While it would be wonderful to blame division in the nation on a single person or party or ideology, its infantile.
Journalists will tell you that the culture of politics has become somehow rotten because of basic, fundamental disagreements among Americans on issues close to their hearts - that somehow, we have lost our way and that we care less about the nation and more about ourselves. They may even be right about some of these things, but to a degree.
The turnout in the last election suggests that Americans are more interested and enthusiastic about politics than ever. Even Gen-Z voters surpassed expectations in getting their ballots dropped and every sub-group of voters showed improvements. Something was working. So why aren’t we happy?
I’ll suggest that there are systemic, mechanical problems in play that have, over time, become unavoidable but not incurable.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr (1961), reviving redistricting, each state has confronted the partisan gerrymandering of its legislative and Congressional districts. The parties control this process and to the winners go the spoils. For the first few decades of this game, they sometimes miscalculated, despite employing what was then the best technology to draw lines. But as we moved forward, the technology improved dramatically to the point that a 12-year-old with a cheap laptop can create districts to the best of a given party’s benefit in almost every case. The result has been massively overloaded partisan districts and consequentially far fewer competitive districts.
The real election is often the primary election in these cases, with more and more radical candidates going off to the general election as the winners. This yields legislatures that are sharply, if artificially, divided and extreme as well. Artificially so, because most of the general election voters in the election that put them there are nowhere nearly as politically as extreme as the candidates on offer.
But there is a solution.
Maine and Alaska are currently trying on a new system. Instead of first-past-the-post, winner-take-all, two-candidate general elections, these states have chosen to use a form called “ranked choice voting” or RCV. And I’m entranced. In Alaska’s system, there is a “Nonpartisan Pick One Primary” where all voters pick a candidate from all qualified candidates and the top four go to the general election.
According to Ballotpedia (my go-to for all electoral rules), the general election works like this:
Voters rank the candidates for a given office, by preference (1 to 4 in Alaska) on their ballots.
If a candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes (i.e., 50 percent plus one), he or she will be declared the winner.
If, on the other hand, no candidates win an outright majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated.
All first-preference votes for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the next-preference choices indicated on those ballots.
A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won an outright majority of the adjusted voters.
The process is repeated until a candidate wins a majority of votes cast.
Complex? Read it again.
It’s basically a winnowing process. While recognizing the candidate preferred by most voters – not simply Democratic or Republican voters - it also tests how deep that preference goes. And eliminates those that are not strongly preferred by most voters. No more two-person, “lesser of two evils” choices. And it has the potential to advantage candidates who are more centrist as well, since they would not be eliminated in a sharply partisan primary election where only the purest party identifiers tend to vote.
Gerrymanders and party primary voting have poisoned the political well. So, let’s be at least willing to try something else.
R. Bruce Anderson is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College and Miller Distinguished Professor of Political Science. He is also a columnist for The Ledger and political consultant and on-air commentator for WLKF Radio in Lakeland.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: It’s time for real election reform, gerrymandering counterproductive