For Democrats the Problem Is Their Message, Not the System

For decades now, liberals in the United States have reacted to electoral losses by demanding changes in election laws to make it easier for them to win. They have long railed against the Electoral College for that reason, claiming that a national popular vote for the presidency would be fairer, more transparent, and (incidentally) more likely to lead to Democratic victories (a debatable proposition).

They have also criticized (for similarly partisan reasons) registration requirements, voter identification laws, campaign finance rules, and single-day elections. After Republicans recaptured the Senate in 2014 and then maintained control in 2016, they amped up the volume of attacks on the provision in the U.S. Constitution giving every state two senators despite wide variations in state populations. The system is unfair and undemocratic, they say, though their main gripe is that it does not provide them with an easier path to victory. Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 election only aggravated their discontent with various features of the U.S. electoral system.

The Economist has now weighed in with the latest electoral fad, designed (the editors say) to reduce partisanship in Congress and to give Democrats a better shot at winning majority control. The magazine’s editorial is titled “American Democracy’s Built-in Bias,” which carries the subtitle, “Elections No Longer Convert the Popular Will into Control of Government.” The editors are fully aware that the American founders built various features into the Constitution as roadblocks against naked majoritarianism, and against the idea that popular will should automatically be converted into control over the government. They persist in this majoritarian claim, not apparently because they really believe it, but mainly because they do not like how recent elections have turned out.

This point is implied in the editors’ claim that electoral rules are biased in favor of Republicans and rural voters and against Democrats and urban voters. Their evidence: Democrats have more difficulty than Republicans in converting the national popular vote into congressional seats.

A Losing Message
There is no obvious reason, of course, why independent elections in 435 different congressional districts should yield the same result as a national tabulation of the popular vote. Indeed, it might be strange if this were the case, given differences across districts in turnout, candidates, party competition, local issues, and the like. Nevertheless, in every midterm congressional election since 1982 the party that won a majority or a plurality of the national vote also won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

If Democrats have a problem winning control of Congress, then the solution is not to change the election system but to craft a message that has greater appeal to voters across the country.

The editors claim (implausibly) that this anti-majority and anti-Democratic bias is poisoning the national political culture leading to hyperpartisanship and general dysfunction in Congress. To make matters worse, the anti-majoritarian bias of the Senate is now allowing Republicans to win control of the third branch of government via new appointments to the Supreme Court—though liberals and conservatives alike traditionally have defended the judiciary as a countermajoritarian institution.

The Economist’s analysis depends upon the assumption that Republicans are responsible for partisan polarization in Washington, that the power they wield is not legitimate, and that Democrats are the natural governing party in America. Thus it is that the editors of The Economist hope to tamp down partisanship with a hyper-partisan interpretation of the facts.

The claim that Democrats cannot appeal to rural and small state voters is disproven by history. For decades Democratic Party leaders like FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Bill Clinton appealed to those voters and won states like Montana, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, and the like. Except for a few terms, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress from the 1930s into the 1980s and 1990s, and they did so by winning congressional districts that they now routinely lose.

These Democratic losses occurred in recent decades not because the electoral system is biased but rather because leftists captured the Party in the 1970s and embraced a toxic brand of identity politics that cannot be sold in many parts of the country. The editors of The Economist would do better to encourage Democrats to moderate their message than to demand an overhaul of the nation’s electoral system.

The Ranked Choice Voting Fad
On the basis of a flawed analysis, The Economist makes a pitch for a national system of “ranked choice voting,” the latest fad among liberal editorialists at the
New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national publications. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), now in place in the state of Maine and various cities across the country, allows voters in three (or more) candidate races to rank order their preferences in case no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. In such cases, the ballots are analyzed by rank order preference with the candidate winning that count is declared the victor. In a three-candidate race, the voters for the weakest candidate will decide the election on the basis of their relative preferences for the two strongest candidates.

Such a system, according to the editors, will encourage moderation and competition in election campaigns, though that has yet to happen in Maine, San Francisco, and other cities where the system is on trial.

There is the thought in leftist circles that partisanship is mainly the work of Republicans raining on an otherwise harmonious political parade. Thus, in their view, any reform that discourages partisanship is likely to help Democrats.  

Under the Constitution (Article I, Section 4), Congress has the power to set rules for congressional elections. This power has been used at various times in the past to establish single member congressional districts (1842), to eliminate poll taxes and literacy tests for voting, and to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress could use this power to mandate Ranked Choice Voting in congressional contests across the country, which the editors of The Economist hope it will do.

This would be a bad idea for many reasons. It would encourage third, fourth, and fifth parties to enter races in the hope of influencing the ultimate outcomes. It would encourage so-called sophisticated or strategic voting as voters try to calculate rank orderings most likely to produce the outcomes they want. In places where it has been tried, RCV has reduced turnout because voters find it confusing and complicated. California Governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed a statewide measure for RCV for precisely this reason.

Ranked Choice Voting will sow confusion among voters as to the legitimacy of election outcomes when candidates are declared winners by calculations that are difficult to understand. One of the virtues of federalism is that it allows states and municipalities to experiment with various programs to see how they work before others try them out. A few jurisdictions are engaged with experiment with ranked choice voting. Let’s see how it plays out before we begin to talk about imposing it everywhere.

For all these reasons we will be better off leaving the electoral system as it is instead of tinkering with it in the hope of producing different outcomes.

If the editors of The Economist wish to see Democrats fare better in elections, then they would do well to encourage them to do a better job of appealing to voters in areas where they have been losing.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

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About James Piereson

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon foundation. He is most recently, the author of Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Post War Political Order (Encounter, 2015). His essays appear in many newspaper and journals, including The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The New Criterion.

Photo: Man wearing an "I voted" sticker showing his disgust