There are a lot of ways one can interpret the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States. It was a Blue Wave, as Democrats gained back the House with a net pickup of probably close to 40 seats, along with net gains of seven state governorships, five state legislatures and something like 250 state legislative seats. It was a successful defense for the Republicans, holding control of the Senate and even gaining a seat or two. It was a reinvigoration of democracy, as voter turnout rose from the anemic mid-term average (40 percent) to 49 percent.
It was a victory for women, who will comprise their largest share of the House of Representatives in history (23 percent)—but still much less than in Germany (31 percent) or France (39 percent). It was a sad day for Republican women, who now account for only a third of all women state legislators, and a smaller share of both the U.S. House and state legislatures than they did in the previous two years.
It furthered our geographic and political polarization, with Republican members of Congress plunging perilously close to extinction in the Northeast and the urban and suburban West, while still dominating the South and most rural and exurban districts. And yet in some ways, it showed signs of easing polarization, as many moderate Democrats won close races in swing Congressional districts. They included Abigail Spanberger (a former CIA operative) in Virginia’s Richmond suburbs, Elissa Slotkin (a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official) in southern Michigan, and Josh Harder (a young venture capitalist and college teacher) in California’s Central Valley.
Perhaps the most consequential election for the future, however, was in Maine’s Second Congressional District, where Democrat Jared Golden defeated Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin by less than one percentage point after trailing in the first round of voting by a similar margin. For the first time in American history, a U.S. congressional election was determined by “instant runoff,” using the system of ranked-choice voting that Maine had adopted in a 2016 voter initiative, and then reinstated (over the resistance of the state legislature and much of the state’s professional political class) in a June 2018 “people’s veto” initiative. Under ranked-choice voting, if no candidate gains a majority of first-preference votes, the weakest finishers are eliminated and their second (and if necessary, lower) preference votes are transferred to the remaining candidates until someone wins a majority. It was by that method that Golden, a 36-year-old Marine Corps veteran, came from behind to win yesterday.
Established politicians (and especially Republicans) in Maine attempted everything imaginable in terms of legislative and judicial obstruction to try to keep ranked-choice voting (RCV) from being used to determine an election outcome. And they partially succeeded, getting the Maine Supreme Court to overturn RCV for use in the general election for state legislators and governor (while allowing it to stand for primary elections and the general election for U.S. and Senate). In a last stab against reform, the incumbent Poliquin raced to federal court to try to stop the instant runoff count after the first-round tally of votes showed him leading. He claimed that Article 1 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution sets plurality voting as the method of election for Congress, even though it does no such thing. U.S. District Judge Lance Walker declined Poliquin’s bid to stop the tabulation of the final preference votes, and Golden won.
With the first successful operation of ranked-choice voting in a nationally significant election—producing a majority winner out of a divided field—interest in ranked-choice voting is bound to grow. Already, it is employed in a number of American municipalities, and on November 6 the voters of Memphis turned back an initiative that would have repealed a ten-year-old voter decision to adopt ranked-choice voting for their elections. The Memphis City Council tried to get the city’s voters to reverse themselves, but by a vote of 62 percent, Memphis voters reaffirmed their decision. Next year, FairVote reports, the city will use RCV to ensure majority winners in their elections, “replacing the costly and low turnout runoffs that have long disenfranchised voters.” A rising tide of analytic, editorial and grassroots sentiment is gathering in favor of this electoral reform, foundation interest in it is growing, and new grassroots campaigns for it are gaining traction (particularly in Massachusetts).
Ranked-choice voting is a reform whose time is coming. Even a good many Americans with clear political and programmatic preferences are sick and tired of political polarization, gridlock, and maximalist bashing of one party by the other in Congress and the state legislatures. Everywhere I have spoken in the last two years about our mounting democratic difficulties and the possibilities for reform, I have encountered a similar reaction (which has been confirmed by a recent innovative opinion poll). Once people hear the logic behind ranked-choice voting—that it enables people to vote for a third party or independent candidate without fear of wasting their vote, that it ensures that every vote counts, and that the victor will be the candidate who best appeals to a majority of the electorate—people like the notion a lot. They particularly like the idea that it encourages moderation and bridging of our political divides, rather than simply appealing to a hardened partisan base. From Maine to Memphis, we see that if people are offered the choice, RCV is a reform they will embrace—and defend.
