A new case for electoral reform
Reinhold Ernst is a volunteer and state leader of Veterans For All Voters, recently renamed from Veterans for Political Innovation. This team exists to support pro-democracy reforms around the country.
Advocating for electoral reforms can be frustrating - some people just don't "get it," no matter how many hours you spend going through all the different benefits you seek to impress. It can feel almost as if they turn a blind eye and refuse to see how electoral systems are foundational to whether or not our nation can solve the problems it faces, or not. Tougher-than-expected conversations force advocates of anything, and certainly advocates of bold electoral reforms, to ponder how it might be possible to convince the seemingly inconvincible. Indeed, the time has come to clarify the whole case - not just a series of individual arguments - around electoral reforms like open primaries, ranked choice voting, redistricting, finance reform, term limits, and more.
It is not much of a secret that focusing on "why" is a great place to start - there's even a famous book or two about it. The good news is that electoral reforms have dozens of reasons for why they are great ideas and better than the status quo. But this reality is a double-edged sword. The bad news is that a firehose of reasons can be confusing, with the default approach being to run through dozens of polls and statistics to speak to one angle after another in hopes of eventually saying the right thing. That is rarely a recipe for success. A salesperson will never sell their goods or services on arguments about being cheaper or neater than the competitor, if the prospective customer doesn't see their problem in the first place. Selling the whole case for electoral reform is no different - arguments about "this solution is better than that one" aren't as compelling as "X Y Z problems are making your life worse." What is needed is a framework to guide conversations towards building consensus about what problems we face - nevermind the reforms and the nuance of how they work. Is there a single, compelling narrative to tie it all together?
Framework for Clarifying "the Why": What makes a country great?
1) Find a skeptic, and have an open, honest conversation about what makes a country (any country) great. Regardless of how you may feel about the former president's campaign slogan, it does force us to pause and ask these fundamental questions. What makes America the great and exceptional nation Reagan and Kennedy both saw? Is it GDP and how much we consume? No, that's not it. Is it having the strongest military? No, not that either, or else military dictatorships would be desirable. Get them thinking and talking. Their responses may surprise you and can be exactly the hints you need for knowing which reasons for change will be the most salient. Their responses will help distill the list of 100 reasons for reform down to the critical few that might change their mind - a tailored argument instead of a firehose.
2) Propose your own answer for what makes a country (any country) great. There's no perfect answer, but if you're looking for an answer of your own, then pick up a copy of the book Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness. The title is a mouthful, but simply put, it's about what qualities make a nation able to do great things and sustain a dynamic society. The research was funded by the U.S. military to better understand the "home front" and its impact on the nation's ability to remain the example that other nations should emulate. Their research highlights seven foundational ingredients for enduring excellence, with an honest assessment of where America is today....things aren't looking great.
- National will: This is the belief that your country has the imagination to conceive great ambitions and the heart to make them reality. Today, three of four Americans believe the nation is unable to tackle the problems we face, and even futile to imagine, so why bother? More concerning, there is a generational divide with disbelief and disenchantment increasing as you look down the generations to today's youth. Only 18% of America's youth think our nation is able to do big, beautiful things with most faulting democracy as the prime reason for why we cannot.
- Inflection Point: How do we reignite patriotism and belief that democracy can deliver?
- Unified National Identity: This is the common thread that ties us all together. Today, partisan identities of Democrat or Republican are taking precedence over common identity, with both sides actively avoiding and despising the other. The decades-long trend is negative, so no one or two election cycles are at blame. Citizens distrust each other at levels not seen since the Civil War, and especially along party-lines.
- Inflection Point: Party over country is increasingly real. How do we get back to "country first"?
- Shared Opportunity: This is the ability to make one's life better and to help neighbors with the same - the American dream. Today, opportunity and equality are worsening across several socio-economic lines (race, wealth status, etc). Some trends are positive, but several decades-long trends are negative as certain parts of our society have been overlooked in too many ways, for too long. This is the blue-collar working class, and minority populations alike.
- Inflection Point: How do we give those struggling to see “the American dream” greater voice into reforms that can help them?
