This one reform defeats Donald Trump and saves democracy: Too bad the gerrymandering GOP never listened, but maybe they will now

The Republican nomination process is dramatic evidence of the failure of our voting rules. Instant runoff fixes it

By Paul Rosenberg

Published March 26, 2016 1:30PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Paul LePage   (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Donald Trump, Paul LePage (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” —  Psalms 118:22

In 1993, the GOP demonized Lani Guinier, the most knowledgable, sophisticated advocate of innovative voting systems that empower true majorities and are inclusive of divergent views. Guinier was Bill Clinton's first nominee to head the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, but thanks to the effectiveness of the GOP's racist venom, and the fecklessness of the Democrats' response, she never had the chance to defend her ideas on the national stage. So what should have been a flowering of democratic experimentation and renewal was blighted before it even began—though it continued to develop below the radar of the national media.

Guinier's primary focus was on proportional representation in legislative elections, but the same set of ideas and principles she advanced also underlie ranked choice (or instant runoff) voting in executive office elections, where the votes of losing candidates are successively switched to voters' next choice until one candidate has a clear majority. Suddenly, those ideas the GOP rejected without even hearing back then have resurfaced as a way out of the desperate dilemma they find themselves in with Donald Trump. It may be too late for them to apply in this electoral cycle, but if they somehow survive it, a majority of their voting base would support the changes that could help the party rebuild itself—and help American democracy as well.

That's according to polling done by FairVote, a nonprofit devoted to making our democracy more inclusive, vibrant, fair and representative through electoral reforms and public education, and a key player in keeping the ideas Guinier wrote about alive. “The Republican nomination process is dramatic evidence of the failure of its voting rules,” FairVote's executive director Rob Richie said. “Media fixation on who is winning states misses two key flaws. Unlike democratic contests, delegates often don't accurately reflect the popular vote, which is getting worse with the shift to winner-take-all primaries. And absent instant runoff voting, the divided field has allowed Donald Trump to sweep a series of states without ever securing a majority of the vote.”

A significant energized minority of GOP primary voters supports Trump, yet the antiquated voting systems we use—and the norms that come with taking them for granted—make efforts to oppose him seem anti-democratic... even apart from the motives involved. All things considered, it's profoundly ironic.

As the GOP wallows in an ongoing state of crisis, perhaps it might spare a moment to regret its decision to go all in on demonizing Guinier. They falsely attacked her as a “quota queen,” their ingenious way of attacking an Ivy League law professor as if she were a food stamp cheat, but her aim was exactly the opposite of what they implied: she was interested in finding ways to empower voters of like minds, not like bodies. She also aimed at fostering a more cooperative and deliberative democratic process, as opposed to a more divisive, and ultimately demagogic one.

Instead of concentrating all political power into the hands of top vote-getting faction, Guinier argued it should reflect the full spectrum of electoral views, as much as possible. Proportional representation gives coherent minority views a voice in legislative deliberations. Ranked choice voting gives coherent groups of voters supporting minority candidates, but collectively constituting a majority of the electorate, a fair procedure to join together and form an electoral majority. Both are ways of making democracy work more effectively and inclusively, using models which have proven their effectiveness over time and across cultures. As FairVote noted recently on their blog, only six of the world's 33 most robust democracies use American-style winner-take-all election—almost all of them English-speaking nations. Now as America is experiencing a democratic crisis of its own, the time may finally be ripe for us to catch up—particularly since it's the obstructionist GOP that's getting hit the hardest by the refusal to think outside the box that we've put ourselves in.

The picture comes clearly into focus in a mid-February FairVote report, based on a national YouGov survey conducted in partnership with The College of William and Mary, prior to the first two primary contests. The report found that Trump was far ahead in voter intentions, with 38.5 percent, compared to 17.8 percent for Ted Cruz and 12.3 percent for Marco Rubio. This is well in line with other polling at the time—but it's only a very a partial picture:

However, when a ranked choice voting tally is run that results in a one-on-one runoff between Trump and Cruz, Trump trails 51% to 49% and loses ground to other candidates in every single round of the tally.