In fact, there is good reason to believe that we are entering a new age of political reform in America. As the remarkable grassroots reform group Represent.US has shown, almost every political reform measure that was on the ballot last week passed. Four states—Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah—passed voter initiatives to eliminate partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts (giving the power to draw district boundaries to independent, nonpartisan commissions). As USC’s Schwarzenegger Institute explains, given that Ohio had passed a similar measure in its May primary election and California (and a few other states) did so before, the 2022 redistricting process will now see roughly a third of all House seats drawn by independent commissions or nonpartisan experts. That’s a good start on ridding American democracy of one of its most disgraceful scourges.
But there were other victories as well—in fact, according to Represent.US, 22 of them. Baltimore, Denver, Phoenix, and New York City passed campaign finance reform measures that will promote transparency and establish or expand public funding of campaigns. Michigan and Nevada passed measures to make it easier for people to register and vote. New Mexico voters created an independent commission to investigate and adjudicate allegations of political corruption. Only in South Dakota did voters reject a reform measure, which would have tightened the state’s lobbying and campaign finance laws and also constrained the state legislature from unilaterally modifying a voter initiative, as it did in 2016 in repealing a similar initiative to strengthen ethics provisions.
As we enter the Age of Reform, creative and exciting new ideas are coming forward. In a groundbreaking, two-part editorial following last week’s election, the New York Times floated the idea of significantly enlarging the U.S. House of Representatives. The current size of 435 was set in 1911 when the average member represented 200,000 people; now it is nearly 4 times that. The Times proposes to add 158 new House seats—enough to make the House more competitive, representative, and hence democratic, while not making it so huge that it would be unworkable.
The Times also proposes electing Congress from multi-member districts, in which ranked-choice voting would be combined with proportional representation (in essence, the Fair Representation Act introduced by Rep. Donald Beyer and endorsed by political scientists like Lee Drutman). This system would be manifestly fairer—restoring significant Republican representation in Northeastern states and significant Democratic representation in predominantly white Southern areas. It would thus also make it much harder for cynical politicians to effectively gerrymander the opposition out of fair representation—as the Times observes, every district with three or more members would almost certainly have at least one member from each of the two major parties. The problem is that the two major parties would have to agree for Congress to enact it nationally (or even allow the states to do so individually). And there is some risk that over time it could fragment the party system, possibly making our polarization worse. In short, it’s an intriguing—but more daring—idea.
While we imagine more ambitious reforms, we can at least get moving on safer, more incremental measures that are highly likely to move our politics in a more accommodating direction. Nothing offers a better near-term prospect of that than ranked-choice voting.
But not every innovation to dilute the partisan poison in our politics has to come from legislation. In advance of the 2018 election cycle, another former marine, Rye Barcott, got an idea. Maybe our younger veterans could help improve the tone of our politics by doing in politics what they have done in Iraq and Afghanistan: Put country over party. Maybe one small contributing factor in our polarization is that the proportion of military veterans in Congress has plummeted from three-quarters in the late 1960s to about 20 percent today. Maybe it’s time for a bipartisan effort to support candidates from this new generation of veterans who will pledge to “work in a cross-partisan way to create a more effective and less polarized government.” From this kind of thinking was born the new bipartisan campaign group, With Honor, which supported 40 military veterans running for the House last week. About half of them won, more or less evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The victors included Golden and Dan Crenshaw—a former Navy SEAL who lost an eye in Afghanistan. After being ridiculed for his eyepatch by Saturday Night Live star Peter Davidson, Crenshaw went on SNL last weekend with a Veteran’s Day message of national unity and a gracious willingness to accept Davidson’s apology. A Republican, he won over many liberals.
Look for Golden and Crenshaw, alongside other With Honor veterans, and former CIA agents Spanberger and Slotkin, to work to change the tone on Capitol Hill. They know from experience the price we pay when we put party over country.