Debate: Making American Democracy Representative

In their article in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect, “Making American Democracy Representative,” Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens argue that the way we vote for Congress has contributed to a highly polarized and unrepresentative government. In place of the current system, they call for three reforms to elections for the U.S. House of Representatives: ranked-choice voting, the abolition of primaries, and proportional representation in multi-member districts. This is a big, long-term agenda. Do Page and Gilens have the right ideas about how to reform voting? And do they have their priorities right?  

Two commentators address these questions. Drew Penrose is the legal and policy director of FairVote. Miles Rapoport is a long-time democracy advocate who served as Connecticut’s secretary of state and president of both Dēmos and Common Cause. He is the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center of the Kennedy School at Harvard and a member of the board of The American Prospect.

—Paul Starr



Voting Reform Goes from Theory to Legislation

Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens convincingly make the case for a new, fairer system for electing members of Congress. They suggest this statutory change is possible with greater public understanding of its impact. Fortunately, that is already happening.

In 2017, U.S. Representative Don Beyer of Virginia introduced HR 3057, the Fair Representation Act, which requires the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) for all congressional elections. It relies on the single-winner form for the seven states that elect only one representative. The remaining states would hold multi-winner elections using the single transferable vote form of RCV recommended by Page and Gilens to elect representatives. The bill also requires the 26 states large enough to draw multi-winner districts to establish independent redistricting commissions. It does not abolish primary elections, though if a state holds primary elections it must also use RCV. Read More.



Beware of Complicated Restructuring

Although I am a friend of Ben Page and Marty Gilens and a fan of their tireless work on behalf of equality and democracy, their article “Making American Democracy Representative” has limited appeal for me. I agree with some of their proposals, but I disagree with others. I also disagree with a fundamental premise of their approach, and instead favor a more feasible alternative path to making American politics more democratic. 

I do support their first proposal, ranked-choice voting, and admire the work that reformers have done in Maine to implement ranked choice under difficult political circumstances, though it is not the only way to address the problem of spoiler candidates. Fusion voting—that is, allowing cross-endorsements of candidates by multiple parties—has some of the same effects. Fusion in New York, Connecticut, and a few other states has enabled third parties, including the Working Families Party, to have major influence in elections without being forced into the spoiler role. Read More.

In dark times it is especially important to recognize that change is possible and that efforts to make American democracy more equitable and effective can succeed. We are grateful to Drew Penrose for pointing to the many places in our country where the kinds of voting reforms we are advocating have been proposed or are already in use. We also applaud the work of FairVote in analyzing, publicizing, and advocating for voting reforms of the sort we discussed. 

We remain concerned that even with ranked-choice voting (RCV) in multi-member districts (as in HR 3057), separate party primaries would continue to empower candidates who appeal to the partisan fringes, the affluent, and organized interest groups. Partisan primaries inherently disfavor candidates with broad appeal to independents and members of the other party. Moreover, low, biased turnout in primaries can make the results unrepresentative even of rank-and-file party members. Read More.

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