Changing election choice architecture to empower people

Despite the spike in partisanship nationally I know that Oregon voters would like a State legislature that solved our difficult problems with reasoned and honorable negotiation and compromise.  They would like to have rural Democrats and urban Republicans in Salem. Many voters would like to have a number of non affiliated Legislators or minor party representatives.

In sum, a most Oregon voters would like a more moderate group of Legislators working for the best interests of all voters in their districts.

But that seems like an impossibility to many. While we may hope that our current highly partisan divide is a temporary hiccup and that we’ll see a swing back to less partisanship, an objective review of how we became so politically partisan offers little hope of a swing back to political comity. At least if that hope is based on pleading with political operatives and candidates to be nicer and to work together.

  • Technology now allows political campaigns to reach voters at a granular level, connecting with them with tailored messages
  • Recent advances in behavioral psychology as applied to political partisanship has found that negative ads sowing fear and anger are highly effective. Twice as effective as ads and messages of hope.
  • Closed primaries means that more moderate voters who have left the Democratic and Republican Parties and declared a pox on both houses can’t participate in the vote for the “top two”.
  • First past the post voting means only the Democratic and Republican partisan nominees are viable candidates in the general election.
  • Because of legal and self gerrymandered districts that are solidly blue or red, some voters don’t even have two options. They’re stuck with a single viable candidate
  • Because of Oregon’s total lack of campaign finance laws, the barriers for viable non Democratic and Republican candidates are impossibly high.

You can’t change human behavior so fear, anger and the willingness of some operatives and candidates to do and say anything to win will continue and those that use it most effectively will continue to win. You can’t change the US Constitution or the willingness of the monied interests to spend to protect and expand their power to influence legislation.

That leaves changing our choice architecture.

Radical change in service to Moderation

As odd as it may seem, moderates who want better government that is more responsive to the voters, may only get their wish if they support “radical” changes in process. Moderates , independents, centrists, will cringe at the term radical change.  But voters in other jurisdictions understand the need to modernize our selection process and they’ve taken steps to implement that change.

  • Maine has adopted ranked choice voting for governor, state legislature, US House, and US Senate.
  • Minneapolis has used ranked choice voting since 2013, (however the Minnesota Legislature this year introduced a bill that would eliminate ranked choice voting.
  • Sante Fe voted for ranked choice voting in 2008, though the Democratic and Republican party elites delayed implementation until this year.
  • Many cities in the Bay area use ranked choice voting
  • Cambridge Massachusetts has used ranked choice voting since 1940 for its 9 member city council
  • Benton County Oregon has approved ranked choice voting in county races and the State has approved funding to implement it.

How can Oregon change our election choice architecture in a way that is the most modest  but effective? In order to reduce opposition it should  be understandable, most similar to our current architecture and addresses many of the worst  problems with our current system.

Best single reform could be multi member districts

A best candidate for reform could be multi member representative Districts. One such proposal would be to hold legislative elections once every four years,  use our current Senate Districts boundaries and elect three people from each district using ranked choice voting. The top vote getter would take the District Senate Seat, and the other two would be the District representatives. You would very likely see a similar political makeup in the Senate that you have now, but the House would be more representative of minority interests, not just moderates from both legacy parties but also more women and people of color. You would likely even have some independents or minor party officials in the House.

The benefits of multi member districts include: Less negative advertising as candidates seek to win the second or third place vote of voters; For the same reason, fewer wedge candidates or single issue candidates would do well; You’d have 90 competitive races, not just a handful so the large donors would have less influence and community based candidates could effectively compete; more rural Democrats and urban Republicans would be elected. More women and people of color would be competetive; More minor party and independent candidates could compete and voters could vote for them without fear of causing their least favorite candidate to win (the spoiler effect); Gerrymandering would be largely irrelevant and we could quit talking about independent commissions and gaming that system.

Yes indeed, changing the way we vote and perhaps even how our State Houses are configured is a pretty radical idea. But it’s radicalism in service to moderation by creating a working democracy that accurately reflects the community and is not so beholden to the special monied interests that now dominate our government elected offices.

The American experience works because it’s never been radicals that have overcome serious obstacles that threaten our democracy. In 1776 it was farmers, lawyers, merchants and physicians that objected to an English government that failed to reflect the will of Americans. During the progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th Century, the professional, middle income and educated classes again demanded and won progressive policies and changed our election choice architecture reducing the power of the “Trusts” and creating a form of direct democracy. They paved the way for FDR and the great society.

It can be done.

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