Stopping the Decline of US Democracy: Where Is the Coalition We Need?

January 7, 2022
Two people in the foreground of a group of protestors raise their fists in solidarity for George FloydClay Banks/Unsplash
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

2022 looks to be a year of reform movements, as many people are wondering how we are going to stop our democratic decline. But changing election rules requires a coalition, whether that’s to shore up voting rights, expand voter choice, or create space for new parties. A sober assessment of potential reform coalitions suggests that leadership failure, coupled with scientific ignorance, will continue to kill democracy as we know it. The good news is that we can start preparing now.

In the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection, a coalition to defend democracy against those who attempted to subvert the certification of the 2020 election appeared to take shape. Leaders from both major political parties denounced the seditionists. Vice President Mike Pence reconvened the chambers that night, announcing that “the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism in this Capitol.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy placed blame squarely at the soon-to-be former president’s feet: “The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed “This failed attempt to obstruct the Congress, this failed insurrection, only underscores how crucial the task before us is for our republic.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi invoked the anthem of St. Francis, the patron saint of her city of San Francisco, calling for Congress to be a channel of peace and healing. She also addressed the seditionists directly: “To those who engaged in the gleeful desecration of this, our temple of democracy, American democracy, justice will be done.”

By the end of the night, or rather early the next morning, the count was clear: of the 524 voting members of Congress, a nearly three-quarters supermajority (377) voted to certify the Electoral College results, while 147 Republican members voted to reject the election results of at least one state. The supermajority democracy coalition containing the sedition caucus would be short lived. Not only did Kevin McCarthy eventually align with seditionists in the certification vote that night, he had been brought to heel by the end of the month. Mitch McConnell has led GOP Senators in opposition against a 9/11 style commission to analyze the 1/6 insurrection, while preventing passage of national voting rights protections through use of the filibuster.

This sort of acquiescence to authoritarians on the part of establishment politicians is often a key factor in the demise of democracies. But the challenges to maintaining what democracy we have run much deeper into the political system. The problem is not the voters, as supermajorities support fundamental changes to strengthen democracy. What is missing is the elite coordination necessary to enact those reforms. In its place we have at least three loosely organized, often competing reform efforts, none of which amounts to a movement, each of which lacks either the political commitment, the technical effectiveness, or the organizational momentum to sustain a Congressional winning coalition.

The election integrity reformers

The broadest reform efforts are centered around access to voting and electoral integrity, including the Freedom to Vote Act (FTVA) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (JLVRAA), which Democrats in Congress have been working on for several years. The FTVA began as the For the People Act, first passed by Democrats in the House in March of 2019. The core of the legislation centers around national standards for voter registration, expanding eligibility and access, including absentee and early voting, in addition to restraints on partisan gerrymandering, as well as election administration security measures, campaign finance, and ethics reforms.  Revisions in the FTVA removed some of the campaign finance and ethics content, while adding language to reduce the risk of election subversion. The JLVRAA would modernize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, replacing sections that have been neutered by Supreme Court decisions over the last decade, and codifying into law judicial standards that have evolved for identifying and remedying racial voting discrimination.

Many of the provisions in these bills reflect the experience of election administrators, the expertise of political scientists and legal scholars who study voting systems, and the organizational support of hundreds of voting rights and related pro-democracy groups. The bills address real problems, including barriers to voting being erected by GOP controlled state legislatures across the county. Moreover, lowering the threshold for participation by reducing the cost of voting in states with restrictive election laws would marginally improve the United States’ abysmal voter turnout, potentially expanding the composition and diversity of the electorate.

But the winning coalition to implement these or similar administrative democracy reforms before 2022 has failed to emerge. Given Senator Manchin and other Democratic leaders’ inability to persuade ten Republican Senators (compromises made on the JLVRAA yielded a single GOP vote, Senator Murkowski of Alaska) to support them, the only hope for these reforms is for Senate Democrats to restore the filibuster to its original rare use (a “talking” filibuster), coupled with some majority rule process to invoke cloture (stop debate). Yet if a procedural move were a viable strategy, Democrats should have already played it. It is likely that Senator Schumer has not had the Democratic votes he needs for democracy reform. We will know within the next few weeks, as the Majority Leader has indicated that he is moving forward on the procedural vote.

Despite a loud nationwide campaign, and repeated signaling from the Biden administration, Democratic leadership has, to date, prioritized fiscal policy. Democratic senators quickly rallied to suspend the filibuster in December to raise the debt ceiling. That economic coalition likely extends far beyond the 14 Republican Senators who supported the procedural vote. Indeed, with some notable exceptions like Major League Baseball, many corporate interests have been hesitant to offer more than lip service in support of the current legislation. The US Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, is still financially supporting members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election.

