How to Save America From Extremism by Changing the Way We Vote

Ranked-choice voting, multi-member House districts and other surprisingly simple tinkers that could fix our democracy

(Dan Bejar for The Washington Post)
17 min

The central rite of American democracy — casting a vote — no longer seems to work. Odds are that your vote doesn’t much matter — only 14 percent of all 435 U.S. House races this year are competitive, and just 7 percent are considered toss-ups, according to the Cook Political Report — but the problems run deeper than that. The country is in the grips of a phenomenon that political scientists call “pernicious polarization,” a downward spiral of democratic decay. We are living in one of those crisis moments, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in political reform at the New America think tank, recently told me, “that happen every now and then in our history, in which it becomes clear that the way we’re doing democracy is undermining liberal democracy. We need to rethink how we do things.”

The problems afflicting us are big — the rise of extremism and authoritarianism, an assault on democratic norms — but some of the solutions may be surprisingly small, and might in fact boil down simply to how we choose our leaders. While America has obviously become more democratic over the centuries — as more and more people have fought for and won the right to vote — we haven’t kept up with innovations around the mechanics of voting. It’s as if Detroit pioneered the automobile but stopped iterating with the 1955 Oldsmobile, while being lapped by Porsches, Maseratis and Mercedes-Benzes.

The very structure of our primaries and many of our state and federal legislative races may be fueling polarization and extremism. “The U.S. is really an outlier when you look at other advanced democracies,” says Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University who co-authored a study of pernicious polarization for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Only three of 26 established democracies she studied use a system like ours — where, for most House elections and state legislative races, a single person can represent an entire district after winning a plurality, not necessarily a majority, of votes.

Most democracies instead use some form of proportional representation to allow multiple points of view to be represented in a legislature according to their strength in the public. Flavors vary, from Australia and New Zealand to Ireland and Germany. What’s not in doubt, democracy theorists argue, is that certain features of our current system exacerbate our stalemated dysfunction and may even enable a drift toward authoritarianism. It’s no coincidence, they say, that Hungary’s populist strongman, Viktor Orban, and his political party centralized their grip and undermined that country’s democracy in part by instituting some American features, including greater reliance on gerrymandered single-member districts.

It wouldn’t take much to reform our elections and thereby promote a more nuanced politics. There has been no shortage of proposals developed in this vein: from ranked-choice voting, to enlarging the size of the House of Representatives, to scrapping or radically altering primary elections, to placing House members in multi-member districts. None of these ideas would require amending the Constitution, nor have they been co-opted by one side or the other in our fractured political culture.

The concepts have been percolating at the state and local levels, and they’ve been the subject of major recent democracy reinvention projects, including a two-year review by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with contributors from across the ideological spectrum, and a report by the nonpartisan advocacy group Protect Democracy. In September, more than 200 political scientists sounded these themes in an urgent open letter to Congress. “Our arcane, single-member districting process divides, polarizes, and isolates us from each other,” they wrote as they called for multi-member districts with a proportional-style representation method. “It has effectively extinguished competitive elections for most Americans, and produced a deeply divided political system that is incapable of responding to changing demands and emerging challenges with necessary legitimacy.”

Below is a closer look at some reforms that might restore Election Day’s sense of possibility and purpose — and maybe even save our democracy from self-destructing.

Switch to ranked-choice voting

This system — in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, rather than voting for just one — made headlines over the summer when Alaskans used it to choose Mary Peltola, a moderate Democrat, over former governor Sarah Palin and another Republican in a special election for a U.S. House seat. This Election Day, Nov. 8, Alaska voters will rank their favorite candidates in races for the House, Senate, governor and state legislative seats. Maine also employs this system, as do dozens of local jurisdictions across the country, according to the advocacy group FairVote. Voters in Nevada and several cities will be deciding this year whether to move future elections to ranked-choice voting.

Reader interactive: How ranked-choice voting could change the way democracy works

The appeal of this method is that it changes the incentives for candidates and voters in ways that can have a profound and curative impact on democracy. Here’s how it works: In races with more than two candidates, the one who gets the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. If a voter ranked that candidate first, their vote will be transferred to their second choice. The process is repeated until there’s a winner with more than 50 percent of the votes.

To prevail, candidates must reach beyond their base to become the second and third choices of more voters. Bridge-builders are rewarded and will presumably bring that collaborative style to governing. The old electoral system “creates perverse incentives” and “rewards bad behavior, meaning extremism, and punishes good behavior,” says Scott Kendall, an Anchorage lawyer who has worked for Republican politicians in Alaska and who drafted the ballot measure that created the new system. With ranked-choice voting, says Rob Richie, president and co-founder of FairVote, “you would be electorally rewarded for doing what actually is good for the country, and that’s too often not the case right now.”

