Let’s not give up on democracy but agree on how to make it better

Voting reforms can help elect candidates who reflect and respect a broad range of voters

September 15, 2022 5:45 am
Official ballot site election

(Malheur Enterprise)

Democracy day logoThis column is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy.

We have long celebrated states as laboratories of democracy. But many states have begun to apply their experiments to the workings of democracy itself – reassessing who should be able to vote, how their votes should be counted and whether those in power should honor the will of their voters.

Red states are tinkering with way back machines, trying to reset the clock to times when access to the ballot was controlled by those with their hands on the levers of power. Culling voter rolls, limiting voting times and seeking 19th century mechanisms to challenge popular votes are all part of the manipulation of democracy in laboratories run by Republican legislatures. 

But blue states aren’t content with their voting systems either, even when those systems have expanded access to the ballot and increased voter participation within their borders. In Democratic strongholds in Oregon and elsewhere, we’re now seeing proposals to establish multiple-choice voting, extend voting rights to non-citizens and elect representative with as little as 25% of the vote.  

Some of this can be explained by partisan motivations. Both red states and blue states have long engaged in gerrymandering. But even those redistricting schemes apply one-person-one-vote standards to their processes and respect election outcomes. 

There is something more troubling going on now in our debates over voting rights and voting systems. It’s the assumption, too quickly and thoughtlessly entertained, that if we don’t agree with the verdict of the voters, we should change the rules for how we conduct elections – even if those changes constrain democratic decision making and abandon the commitment to majority outcomes.

Perhaps, that’s because the stakes seem so high – so morally fraught (as with racism), so existential (as with climate change) and so intensely personal (as with abortion) – that the ends we seek in our experiment in self-government have begun to be used to justify giving up on democracy as we know it.

Most Americans don’t want to give up on democracy, they want to make it better. But 72% say that democracy in the U.S. “used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years.”

So, on this International Day of Democracy, let’s give some thought to how we can improve rather than impair our voting systems. My suggestions follow. 

First, give our citizens the opportunity to vote in elections that are open to a diversity of candidates, not just the red and blue flag carriers whose selections are controlled by the major parties. 

Washington and California have gone in this direction, with open primaries and top-two runoffs which ensure majority support for their winners. That’s better than Oregon’s system by which the next governor is hoping to secure support from just 40% of the voters – and rejection by the remaining 60%.

Second, structure elections to overcome the spoiler effects of single-vote choices in multi-candidate races. 

This can be accomplished by preference voting, by which voters are asked to rank their candidates with their first, second and third choices. There are many ways to do this – ranked choice voting, approval voting or STAR voting. All have their challenges in added complexity for voting and vote counting. Still, if kept simple and understandable, these changes can work to force candidates to the center, rather than appeal to the extremes.

Third, continue to seek majority outcomes. Too often our elections deliver winners who fail to secure the broad support that is needed to govern effectively. Unfortunately, this problem would be institutionalized under Portland’s proposal to set a 25% threshold for electing City Council members. Rather than fracturing the vote for council members, Portlanders should maintain an election system that empowers its winners and has managed to elect the most diverse council in the city’s history.

If there’s a golden mean to be found in these experiments with the fundamental mechanism of our democracy, perhaps we should look to states which are less attached to hard-red and true-blue agendas. Alaskans just rejected Republican Sarah Palin and elected a moderate, gun-owning Democrat to Congress using the majority-seeking version of ranked choice voting.

If voting reforms of that kind can help us elect more candidates who reflect and respect the breadth and diversity of their voters’ views, then perhaps we can work on the hard part of democracy. 

That’s when we accept that, in even the best functioning democracies, we never get most of what we want all of the time nor all of what we want even some of the time. Rather, we get a process for solving problems and making progress together, often cumbersomely, sometimes too slowly, but peacefully and cooperatively, respecting each other’s place and participation in this ongoing experiment in self-government.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated how many Americans believe the U.S. is no longer a good example of democracy. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 72% of American respondents said the U.S. was once a good example of democracy but hasn’t been recently. 

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.