The emergent conservative “compromise” to the Democratic bills is a minimalist administrative reform, aimed at updating the Electoral Count Act, while leaving intact current voter suppression efforts. Democratic legislators hopefully recognize the danger of compromising on voting rights with an opposition committed to attacking the legitimacy of elections. But minimalists have a long tradition of support to draw on in American political science and constitutional law, based in part on an a priori commitment to “the value of the two-party system” and the preservation of the thing they have built careers studying.

Nevertheless, an alternative coalition emerging under the weight of the two-party systems’ increasing dysfunction is the joining together of some minimalists with corporate elites and advocacy organizations in support of ballot reform.

The ballot reformers

The big exception to conservative reform opposition is the effort, primarily in state legislatures, to change electoral formulas (the method that converts votes to seats) and partisan primaries. This well-financed, highly organized effort seeks to leverage anti-party sentiment and the narrative that “both sides” of partisan politics can be transcended through the adoption of “non-partisan” or “open” or “blanket” primaries, or ranked-choice voting (RCV), or a combination of the two in the form of “Final Five” where the top five candidates are selected to compete in a runoff, where voters then rank remaining candidates, and a majority winner (of valid remaining ballots) is selected. More eclectic groups of ballot reformers advocate for other variations that require scoring multiple candidates, such as approval, range, or STAR voting.

Ballot reform organizations paint a vision of centrist or “post-partisan” politics with names like the National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers and the Institute for Political Innovation. Well-known liberals like Andrew Yang, “Never Trumpers” like Adam Kinzinger, indeed pretty much everyone, including me, has supported some form of RCV. There are some odd bedfellows, as the groups working hardest on the branding, such as IPI’s Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, rail against the “entrenched duopoly” of Republican and Democratic parties, targeting “start up” political entrepreneurs with their reform message. Meanwhile, the constitutional scholars who know something about elections support RCV and similar reforms because they understand that such changes will not disrupt the two-party system. For example, in Richard Pildes’ view, it is polarizing candidates that are the problem. Force voters to elect “centrists” and the two-party system will return to functionality. As a group, this coalition is committed to no parties, or only two parties.

Unfortunately, research shows that these reforms do not deliver what they promise, earning the title (coined by comparative political scientist Matthew Shugart) of “junk reform.” For one, primary voters are not so different from general election voters, but without partisan cues their choices are more confused. Second, as professor Lindsey Cormack and others have shown, RCV can fail to ensure a majority winner or even counter spoiler effects. Worse, some versions of RCV essentially revert to plurality voting, resulting in discriminatory outcomes against minorities. About the best thing that can be said is that these ballot reforms have marginal effects, as noted in several recent studies. As for encouraging centrism, a recent article by Jonathan Cervas and Bernard Grofman suggests that Donald Trump would have benefited from ranked choice voting in 2020.

This problem is not just one of over-selling: another recovering RCV supporter, political scientist Jack Santucci has pointed out that ballot reformers are epistemically committed to a one-dimensional model of political competition, a model that is especially problematic during a period of party realignment. The model holds that weakening party selection (open primaries), and/or requiring voters to score and aggregate preferences across multiple candidates will yield candidates more closely aligned with the average, or median voter, on the assumption that voters are clustered around the center across a single Left-Right dimension,. Thus, under RCV, Cervas and Grofman find that Donald Trump would have benefited from the second choices of Libertarians to his “right.” But only in a one-dimensional world would Donald Trump ever be considered “centrist.” Real politics is multi-dimensional, with primaries and candidate selection determining issue salience, not just candidate extremism.

As ballot reform funder Kathryn Murdoch puts it: “The theory of change is that essentially, when you switch the system to be better for voters, rather than for parties, you have more representation and therefore less angry people…” The problem with this theory is that you can’t have more representation without more representatives, and ballot reform efforts are committed to retaining single-seat electoral districts, where a single representative, and a single party, wins 100% of the representation. Attempts to reconcile this paradox of maximizing “voter choice” while retaining the two-party system result in ever-more Ptolemaic schemes (consider Edward Foley’s “self districting” with RCV proposal). Single-seat districts may be ideal if the goal is to reduce the dimensionality of politics to say, socialism versus capitalism, then try to maximize “less angry people” along that dimension, but multi-dimensional politics and the fluid coalitions it encourages are a necessary component of robust democracy.

The party system reformers

A third potential reform coalition is basically the flip side of the ballot reformers. Ballot reformers tend to ask too much of voters, as seen in the elaborate schemes like OP + RCV, STAR, and approval voting. These reforms basically ask voters to pick a better coalition. Advocates of proportional electoral system reform flip that around—give voters representation, then have their representatives form the coalition. And unlike ballot reform, electoral system reform would almost certainly achieve its objectives. The problem is that there is neither the political support nor the organizational momentum to make it happen.