Ranked-choice voting also changes the incentives for voters. They can stop voting strategically for the lesser of evils and pick whom they really want to win, without fearing they’ll elevate a spoiler. “When you don’t force people into a binary choice, you get more engagement, more excitement, and maybe you get better results,” Kendall says. Ranked-choice voting, he argues, restores “the three-dimensionality of politics.”

With ranked-choice voting, “you would be electorally rewarded for doing what actually is good for the country, and that’s too often not the case right now.”

Candidates with more-diverse views can have an impact and their supporters would become invested in the process, says Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections: “Whether or not those candidates are able to actually win, it enriches the process to have them there and to have people who might feel best represented by those viewpoints get to put that as their first choice.”

Following a few initial Democratic wins via ranked-choice voting in Maine and Alaska, some Republicans have claimed the method conceals a partisan bias. “Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted when Peltola beat Palin in August. Palin is up against Peltola and other candidates again this Election Day. With so many Republicans competing under ranked-choice rules in Alaska and elsewhere, proponents predict more Republicans will come to appreciate the merits of the system. “Our strategic theory here,” Kellar says, “is that the more people use ranked choice in different contexts, they’ll see a variety of winners and losers.”

Radically rethink primaries

Primary elections are a significant cause of the paralyzing political polarization we’re suffering now, election reform experts told me. They are low-turnout affairs that draw the most devoted partisans to the polls. Especially in the most common type of primary — where it takes only a plurality, not a majority, to win the nomination — the victor is the one who successfully appeals to a passionate, but often extreme, minority of voters.

“To choose candidates by primaries is nuts, really, and it’s not how most democracies work,” Yuval Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. The primary got its start in America in the early 1900s as a Progressive Era reform and became entrenched in the 1970s. The original point was to give voters a say in who represented their party rather than leaving it to party bosses. “What it actually did was empower the fringes of both parties,” Levin says. Of course, he notes, “we can’t really go back” and eliminate primaries, because parties won’t want to alienate voters by kicking them out of the process. But primaries can be improved.

A handful of states have already instituted reforms such as collective primaries open to all affiliations, and runoffs to ensure the nominee gets a majority. One of the most dramatic revisions is being pioneered in Alaska, where the top four vote-getters advance from a single open primary, using the traditional vote-tally method. The four then compete in a general election with ranked-choice voting. (The ballot measure being considered in Nevada would implement a similar system.)

Another option — for legislative races but also for presidential ones — would be to keep traditional primaries but run them with ranked-choice voting. The Virginia GOP has employed a version of this method, using ranked-choice voting to pick Glenn Youngkin to run for governor in 2021 and three House nominees this year. “Instead of creating elevated levels of negative competitiveness between campaigns and fostering distrust among candidates,” state party chairman Rich Anderson said in a July statement, “these candidates are moved to speak with a significant number of voters in their jurisdiction in order to foster strong relationships with a broad cross section of voters.”

The underlying goal is to help make the American system work as it was designed. “Our institutions are built to encourage [elected officials] … to deal with each other across party lines,” Levin says. “We’re not letting them do that right now; the primaries are a big reason why.”

Expand the House of Representatives

There’s no sacred constitutional command behind the number 435. The initial House, in 1789-1790, had 65 members. It reached 435 in 1913 after periodic enlargements to keep up with the population. For political and logistical reasons, Congress capped the size at 435 in 1929. At that point, each member of the House represented an average of about 280,000 constituents.

By 2020, each member of the House represented an average of about 762,000 people. That’s by far the highest ratio of constituents-to-representative out of 34 democracies included in research published by the American Academy. Nearly all the others have fewer than 200,000 constituents.

“Expanding the size of the House gives you much more of an opportunity to have some unusual kinds of Republicans and Democrats, and more of a chance for internal party factions.”

A larger House would be more diverse and more in keeping with its prescribed role in American democracy because voters would feel closer to their representative. Expansion could also begin to reduce polarization. “The particular way that I think it could help with polarization is by increasing the internal diversity of both parties,” says Levin, who co-wrote a report calling for 150 new members as part of the American Academy’s democracy review. (At that size, each member would have an average of about 566,000 constituents. The report also calls for adding seats as the population grows.) “One way to think about why we are polarized now is that Republicans [in Congress] are too much like one another and Democrats are too much like one another. … Expanding the size of the House gives you much more of an opportunity to have some unusual kinds of Republicans and Democrats, and more of a chance for internal party factions.”

An expansion would not necessarily change the balance of power in the House. The academy’s researchers modeled thousands of election scenarios assuming Houses of different sizes and didn’t find significant spoils for either party. Adding more than 90 seats could slightly favor Democrats, while adding fewer than 90 could slightly favor Republicans. “Absent a crystal ball,” Levin and his colleagues wrote in their report, “the strong conclusion … is that changing the size of the House would not generate a strong partisan shift.” In other words, this is a change that both Republicans and Democrats should be able to support.

