Before I began really focusing on political reform, I remember hearing phrases like, “We need to strengthen our democracy.” And frankly, those words just didn’t resonate with me, not when there were so many other important issues out there to care about. But as I’ve watched this election unfold, it’s become clear to me that our political system is completely broken – and we desperately need to fix it.
Digging through election data the past few days, I came across one underreported statistic: More than 4 in 10 eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot last Tuesday.
Some of these people may have been discouraged by long lines, lack of disability access, and other inconveniences, though past data suggests that those factors don’t play a major role in voter turnout. Rather, as Vox editor Brad Plumer writes, “People are far more likely to vote if they think their vote matters. And that belief is far from universal in the United States. Distrust in institutions is at an all-time high.”
I’m not surprised. Virtually every stage of the political process has become corrupted by establishment insiders who are more concerned about retaining their own power than making sure government is accountable to voters.
- How politicians currently run for office is corrupt; with few exceptions, you’ve got to be independently wealthy or have the support of really rich donors to get elected to office.
- How we vote for politicians is corrupt; we’re forced to choose between establishment candidates hand-picked for us by rich elites or risk “spoiling” the election.
- And how politicians govern once they’ve been elected is corrupt; they give donors unfair access and cater to the policy whims of elites and special-interest groups.
No wonder we saw such low voter turnout. When people don’t trust their voice will be heard, they’re not going to speak up.
Meanwhile, 6 in 10 eligible voters did go to the polls – yet relatively few of them were actually excited about their choices. As FiveThirtyEight reported in May, “No past candidate comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike a little more than six months before the election.” And as Gallup announced in July, a full 25 percent of Americans didn’t like either presidential candidate.
Ultimately, Donald Trump won the election, with 47.2% of voters marking his name on their ballots. Hillary Clinton, for her part, won over 47.9% of voters. To be clear, neither candidate won the majority of votes. Neither candidate got a clear mandate from the American public.
So, a quick recap:
- 4 in 10 eligible voters didn’t participate in the election because they didn’t think their vote would matter.
- A good chunk of the people who did participate weren’t particularly excited about their choices.
- And when all was said and done, our next president didn’t even get support from the majority of voters.
In other words, this election’s results don’t really tell us what voters want – because most voters were either not participating or feeling forced to choose between two candidates they didn’t like, and because our current voting processes allow candidates to get elected without the majority of the vote.
Elections are supposed to offer us a rare glimpse into our shared values, our fears, our hopes. They should allow us to see, in a single moment, where we’ve made progress and where we’ve fallen behind, which problems we’ve solved and which ones we still desperately need to fix.
When our political system is so distorted that our election results don’t reflect the true preferences of the majority of Americans, how can we make smart decisions about where to focus our energy next?
This is why I believe we need to fix our political system: because we need to know who we are as a nation.
Now for the good news: our political system is actually fixable. For starters, we can change how we vote.
In most states, primaries are controlled by the political parties and held separately. We voters are forced to choose which primary we want to vote in – Democratic or Republican. This makes it harder for candidates who appeal to both parties to have a real shot at winning, because moderate voters get split between voting in the Republican primary and the Democratic primary. Even worse, the current primary system makes us choose one single candidate from each side, pitting ideologically similar voters against one another.
Here’s what a better system looks like:
- There’s just one single, open primary for each political race.
- All candidates run on the same ballot, and all voters from both parties get to choose from the full range of candidates; no more forcing voters to choose which primary they want to vote in.
- Then, the top 4 vote-getters move on to the general election.
And here’s the final change: instead of choosing just one candidate, we each rank our favorite candidates. This is called ranked choice voting, and it’s used in a lot of places around the world. In fact, Maine voters just decided to use ranked choice voting in their state elections. Here’s how it works.
- If your top-ranked candidate gets the least amount of popular support, they drop out, and your vote goes to your second choice.
- That process continues until one candidate emerges as the majority winner.
- This is far better than our current system, because we end up with a candidate that the majority of voters actually like – even if that person wasn’t everybody’s top choice.
As a voter, you never have to worry again about spoiling the election by voting for a third-party or independent candidate. If they aren’t going to win, your vote will just switch to your second choice. You never have to choose between the lesser of two evils; you get to vote for exactly the person you like.
People who want to run for office but don’t want to split the vote can now add their name to the ticket, so we get more choices at the ballot. Candidates have an incentive to treat each other nicely, because they aren’t just courting their base – they’re also going after voters who support other candidates in hopes that they’ll get ranked #2 or #3 by those people. Our elections become more civil.
(Quick interjection here: just imagine what ranked choice voting would have changed in this year’s presidential primaries! Many Democrats would have ranked Bernie Sanders first and Hillary Clinton second, and others would have done the opposite. Regardless, both candidates would have had an incentive to court the other person’s voters – so the primary debate would’ve been much kinder. Many Republicans, meanwhile, would have put John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio as their top three candidates. Rather than splitting 15 million votes among three candidates, they’d have formed a powerful conservative voting block – possibly powerful enough to have beaten Trump early in the race.)
But we can’t stop with open primaries and ranked choice voting. We need to change what those politicians do once they’re in office.
South Dakota voters just did that by passing a ballot initiative that cracks down on government corruption. It stops conflicts of interest between lobbyists and politicians, ends secret money, creates an ethics commission that enforces the law, and (my favorite) creates a citizen-funded election system that incentivizes politicians to court donations from regular people, not big-money donors.
I believe that laws like the ones passed in Maine and South Dakota are going to dramatically increase trust in government. (For a full set of the policies I believe need to be passed at the state (and, eventually, federal) level, please check out the American Anti-Corruption Act.)
These laws are going to give us more choices at the ballot and make the politicians we elect more accountable. That, in turn, is going to increase voter turnout and civic participation. Americans will feel increasingly confident that we can make their voices heard through democratic means. We won’t feel the need to elect candidates who promise to blow up the system, because the system will actually work.
To be clear, I don’t pretend that these political reforms are a panacea – but I do believe they are absolutely, fundamentally important if we want to protect and improve our democracy moving forward. If you agree with me that we need to make major, systemic changes to our government, please take action. Join a group like Represent.Us, the grassroots campaign to fix corruption, and help me create a political system that actually works.
A note from the author: Since many people have reached out to me in the past week asking what they can do in the wake of the presidential election, I wanted to share some ideas that are grounded in my personal experience working on systemic political reform. To be totally clear, there are a lot of factors that played into this election, from racism and misogyny to economic marginalization. In no way am I trying to diminish the significance of these and other causes. I do think, though, that our broken political system also played an important role in the outcome of the election. My intention here is to reflect on what that role was and suggest how we might change the script moving forward.