A 51/49 victory for Cruz might not seem like a great triumph for democracy. But presidential primaries aren't conducted via national poll, they're conducted state by state, and this is where the value of a ranked choice voting system comes clearly into focus, less for providing the GOP with a way to block Trump than for providing everyone with a less decisive, less destructive process. Following Super Tuesday, when Trump racked up the largest share of wins—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Massachusetts and Vermont—FairVote used a sophisticated model to determine the likely results if ranked choice voting had been used instead.

“The results would look very different,” FairVote reported. “Our models suggest that Trump would have won Alabama and Massachusetts, competed in toss-up races in Tennessee and Vermont, and lost the remaining seven states.” They also found that Rubio would have won South Carolina by eight points before Super Tuesday. On the day itself, two results were especially striking: Cruz would have won Arkansas by almost 10; Rubio would have won Georgia by more than 10.

“Notably, there is no consistent beneficiary under RCV; rather, the Republican Party clearly has yet to settle on and coalesce around an alternative candidate,” FairVote said. “Our hypothetical for Super Tuesday shows Trump winning two states (Alabama and Massachusetts), Cruz winning four states (Alaska, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas), and Rubio winning three states (Georgia, Minnesota and Virginia)--with Kasich having a real chance in Vermont and Tennessee too close to call.”

Although it would not have provided the GOP with a clear alternative to Trump, it would have helped the party enormously in terms of the campaign dynamic. “RCV would encourage candidates to find common ground with other candidates’ supporters instead of waging scorched-earth, overly-negative campaigns that define politics today.”

It wasn't just Trump going negative on his rivals—though he did that at an unprecedented level. Other candidates then avoiding Trump attacked one another, each hoping to emerge as the unifying anti-Trump, a dynamic that not only failed for them as candidates--such as Christie and Bush both dropping out after their attacks on Rubio failed to advance them--but that made the whole process increasingly negative, which only made it easier for Trump, as others seemed to be following his lead in focusing on personality and character attacks, rather than on policy, philosophy and fact-based arguments.

“Looking at ranked-choice voting and using it with the GOP presidential field, it's a sharp contrast,” FairVote's communications director Michelle Whittaker told Salon. “You have this very polarizing figure, Donald Trump, right now, and so some might look at it as this just kind of a way to avoid Donald Trump. But the reality is, it's not about Donald Trump, it's about making sure that voters have the strongest voice in their community, in their elections, and that they have meaningful choices that they can make, and that you're actually seeing who has the broadest support.”

“That is clearly shown when you see elections that are happening in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, in Minneapolis, in Telluride, Colorado, that also uses ranked choice voting, in Portland, Maine,” Whittaker said. “In the cities that are using ranked choice voting, you're seeing that the citizen are able to express a vote that is truly meaningful across the board for all the candidates who are there, and really shows who has the broadest support.”

It's a two-way street, she went on to note. “Candidates, likewise, are engaging with their entire community to garner support,” Whittaker added. “We've seen politicians in Minneapolis and Portland express this, and say it's not just about playing to your base, and getting that base support, because that's practically how we've done politics right now, and that's how the system has continued to be rigged.” In contrast, she said, “What we're seeing, with politicians who have ranked choice voting and are working within that system, [is they] are actually reaching out beyond their base, they're reaching out to voters who may be supporting another candidate, but saying I know you might be for candidate 'B', but I hope you'll strongly consider me as your second choice candidate.”

It's not hard to see the logic working to change how candidates act toward each other. “It's not about attacking them, and pushing them down, because you know if you do that their supporters are less likely to want to vote for you, or to rank you as their second choice,” Whittaker said. The result is a richer texture of more positive arguments, as well as a more civil and respectful atmosphere. Add to that the fact that winning candidates actually enjoy majority support, and it's a pretty compelling model.

Ordinarily, Republican elites haven't cared very much about any of that. But suddenly, confronted with Trump, their incentives have changed. And the FairVote/YouGov/William and Mary poll also showed that their voters are ready as well. When it comes to nomination reforms, of those who stated an opinion, 71.9 percent supported ranked choice voting. But there were similar levels of support for other reforms that would empower a broader electorate: 73.8 percent supported a national primary between top candidates, 78.4 percent supported changing the calendar so that Iowa and New Hampshire don't always vote first, and 68.9 percent supported having all states allocate their delegates by proportional rules. The strength of support for ranked choice voting was roughly comparable to that for these other ideas, which could all serve to make the nomination process more open. While party elites have tended to resist openness in the past, the situation with Trump may help to start changing some minds.