Scholarship in comparative politics has demonstrated that electoral systems—the number of seats being contested per district (district magnitude), the number of seats in an assembly or legislature, and the rules that allocate seats from votes (electoral formula)—are jointly predictive of the number of political parties that contest and win seats in national legislatures. Advocates for various forms of proportional representation (PR), or larger district magnitudes and assembly sizes, coupled with a proportional electoral formula, argue that the “doom loop” that boiled over on 1/6 is a function of the two-party system, that there is no hope for meaningful bipartisan reform, and that to avoid further damage to our democracy, we need to adopt PR. A more proportional electoral system would allow Republican legislators to extricate themselves from those in the party who have abandoned democracy, creating a multi-party governing coalition able to cordon off factions that promote violence. As Shugart puts it:

The need for PR is to let the free-market small-d democrats in the currently existing parties act independently of their more extreme wings. This is precisely what PR systems permit–each side’s extreme can be its own party rather than a wing of one majority-seeking party, without raising concerns over “spoilers” that arise under plurality elections.

Proportional representation has gained popularity among three important groups to create this coalition. First, the mainstream press, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have paid more attention to PR, largely through the hard work of FairVote and similar groups (which seem to have turned their resources toward bipartisan RCV adoption). Second, conservative policy scholars, and organizations ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to the Manhattan Institute are also making the case for PR. Third, US academics, including election law scholars like Fred McBride,  Guy-Uriel Charles, and others working atop the shoulders of Lani Guinier, have advanced the idea that PR provides a remedy to overcome the weakness of our crumbling protections against racial voter discrimination. Professors Santucci, Shugart and I are exploring the impact of electoral system design on racial representation.

Many political scientists trained in American politics are no longer wedded to the two-party system, and Lee Drutman, who has thought about PR in the US more than most, is working with the New America Foundation’s Political Reform program to grow political support for PR through the Fix Our House campaign. Drutman argues that a pro-democracy coalition is “hiding in plain sight” among Democrats, Never Trumpers and the many voters unaligned with either major party. What we need, the thinking goes, is a national movement to get us there before the country fractures in half.

As for legislative coalitions, there are none in sight. The Fair Representation Act, which would adopt PR (with STV) for Congress, can’t get out of committee. If Republicans can’t even bring themselves to update the Voting Rights Act, and Democratic leadership hides behind Joe Manchin on voting rights, who is there to support PR? If the combined failures of the two-party system, a global recession, a global pandemic followed by massive economic disruption, nationwide demonstrations for racial justice, and an attempted insurrection are not significant enough “shocks” to prompt big structural reform, it is hard to see what would be.

It is understandably easier to see democracy dying. As Nonviolent Action Lab Director Jay Ulfelder recently opined, “One of the most important facts to emerge from comparative analysis of all attempts at democracy worldwide so far is that the vast majority eventually revert to authoritarian rule, at least for a time.” Maybe this is our time. The Democratic Party could easily lose 25-50 House seats in 2022, and likely the Senate, under the current rules without any violence or insurrection. That would put us in a very different place, though it is important to keep in mind that it hasn’t been that long since large swaths of this country were governed though authoritarian rule.

Party system reformers also neglect the fact that while electoral systems are very predictive of party systems, the politics of electoral reform requires a partisan movement, a component of the new party system, to put it in place. In other words, structural reform requires party building, and as Dr. Andrea Benjamin has shown, that requires community building.

Where we go from here

As it always has, the path to democratic restoration and growth lies in the capacity of everyday people to break the shackles of political alienation and apathy. Despite century-high turnout estimates, 80 million people who could have voted in the 2020 election did not participate. We can change that, and changing it is the key to effective and reliable reform.

Reform-wise, lowering the threshold to participation, or the costs of voting, whether they are eligibility barriers, language barriers, or barriers to ballot access, must remain a priority. It is absurd that, as a democracy, we don’t have basic equality in voting access and election integrity regardless of what state a citizen lives in. But equally important is lowering the threshold of representation. Nurturing communities of political interest requires making it easier to politically organize, to qualify parties on ballots, and to provide more opportunities to run for and win office.

Successful electoral reform efforts must be integrated into the broader project of building community power. Reform will take on different forms in different communities. In some places the electoral system may not even require change. Changing the composition of the electorate will be powerful enough.

But changing the composition of the electorate requires both local groundwork and a system that provides enough incentives to give people something to vote for. Plugging in and creating opportunities for people who are typically ignored by electoral campaigns is going to be expensive and labor intensive, but it is a theory of change that actually works. The best news is, regardless of what happens with any national legislation, we can get started now.