America is polarized and paralyzed. Our election system is a big part of the reason. Here's how we could fix it.
Americans are fed up. Our political system seems more polarized than we ourselves are and no matter what any of us do, the gridlock and fighting in Washington continue. There is a stark sense that we continually end up with a government none of us wants, but we are powerless to change it. It's no wonder so many people have little faith in politics and some are even losing faith in democracy itself.
A lot of this disillusionment with politics can be seen across the rich world, but America's election system is frustratingly exceptional and much of the blame lies at its door. It is confusing, which helps conspiracy theorists claim the system is rigged because few understand how it really works. This lack of transparency leads to a lack of faith in American government and democracy. Perhaps worse, the system produces governments so divided they are unable to agree on policies—or even the facts that would guide them. Again, the election system is to blame for much of this. Here's how it could be fixed.
Step one: Simplify and unify the primary election system. Each state and every party should follow the exact same rules for primary elections. Simple. Everyone would understand the outcome. We can also get rid of superdelegates and winner-takes-all systems if we complete step two below. Superdelegates, which voters hate because they give party big-wigs more control, are a necessity in the current, closed-primary system because they have to ensure someone wins a majority. Open primaries would eliminate this need and make the system more open and flexible.
Step two: Move to open primaries for all offices. Imagine the following scenario: You are a moderate Republican living in a Democratic-majority district (i.e. one that's usually a "safe" Democratic seat). You vote for the Republican candidate each time, though that candidate is to the right of where you'd like him/her to be. Nevertheless, a left-wing Democrat wins your district most of the time. (You can reverse "Democrat" and "Republican" here, it's all the same.) You feel unhappy with the choices you have and with your representation. Sound familiar? Closed primaries are how this happens.
Let's use some numbers to illustrate this. Suppose your district is 60% Democratic and 40% Republican. That's actually pretty mixed, and yet a left-wing Democrat usually wins. Why? Let's break down the numbers further and say that 32% of the population is left-wing, 28% is center-left, 18% is center-right, and 22% is right-wing. The primaries will produce a left-wing and a right-wing candidate and the left-wing candidate will always win, despite the fact that 46% of voters are centrist and a further 22% are far-right. This is what happens in lots of districts, which is why Congress has left and right wings, but very little center ground—where comprises could be made. In addition, if there are any third-party candidates, the general election could send someone to Washington who did not even receive a majority of votes.
Open primaries allow everyone to vote for their favorite candidate—regardless of party. The top two candidates, again regardless of party, then go on to battle it out in the general election. In the example above, this is what would happen: If no one changed votes to vote strategically in the primary (like center-right Republicans backing the center-left Democrat or right-wing Republicans backing the center-right Republican, which might one day allow a moderate Republican to win), the general election would feature a left-wing and a center-left Democrat running against each other. The center-left Democrat would win a majority (always an absolute majority, because the general election would feature only the top two candidates from the primary), a candidate who more closely represents the diversity of the district and is more likely to compromise to make government work in Washington—something most Americans want. Fewer voters would feel total dismay at the candidates presented to them and utterly unrepresented by their government.
If this happened in Republican and Democratic districts across the country that were "safe" but still fairly mixed, the result would be a Congress with a center-ground capable of making deals across the aisle. That would mean fewer government shutdowns, fewer days lost to filibustering, a Supreme Court with nine Justices, and, who knows, maybe even a a Congressional plan to improve health care rather than two sides trying in vain to implement diametrically opposed Utopian (or Dystopien, depending on your point of view) visions. Simplified, unified, transparent, and open primaries that gave a voice to all voters on all party candidates would give people the sense that they had real power over the choices they were presented and would lead to a government that actually worked.
Step three: End gerrymandering. We all know it happens. We all know some Congressional districts look they were drawn by a drunken three-year-old. We all know the result: Certain voters are disenfranchised and safe seats are created that cause the polarization shown above. Open primaries would help reduce that effect, but electoral maps should be fair and representative, anyway.
Step four: Everyone knows we don't need the Electoral College (EC). Changing this would be the hardest, because it would require a Constitutional amendment. That's why I left it for last. But still: We don't need it or its winner-takes-all distortions. How can Americans have trust in elections when they know that the EC actually decides and that Electors could theoretically vote differently from the electorate they are supposed to represent? How can we feel good about a system in which the winner of the popular vote sometimes fails to win the Presidency? How can we not feel our voice is being ignored with a system that, as it stands today, would allow the House of Representatives to pick the winner if a third-party candidate managed to win a state and prevent either more popular candidate from getting a majority in the EC? The EC can be abolished and replaced with a simple majority of the popular vote because the open primaries described above would ensure just two candidates made it to the general election, so one of them would be guaranteed a majority.1
These reforms, or even just the first two, would make a huge difference. They would reduce polarization in politics, which I think would help reduce the ongoing polarization of our society. They would get Congress working again. Sure, the far left and far right would be unhappy, but the current system guarantees they are either super happy or totally outraged all the time (because only the extremes win and neither extreme can gain full control). The rest of us, meanwhile, are just annoyed. If centrists got their way, those of us not at the extremes would be much happier. But even those at the extremes would be less upset than they are now, because American politics would cease to be a life-and-death battle over opposing ideologies. Instead, it would go back to being what it should be: The rather boring, but vital, process of running a country.
1. Except in the fantastically unlikely scenario that the popular vote is evenly divided down to the last vote—in which case, fine, let the House decide as it does now.
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