Your Guide to Tuesday’s Transformation of Democracy

November 5, 2018 | 9:46 am
Omari Spears/UCS
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

Update 11/5: The post has been updated to change the title.

Democracy in America will be transformed Tuesday night, for better or worse. Or both. In the worst-case scenario, numerous voting rights and electoral reforms will go down in flames across the country, new barriers to voting will be erected, and despite winning millions of more votes, the more popular political party will fall short of winning governing control over the House of Representatives, designed to represent “the People alone,” as James Madison put it. Popular Sovereignty is but a quaint memory, the pillars of democracy crumble, and we submit to our oligarchic overlords.

In the best-case scenario, majority rule operates as designed, several states upgrade their deficient electoral systems, and a series of innovative upgrades to improve participation and representation are passed by broad coalitions of citizens. November 7th is a new day in America, with a higher quality of democracy and improved institutional performance to look forward to in 2020.

In the most likely scenario, there will be victories and defeats. To help the inquisitive keep track of what kind of democracy we will be waking up to, I’ve prepared a Democracy Scoreboard for easy download that I will be updating from Twitter into the night, but hopefully not into the morning. I’m focusing on three areas of performance: Congressional elections, state redistricting and voting rights initiatives, and local electoral system reforms.

In order to provide a manageable list of indicators, I’ve chosen ten of the more competitive Congressional races in the Eastern time zone, according to latest updates from Cook Political Report, Fivethirtyeight and The Economist. These include Maine’s 2nd district, where the outcome may depend on the state’s new ranked choice voting system. The four-candidate race looks to be a dead heat between GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden, but independents Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar could get enough 1st place votes to necessitate the transfer of 2nd place votes.

Other Congressional races to watch include New York’s 19th and 22nd districts, New Jersey’s 3rd, Pennsylvania’s (newly redistricted) 1st, Virginia’s 2nd, North Carolina’s 9th (the most Republican leaning), Kentucky’s 6th, and Florida’s 15th and 26th districts. If the Democratic Party takes these seats with margins of 2-3 points, they are poised to win a House majority along with the popular vote. While Democrats are up approximately 8 points in the generic partisan ballot, there is still a 10-15% chance that the Democratic Party wins more votes but fewer than 218 seats, due to gerrymandering and the geographic concentration of voters.

Therefore, the more of these seats the GOP picks up, the more likely we are to see a popular vote/seat majority split due to gerrymandering and/or restrictive election laws. There is less than a 1% chance that the Republican Party wins the popular vote but fails to win a majority of seats. If the Republican Party picks up the majority of these seats, it is an indication that it will be a better night for their voters than forecasting models have predicted.

For the statewide initiatives, I’ve chosen the five state redistricting propositions designed to eliminate gerrymandering (Colorado has two, plus Michigan, Missouri and Utah), Florida’s felon enfranchisement initiative (which needs 60% support to pass), as well as Maryland, Michigan’s and Nevada’s attempts to reduce registration barriers. In South Dakota, voters are being asked to amend their constitution to reinstate previous campaign finance and ethics reforms that the legislature killed.

Conversely, a number of states are trying to restrict ballot and voting access, which will count against democratic performance: Arkansas (voter ID), Montana (restrictions on who can turn in ballots), North Carolina (voter ID and legislative control over state election board) and South Dakota (proof of citizenship requirement). A full list of statewide and local election related initiatives can be found here at Daily Kos.

Locally, a number of initiatives to improve democratic representation are being considered. Baltimore, Denver, New York and Portland, Oregon are giving voters the opportunity to improve campaign finance. Fargo, North Dakota is considering the adoption of approval voting, a single-winner system where voters mark all candidates they support, and the most popular candidate wins. Lane County, Oregon may adopt the “STAR” voting system, a form of instant-runoff preferential voting. Conversely, reformers in Memphis, Tennessee are trying to repel the establishment’s efforts to repeal ranked choice voting there, even though strong evidence suggests that RCV would increase participation and representation for the city’s less affluent voters.

Keep an eye out for regular election night updates at @mlatner soon after 8pm on the East Coast. And remember, no matter how the night goes, we are looking at a historic level of voter turnout for a midterm election already. We won’t know final turnout estimates for a while after the election, but this itself is a good sign about the health of  democracy. It is a prerequisite. Now get out there and VOTE!