Proposition D in November. 

The combination of nonpartisan primaries and approval voting, advocates say, will give voters a level playing field in elections, while ensuring that candidates won’t win with just 35% of the vote like the current mayor did. Singer said in the primary this equated to about 5% of the electorate. 

The status quo has led to severely under-represented and disenfranchised blocs of the voting population, especially the black community in what Reverend Darryl Gray calls a segregated city with segregated politics.

“You feed the horse that brought you across the line,” said Gray. The reverend is a community leader and strong voice for Proposition D. 

Elected leaders tend to feel beholden only to the voters who got them elected. In a case where a marginal percentage of voters gets a politician in office, that politician is only going to represent that group -- exacerbating the issue of marginalized communities with no voice in city policy.

“Without open primaries, you do not force candidates to collaborate — you don’t force politicians to build coalitions,” said Gray

Two top researchers recently discussed the healthier benefits nonpartisan top-two primaries have had in California -- including fostering a political environment where cross-partisan coalitions are encouraged to collaborate on long-term solutions that benefit a broad scale of voters.

Gray believes Proposition D can have the same effect on St. Louis, and would give a stronger voice to the black community, and others that feel left out of the conversation. 

STL Approves submitted over 20,000 petition signatures to get Proposition D on the ballot. According to participants on the call, 10,000 of those signatures were gathered in a single day. Singer said voters just get it.

“The voters have struggled with the problem of voting in a broken system where they have to think strategically,” he said. “In this case, with approval voting, you can vote for your honest favorite.”

Proponents of Proposition D say approval voting makes sense for St. Louis in particular. Singer says the election machines aren’t programmed to use ranked choice voting, so approval voting is a practical alternative. Reverend Gray also believes it is easier on voter education.

There may not be a one size fits all solution when it comes to what alternative voting to use -- what works for one community may not work for another. Using cities, counties, and states as individual laboratories of democracy is how reformers figure out what proposals are needed to best serve voters.

Results Are In For First Election to Use STAR Voting

The Independent Part of Oregon made history by being the first to use STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff) voting for a binding election. Online ballots for the party’s primary were due in Tuesday and the results are in.

First, a quick recap:

STAR voting allows voters to rate candidates on a scale of 0 to 5 -- like products on Amazon. The winner is the majority favorite between the top two candidates.

The Independent Party of Oregon (IPO) decided to use the alternative voting method in conjunction with open primaries for its 2020 primary elections. This meant not only could independent voters participate in the party’s primary, but all participants could score every candidate in each race.

The Equal Vote Coalition, which has been campaigning for STAR voting in Oregon, praised the IPO’s decision to use the new voting method in their primaries in 2020, seeing it as a potential catalyst for adoption elsewhere.

“One of the main obstacles to any new reform is that it has not been enacted. Having this opportunity to have STAR voting in a real election with real results, including the presidential preference election, is a big deal,” said Mark Frohnmayer, Founder of the Equal Vote Coalition.

Here are the results:

Over 700 people participated in the online primary -- without the public funding and resources the major parties were afforded for their primary elections. Participants voted in the presidential preference election as well as a couple of statewide races.

In the presidential preference election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump were only 230 points apart in the first round as Biden averaged a score of 2.2 points with voters and Trump averaged 1.9 points. Since they were the two highest scoring candidates, they moved on to the runoff where Joe Biden won with 52% to Trump’s 32%. Interesting to note, 9% of voters had no preference between the two.

The inclusion of “no preference” in the runoff is unique to this primary election. Nearly as many voters had no preference between the final two candidates in the secretary of state’s race as the number of people who cast a ballot for each of the top two candidates.

The Star Voting Twitter account pointed out some other interesting facts about the results:

  • The results show 3 different party affiliations winning in 3 races: A Democrat for president, a Republican for secretary of state, and an independent for State Treasurer. 
  • In a three-way race between Biden, Trump, and Sanders, Trump would have won under a choose-one voting method despite the bulk of voters preferring a Democratic candidate. This is because Biden and Sanders would have split the vote (based on how many voters scored them highest individually).
  • 71% of voters used values other than 0 or 5 to score candidates in at least one of the races.

Advocates say the ability to score candidates has the added benefit of showing how voters actually feel about each candidate rather than just forcing them to choose one or the other, giving every voter more voice in the election process.

The results indicate that independent voters and members of the IPO have a more nuanced view in elections that could otherwise not be expressed under the voting system used by most Americans. In the closed primary system Oregon uses, for instance, voters are forced to pick and side -- limiting their options severely.

STAR voting has not been incorporated into public elections yet. However, in an interview for IVN, Mark Frohnmayer said the Equal Vote Coalition is attempting to get STAR voting on the ballot in Eugene, Lane County, and Troutdale. 

What people have witnessed in Oregon and are witnessing in St. Louis represents different types of political innovation to solve the same problem: Transforming a political process that is explicitly designed to serve those in power to one that serves the people.

The voting methods might be different, but the goal is the same, and the US literally has hundreds of laboratories of democracy that can be used to experiment, collaborate, and showcase how nonpartisan reform is the key to fairer elections, greater representation, more competition, and a healthier political environment.

Also In Reform News...

  • A cross-partisan coalition of elections administrators, including 6 secretaries of state from both parties, and 9 nonpartisan organizations nationwide have launched VoteSafe to support the principle that every American voter has the right to vote safely and securely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization is co-chaired by former Homeland Security Secretary and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge (R) and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. The co-chairs are calling on elections administrators to support the principles of VoteSafe: (1) All states and U.S. territories should ensure voters have accessible, secure mail-in ballots and safe, in-person voting sites. (2) Congress should ensure that states have the resources they need to protect their voters and elections.
  • Voter Choice for Massachusetts 2020 is in the middle of an electronic signature gathering campaign to put ranked choice voting on the November ballot. The campaign has until June 17 to collect 13,347. The campaign has tons of support from nonpartisan groups and elected officials across the political spectrum. 
  • More Choice San Diego took a big step with its top-four primary with ranked choice voting in San Diego general elections proposal as it was approved by the San Diego City Council’s Rules Committee.