Create multi-member House districts

Americans are accustomed to living in districts represented by one member of Congress. Most state legislative districts send one legislator to their capitols as well. But it hasn’t always been this way. For much of history, multi-member districts were relatively common at both the state and federal levels.

Congress mandated single-member districts in 1967 for the purest of motives. In that era of civil rights reforms, it had become clear that states could use multi-member districts to enforce white supremacy: By creating a few majority-White districts and allowing voters to vote for as many candidates as there were seats in the district, states could effectively shut out minority voices.

But a multi-member district in which, say, three or five representatives were instead chosen through a proportional system could avoid this problem. The reform wouldn’t necessarily favor either party, according to FairVote, with potentially 200 likely Republican seats, 201 likely Democratic seats and 34 swing seats. Few, if any, congressional districts would be represented entirely by one party, according to FairVote’s modeling, because enough supporters of the minority party live in most places to be able to elect at least one member within a multi-member district. Consider that “[i]n 2020, there were more Trump voters in California than any other state and more Biden voters in Texas than in New York or Illinois,” the scholars wrote in their recent open letter to Congress. “The vast — even overwhelming — majority of Americans don’t fit precisely into the ideology of their single-member congressional representation.”

Multi-member districts with proportional voting could yield a Republican elected from currently all-blue Massachusetts and a Democrat from deep-red Oklahoma. “What that really does is make sure that every district is getting more than one partisan view represented in its delegation,” says Danielle Allen, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University who co-chaired the American Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. “When the two caucuses go to their separate rooms, Democrats and Republicans, the whole country geographically would still be there.”

This reform also would finally drive a stake through the heart of gerrymandering, because the multi-member districts would be too large to have their borders be manipulated effectively. And especially with an enlarged House of Representatives, there could be room for multiple kinds of Democrats or Republicans from the same district — not to mention candidates with other affiliations. Some reform advocates — like New America’s Drutman, who wrote a book titled “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America” — say the changes would allow for the rise of additional political parties, in part because they wouldn’t be viewed as spoilers in a perpetual Democratic-Republican showdown. Others foresee the two parties themselves becoming larger, less extreme tents. Either way, our democracy could recover some of its tolerance and complexity.

“It breaks the binary psychology that every election is this fearsome, zero-sum, all-or-nothing fight for the soul of the country, in which 50.1 percent could somehow create total power,” Drutman told me. “It basically captures this idea, which I think Madison intuitively grasped in Federalist No. 10, that the way to have legitimate political self-governance is to ensure that coalitions are never fixed. … It means that people are able to make deals with each other in different arrangements.”

Even if implemented, these fixes wouldn’t completely cure our democracy. For one thing, they don’t directly confront the current tribalist rage that characterizes our politics. Rather, they come at that issue from the angle of structural reform. “The cultural challenge is greater than the structural one,” says Norman Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. “But you can’t get anywhere with the cultural challenge without structural change.”

These aren’t the only possible solutions out there. The academy’s report, “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” alone pitches 31 proposals — including 18-year term limits for Supreme Court justices, amending the Constitution to permit regulating campaign contributions, changing Election Day to Veterans Day so it is a holiday for most voters, and making voting compulsory (while allowing for “none of the above”) with small fines for violators. In some states, of course, the most urgent work now is simply making sure people aren’t disenfranchised by new voting laws. But the champions of democracy engineering say their structural innovations are urgent in their own way. “I strongly believe we have to be doing the structural work at the same time as we do the bread-and-butter voting rights work,” says Kellar in Maine.

These innovations will no doubt face the eternal obstacle of politicians of both parties who may prefer the existing system, if for no other reason than because it has worked for them. Last year, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) introduced the Fair Representation Act, which would establish ranked-choice voting for U.S. senators and multi-member House districts. He was moved to act because “there’s no fight for the center,” he told me. “There’s a fight for ‘Can you get your base out,’ ‘Can you be as un-nuanced and even conflict-generating as possible.’ ” He got seven Democratic co-sponsors and no Republicans.

Reformers know it will likely take some years before their changes have a chance of becoming law. We’re in an early stage of these ideas, Levin says — the phase “where you just hear serious people talk about this and start to say, ‘Maybe we can do this.’ ”

Allen is heartened by the experiments with ranked-choice voting, alternative primaries and other reforms already taking place in states and municipalities. “This is going to be a story of state-level transformation that fundamentally changes the dynamics of politics in the country and that results in federal change,” she says. “I see us in the popcorn popper, and the popcorns are starting to pop.”