A pair of questions in a recent CBS/NYT poll starkly highlighted the GOP's problem. The poll asked, about both primary campaigns, if they made people feel "MOSTLY proud" or "MOSTLY embarrassed" by the respective parties. The results were stunning: For Republicans, embarrassment won by more than 2 to 1: 60-27, but for Democrats, pride won, by almost 6 to 1: 82-13. There's no doubt that a number of different factors contributed to this stark difference, but with so much stacked against them, the GOP ought to be looking at anything that can help them out. And changing the incentive structure to reduce candidates' attacks on one another would certainly help out on that score—which is one of major benefits that ranked choice voting can help bring, which even party elites can appreciate.

How real is the possibility of more civil campaigns? Whittaker already described some anecdotal evidence, but to answer conclusively, we can rely on a comparative study of cities that have adopted ranked choice voting, and cities still using plurality voting: a FairVote research project involving a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll conducted in 2013 and 2014. The project surveyed voters in 21 cities, and consisted of two parts. The first, in 2013, compared respondents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, where RCV is used, with respondents from one of seven non-RCV control cities with similar demographics. The second, in 2014, compared respondents in four California cities that use RCV—Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro—with demographically similar respondents from seven other California cities. The results were summarized here. Highlights related to civility and constructive campaigning include the following:

*  In both surveys, more respondents in cities using RCV reported candidates spent little time criticizing opponents than in cities that did not use RCV. In the 2013 survey, only 5 percent of respondents thought that candidates criticized each other “a great deal of the time” compared to 25 percent in non-RCV cities. Similarly, only 28 percent of RCV-city respondents reported candidates criticized each other “a great deal of the time” in the 2014 California survey, compared to 36 percent of respondents in non-RCV cities.

More respondents in cities using RCV reported less negative campaigns than in cities that did not use RCV. In the 2013 survey, 42 percent of respondents in RCV cities found the 2013 campaign to be less negative, whereas only 28 percent of voters in non-RCV cities shared a similar sentiment. In the 2014 survey in California, 18 percent of RCV-city respondents perceived the 2014 campaign as less negative than recent local campaigns, compared to 13 percent of respondents in non-RCV cities.

* Only 29 percent of candidates in RCV cities reported being portrayed negatively by opponents, compared to 40 percent in non-RCV cities.

Keep in mind that these are all local elections taking place in a political system still dominated by a very different incentive structure at the state and federal level. These results reflect what life is like on tiny islands of civility awash in a sea of sharply conflicting values. Imagine what it would be like to change the whole system, top to bottom!

Well, this November, voters in Maine could take a giant step in that direction, as they vote on a widely endorsed statewide citizen initiative to adopt ranked choice voting. The need in Maine could not be clearer.

“Since 1994, nine out of the 11 governors that have been elected have won a plurality, not a majority. That's Republican and Democratic governors alike,” Whittaker explained. “What you're finding there is you have somebody who wins, in reality they're winning with 40 percent, 30 to 40 percent of the vote, and maybe only in elections do we look at 40 percent and say that's winning.... In reality, if only 40 percent of the voters are voting for you, 60 percent of the voters are voting for somebody else.”

Although the problem has been evident for more than 20 years, things have gotten especially acrimonious since Tea Party favorite Paul LePage was elected with 37.6 percent in a four-way race in 2010. LePage's crude, racist, disrespectful style brought him close to the point of impeachment, and serves to vividly illustrate the woeful shortcomings of allowing narrow-minority candidates to win elections as a matter of course. If Maine does adopt ranked choice voting in November, it will have taken this tragic turn of events and made the best possible use of it.

It remains to be seen if the Republican Party can do the same—but I wouldn't hold my breath. Still, it would be downright biblical of them to take Lani Guinier's lessons to heart, and make them the cornerstone for rebuilding their party.

Come to think of it, Bill Clinton threw Guinier under the bus as well. He pulled her nomination, rather than let her defend herself face to face with her false accusers. It's time for the Democrats to get religion, too.

Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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