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Why Reforming Electoral Institutions Might Be the Best Way to Change Policymaking

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On April 15, the John W. Kluge Center held its second event in the Our Common Purpose Series with Kluge Prize winner Danielle Allen.

How Political Institutions Shape Outcomes and How We Might Reform Them convened a panel of experts on the ways that electoral decision-making systems can encourage some outcomes over others. They also discussed the ways that those decision-making systems can be reformed, and some of their own efforts to do so.

Early in the conversation, Danielle Allen emphasized the “bright line” that connects political institutions to the policies that they create. We can consider solutions to a problem like the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, she said, “but we can’t actually address it if we’re not also thinking about the health of our democracy.” The growing understanding of that point, Allen said, is crystalizing into the ongoing democracy reform movement in the US.

Allen said that this can be a long and arduous process, pointing to the years between 1776 and 1789 when the early government of the United States struggled to work effectively under the Articles of Confederation. “It took that whole decade-long arc for people to have a clear understanding of the new direction they needed to pursue,” she said.

Panelist Katie Fahey, Founder of The People, described how making a social media post led to her heading the successful charge to amend Michigan’s constitution to end the politicized drawing of district lines in the state. For Fahey, reform means bringing more accountability to politics, so that “when clearly there are millions of people, the majority of people, [who] want a change to happen, our government will actually respond to that change and truly be for, by, and of the people.”

In 2016, Fahey said, the excitement around the candidacies of Senator Bernie Sanders and now-former President Donald Trump showed that a desire to radically transform politics could be cause for unity across drastically different parts of the political spectrum. That understanding inspired her effort to bring non-partisan districting to Michigan.

Panelist Cara McCormick, Cofounder of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, described the plurality winner-take-all voting system that US voters currently use in elections. “You can vote for one person, and you can’t vote for anyone else … that’s the extent of your decision-making and weighing of your preference.” The ranked-choice system that McCormick’s organization advocates would allow voters to rank several candidates in the voter’s order of preference, she said. “When the ballots are counted [and re-tabulated with the last place finishers’ supporters’ preferences redistributed], the candidate that wins 50 percent of the vote in aggregate, is the winner.”

McCormick described her realization, while working on a 2014 election in Maine, that the plurality winner-take-all system was causing voters to make confusing calculations about how to strategically use their votes in ways that seemed at odds with a healthy democracy. “The entire conversation, in 2014 anyway, was about who was going to spoil the race for whom, and that a vote for this person was actually a vote for that person, and a vote for this was a wasted vote,” she said. The long, and ongoing, political fight over ranked-choice voting in Maine resulted in the state beginning use of ranked-choice voting in its 2018 elections.

Panelist Lee Drutman, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, said his interest in institutions came from an effort to understand why corporate lobbyists have so much influence in politics. The “surprisingly straightforward answer,” he said, was that Congress had “hollowed out its own institutional policymaking capacity,” and outsourced policy expertise to corporate lobbyists.

Bringing more expertise to Congress, Drutman said, still would not solve the problem. “Members of Congress and their staff didn’t really want to solve the problems. They wanted to have issues to run on. It was all focused on winning these narrow majorities.” Drutman came to see the problem as caused by the “two-party doom loop,” that poses all political questions as a “binary conflict that is not resolvable as a binary conflict.” The answer, according to Drutman, is multi-member districts that would encourage more parties, more choice, and better representation.

Watch the event here to learn more about the way that institutions can be a deciding factor in the outcomes our political system produces.

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