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Opinion

Why California Should Learn from Maine and Not Alaska on Electoral Reform

Looking at our recent polarized presidential elections — and even the politicization of wearing masks (to combat COVID-19) — it’s easy to say that the partisan divide in our country has never been greater. 

This shouldn’t be surprising, given that our single-seat, winner-take-all electoral system generally divides us into two large electorally-viable camps. If you and I are in different camps, I succeed by your camp’s failure and you by mine. Anyone who doesn’t identify with this internecine co-dependence is called a ‘spoiler.’ 

Furthermore, since we use single-seat districts to elect our state legislatures and Congress — only one ‘camp’ can win representation in each race — meaning millions of voters each election receive no representation at all.  Because of this, calls for structural reform have increased. 

Even the New York Times and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences have called for replacing the U.S. system with proportional representation elections from multi-seat legislative districts — a type of system used around the world, where seats are awarded according to the percentage of vote each party receives - and the actual diversity of political perspectives in society wins representation in proportion to those views being held among voters.

That’s why what just occurred in Alaska is so problematic

Maine vs. Alaska’s RCV

A few years ago, the state of Maine adopted ranked-choice voting (RCV) for its state and federal elections, after multiple elections led to winners with less than a majority of the vote.

When used in single-seat district elections, RCV is a great improvement over current practice. RCV allows voters to rank their choices. If there is no immediate majority winner, the bottom candidate is dropped off, and votes for that candidate are redistributed to those voters’ next choice.  This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Not only does RCV solve ‘vote splitting’ and deliver a majority winner, but it discourages negative campaigning, because to be elected, candidates must often compete for second and third choice votes from supporters of their opponents — incentivizing candidates to find common ground with more voters. 

For these reasons, Maine’s adoption of RCV is a major advance in U.S. politics.  But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. RCV makes great sense to elect single-seat executive offices like mayor, governor and president. But electing our legislators via single-seat districts — when we could elect them by proportional representation — unnecessarily and greatly limits representation. 

There are multiple and diverse public policy perspectives in our country. No one candidate or party can reflect them all — even when reaching out more broadly under single-seat RCV.  Our legislatures (and our public policy) would be better informed by seating more of those perspectives at the table of our democracy — rather than by excluding many of them (and the voters who support them) before the legislative process even begins. 

Maine’s RCV elections preserve the idea that it is healthy for democracy to place a wide range of world views before general election voters, views that are reflective of a broad range of society. It does this by retaining the ability of each ballot qualified party to choose its general election nominee via its party primary. Then in the general election, all of them compete under RCV.

Alaska’s newly adopted general election RCV does the opposite. Measure Two, which was just approved 50.5% to 49.5% by Alaska voters, eliminates the ability of diverse political parties to automatically place a nominee on the general election ballot. Instead, party primaries for state and federal office are replaced by a top four jungle primary (without RCV!), in which all candidates from all parties compete against each other for the right to advance to the general election, where they then compete against each other under RCV.

Just like with California’s top two system, there could be multiple Democrats and multiple Republicans in the primary all running against each other under Alaska’s top four. And just like with California’s top two, because RCV is not used in the primary, ‘vote-splitting’ and ‘lesser-of-evils’ remains in play. The only difference is that these dynamics are spread over sending four candidates to the general election, instead of two.

Top-Four Duopoly

Under California’s top two system, candidates from smaller ballot-qualified parties have never advanced to the general election for any state or federal office, when there are also at least two Democrats and/or Republicans on the primary ballot. A top four primary will likely see more Democrats and Republicans on the general election ballot, compared to California’s top two. But in most cases, it will still constrain general election voters to the limited policy approaches and ideological range offered by those parties.  

In Alaska, only once since 1996 have fewer than four Democrats and/or Republicans run in primary elections for statewide office (for Governor, US Senate or US House) — and that was with only two general election places on the ballot up for grabs. Under top four, the number of candidates from those larger parties will likely increase. As a result, even with four places on the general election ballot (compared to top two), candidates from smaller parties will rarely if ever advance to the general election. This is especially the case because RCV will not be used in those primaries, meaning supporters of smaller parties will still face either voting for the candidates they most favor in the primary election, or the lesser-of-evil major party candidate closest to their views.

The rare exceptions will likely be in a small number of state legislative races when there are fewer than four Democrats and/or Republicans running; and/or where so many of them run and ‘vote-split’, that a smaller party candidate is able to slip by. But why should you care, unless you are a supporter of one of the smaller parties? Because in practice, top two elections have replicated our polarizing, unrepresentative two-party duopoly, only in a slightly altered form - and it is highly unlikely a top four system will be much different.

Misreading the Voters

It is a logical step from Maine’s use of RCV — which guarantees a general election spot for the nominees of all ballot qualified parties — to multi-seat elections by proportional representation, which embodies the idea that supporters of those parties all deserve legislative representation

By eliminating a guaranteed spot on the general election ballot for all ballot-qualified parties, Alaska’s new RCV law moves away from promoting a viable multi-party democracy.  Perhaps the biggest danger is its anti-party mentality that maintains that a jungle primary is preferable to party primaries, ‘because all voters can choose who ends up on the general election ballot, instead of the members of each political party.’'

It’s very dangerous for our democracy to misread (or misrepresent) the frustration that comes from voters’ lack of choice under our current system — that comes from having only two competitive major parties that are not fully representative of the range of viewpoints in the electorate — and conclude that voters reject the idea of political parties per se. 

This same anti-party mentality assumes the growing number of non-affiliated voters (who chose not to register as a party member in voter-registration-by-party-states) means these voters reject political parties per se, when the reality is that the electoral system does not render electorally viable parties that represent them.

By contrast, in countries that use elections by proportional representation, there are usually four, five or six parties in their state and federal legislatures; and far more voters are able to vote to elect someone who truly represents their views than under the U.S. system.  In such systems each political party also has a more clear identity than the Democrats and the Republicans do in the U.S., which are often seen as political shells to be taken over — increasing cynicism that parties and politicians don’t really stand for anything — which then leads to arguments for eliminating party primaries and replacing them with top two/top four. 

Redistricting Problems

Top two and top four systems also distract from real solutions to gerrymandering and redistricting.  California tried to solve partisan gerrymandering by adopting a Citizens Redistricting Commission — so politicians couldn’t chose their voters, and the state legislature couldn’t continue drawing legislative districts to protect incumbents. 

But more competitive districts don’t mean more representative. Under new district lines drawn by the commission, most California state legislative and Congressional seats still result in ongoing control by one major party or another. But we now also have have a smaller number of districts that schizophrenically swing back between Democrat and Republican, based upon a change of a percentage point or two — and sometimes by only a few hundred votes. This still leaves tens of thousands of California voters in each district with all or nothing each time — an unrepresentative dynamic inherent to single-seat district elections, however district lines are drawn.

By contrast, proportional representation elections solve these redistricting problems — because as long as there are enough seats in a multi-seat district, the results will be proportional within each district, and cumulatively among all districts. That is the direction our democracy should be headed, not trying to rejigger single-seat elections with top two and two four.

Conclusion

Alaska’s adoption of a top four primary — even when combined with RCV single-seat general elections, is not a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

By eliminating party primaries — and no longer ensuring voters will have more than a duopoly general election choice — Alaska’s new top four dangerously perpetuates the illusion that representative democracy will come through single-seat district elections.  This is a wrong turn for our nation — because it misses a historic opportunity for real reform — and sends the wrong message about representation in a democracy.

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About the Author

Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State

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