- An Active State: This is the age-old debate about big governance versus small - but where the purpose of government is clear, the state actually steps up to tackle problems. One example is about national-level infrastructure. The government has long recognized its role in establishing objectives and marshaling resources to meet them, for the benefit of all. No private institution should ever be expected or empowered to do the same since the point of infrastructure is about the greater good, not profits. Today, according to Pew, the top problems Americans worry about today are 1) inflation and overspending, 2) access and cost of health-care, 3) political gridlock, 4) drug and gun crimes.
- Inflection Point: How likely do you think our nation is able to pass meaningful laws on America’s most-pressing issues? Why or why not?
- Effective Institutions: This is the ability of government organizations to carry out their prescribed missions. Today, the U.S. is relatively high in world standing, but there are two huge caveats. First, the U.S. has seen a slight decline in effectiveness every year for 15 years now - not a good trend. The second exception is the three branches of government, and growing inability to execute basic functions. Congress is increasingly unable to perform its ability to execute basic functions like pass a budget (let alone a balanced one), hold the Executive branch accountable, or even elect its own leadership. This has led to off-loading authority to the president, bringing us slowly to the 'Era of the Imperial Presidency'. Meanwhile, trust in the Supreme Court has never been lower, at 28%.
- Inflection Point: Why are our three basic institutions breaking down?
- A Learning Society: This is partly about educational outcomes, but more about our ability to adapt to a changing world as new technologies are devised, geopolitical orders evolve, and more. Today, America's educational outcomes are nothing to be ashamed of or brag about. The real issue is what we learn and how we perceive the world. The immense and increasing flow of misinformation is able to create and leverage echo chambers, to put us into a doom-loop of distrust and dysfunction, leaving our nation increasingly incapable of adapting to the emergent problems our society faces. The relationship between the government and media is driving this country insane. What our society is learning is that both sides cast the other side as the enemy and at fault for all that is wrong - hardly the right lessons.
- Inflection Point: Why are politicians incentivized to inflame passions by needing to take polarizing positions in order to win, instead of wanting to constructively engage those with opposing views?
- Competitive Diversity & Pluralism: This is about the "establishment," and the ability or not for new groups of individuals to organize, build compelling platforms, and challenge the status quo in order to "do something about it" on the problems above. Today, data reveals the U.S. has little political diversity and pluralism, as electoral structures are effectively shutting out any new entrant to the duopoly, or any incentive for working across the aisle.
- Inflection Point: The "establishment" is real, made possible by the processes that enable them to get them into office and stay there. How do we get a new system where every politician, in every election, can have real competition?
3) Nail down root causes. If all the above are experiencing unpleasant symptoms, ask them what are possible root problems that must be tackled if we are ever to make America great once again. Let them go beyond problems within our electoral system, as those are important too. But then bring focus to electoral processes as presenting several root causes - about finance, districting, primaries, the duopoly, and more. Spend as much time here as you need, otherwise you will have failed to establish "the why" and any discussion on reforms will be just as ineffective as before. The key is to know your audience and which of the seven foundations to emphasize. While conservative and liberal mindsets may generally agree these seven foundations are important, their prioritization will probably look different.
- Through the conservative lens: Patriotism, dismantling the establishment, affecting the media, and revitalizing the middle class are some angles that may resonate greatly with conservative audiences. Lean into them, and make the connection to electoral reform.
- Through the liberal lens: Shared opportunity, effective governance, and competitive diversity are angles that may resonate greatly with liberal audiences. Lean into them, and make the connection to electoral reform.
4) Bring it all together. Ask them what possible solutions exist to revitalize any and all of the above. Introduce the possibility of open primaries, ranked choice voting, ballot access and anything else you are passionate about as strategic-level ideas that can positively impact all of seven of these foundations. If they still resist these reforms, ask them point blank if they have any better ideas. Maybe you'll learn something, but you'll probably get deflective answers. The point is the status quo cannot sustain. It will be tempting to discuss how these reforms will work in a technical sense, but that is still less important than hammering why they're necessary - we can negotiate the details of how later.
We don't want to promise the framework above as a panacea that will convince every skeptic of all electoral reforms. However, we do hope it can bring some new structure for framing “the why” for those who simply are the most resistant to change. We at Veterans For All Voters wish you a wonderful holiday season, for however you choose to celebrate your traditions. And as you gather with family and friends, we challenge you to find one skeptic and engage them. Our nation will change, one conversation at a time. Good luck, and see you in 2024.