Changing the way Americans vote for their elected officials doesn't come easy. People are creatures of habit, and it is hard enough to get them to vote with the system we have now, let alone teach them an entirely new way to do it.
But if anything can spur voting reforms, experts say, the 2016 presidential election — in which Americans had to choose between the two least-liked major-party candidates in history — might be it. And several states already have started laying the groundwork for a new way of voting.
“There's a lot of voter dissatisfaction out there,” said Dan Diorio, a voting rights expert with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “And maybe a way to react to that is to look at these changes and think: 'Maybe we don't have to do things the way we always have. Maybe there's a better way.' "
Maine thinks it has found a better way. This month, voters there made Maine the first state in the nation to approve ranked-choice voting. Instead of voting for only one candidate, with the top candidate winning, voters rank their choices from favorite to least. If one candidate doesn't get a majority of the votes, then the candidates ranked the lowest are eliminated, and voters rank their choices again, and on it goes until one candidate gets a majority of the votes.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it prevents candidates who don't get a majority of the vote from winning. (Voting reformers note that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a historically large margin of 1.7 million votes and counting. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage (R) won his first election in 2010 with 38 percent of the vote.)
Governing magazine has a more in-depth explainer on ranked-choice voting. But, suffice it to say, it would mark a big shift from the way most of us vote. A handful of municipalities around the country do it, but if the first statewide experiment goes well (and there are a lot of hurdles, such as teaching people how it works), it's possible other states could give it a try.
In a handful of other states this month, voters approved measures to make it easier to vote in primaries and, in at least one state, to tighten the rules on who can vote in the general election:
- Alaska voters approved a ballot initiative that would automatically register anyone who gets a dividend from the state's oil and gas reserves, which is to say most of the state. It's the first red state to move toward automatic voter registration. (Oregon is leading the way on that front, this year becoming the first state to automatically register voters when they renew their driver's license.)
- In Colorado, voters approved two ballot initiatives that essentially allow anyone in the state to vote in any primary. One changed the presidential nominating system from a caucus to a more inclusive primary, and the other opened up all state primaries to unaffiliated voters.
- In Missouri, voters approved a constitutional amendment to pave the way for Republicans to pass a voter ID law there (a big trend in a Republican-controlled states).
- South Dakota was the one state this year that rejected ballot initiatives to reform voting. Voters rejected a ballot measure to turn their primary system into a nonpartisan top-two primary, such as in Louisiana and California. They also denied an initiative to set up an independent redistricting commission instead of letting the state legislature draw the lines every decade.
Diorio thinks a growing number of states in the coming year or two could move toward automatic voter registration, expand early voting and figure out how to better maintain their voter rolls so that dead people don't accidentally vote (one of the allegations in the still undecided North Carolina governor's race). Passing voter ID laws will probably continue to be a priority in red states.
One thing that Diorio thinks is not on the list? Expanding online voting, which five states allow and which Utah experimented with during its presidential primary.
This election drew heavy security concerns about foreign players (namely Russia) hacking into our party systems and even voter rolls, so lawmakers will likely stay away from something most cybersecurity experts agree isn't safe yet, Diorio said. (Although it's nearly impossible to hack the actual election ballots.)
The focus on voting reform starts at the state level because that is where change can take place. Voting is a task our government has largely left to the states to figure out.
“We are a decentralized election system,” Diorio said. “We don't run one presidential election; we run 51.”
Even if Congress did want to start imposing its will on state elections systems, the Republicans now in control are unlikely to support any interference in state election laws. (It's the same reason why exasperated Democrats shouldn't expect any changes to the electoral college anytime soon.)
Still, there have been attempts in Congress to address Americans' frustrations about how the ballot process shapes (or doesn't shape) the resulting candidate slate. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) introduced a bill after the election to require that a special election be held whenever voters don’t like the candidate options.
The bill has yet to receive any support from Grayson's colleagues, which means it's probably dead on arrival. But Grayson might be onto something: If voters are unhappy enough with the choices our voting systems leave us with, then maybe they'll be open to changing them.
And if there's any election that could spur changes, the very ugly 2016 presidential campaign might be it.