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Embracing electoral reform’s spiritual strengths

Embracing electoral reform’s spiritual strengths

In speaking about voting rights, Sen. Raphael Warnock has echoed the religious tones of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose funeral he led in 2020.

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Nyquist is an independent strategist for initiatives related to sustainability and political reform.

In light of a political order increasingly unable to address difficult societal challenges, electoral reform advocates are pushing us to reimagine a core element of our democracy: the ballot. Their cause is just, but the movement’s technocratic messaging through graphs and game theory does not inspire the wider audiences needed to give their reforms social traction.

In order to appeal not only to the heads but also the hearts of voters, the electoral reform movement should start taking notes from champions of the voting rights movement.


In an attempt to rally the U.S. Senate to carve out a filibuster exemption for voting rights legislation last week, Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia contended thata vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire,” an idea he has previously put forth while delivering his first speech on the Senate floor and at Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice’s inaugural event. His political mantra echoes the belief that “the right to vote is precious, almost sacred,” accredited to the late Rep. John Lewis. (Incidentally, Warnock presided over Lewis’ funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the senator-theologian continues to serve as lead pastor in the pulpit once held by Martin Luther King Jr.)

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Steeped in the legacy of the civil rights movement, this holy language has been increasingly mobilized in recent years to defend voting rights. The underlying logic that explains its rhetorical effectiveness is clear: If voting is truly a spiritual act, would not denying someone the unobstructed freedom to vote be an offense to the soul?

Whereas voting rights advocates are primarily concerned with who votes, electoral reform advocates are concerned with how we vote. For many electoral reform advocates, their deep dissatisfaction centers around the “first past the post” voting method ubiquitous throughout the United States. The term originated in horse-racing, where it refers to the awarding of payouts according to the horse that ostensibly passes the finish post first, even if that horse is later disqualified upon further review. In electoral reform jargon, FPTP refers to an election system where a candidate who gets the simple plurality of votes wins, even though that candidate may not actually align with what the true majority of the electorate prefers.

Proposed reforms such as approval voting or ranked-choice voting are promising alternatives to FPTP. Approval voting allows a voter to select multiple candidates for a given race, with the candidate who receives the greatest number of yes votes winning. RCV enables voters to rank candidates, with victory going to the first candidate to receive a majority of first-place votes in a series of instant run-off simulations. Both reforms have achieved some momentum, with approval voting used in St. Louis, and RCV being implemented in New York City and statewide in Maine. At the party level, the 2021 Virginia GOP convention’s use of RCV helped nominate a competitive and ultimately victorious gubernatorial candidate.

That said, electoral reform advocates are not usually found marching down the streets advancing their message, but rather in a coterie attending conferences and webinars. The arguments they develop evoke concepts such as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem or Condorcet’s Paradox. Such an approach appeals to the heads of cerebral political hobbyists but not the hearts of bread-and-butter voters. Despite the worthiness of their cause, the long-term prospects for the electoral reform movement look grim if it continues to fail to appeal to the heart.

An integration of head and heart is within reach if electoral reform advocates embrace electoral reform’s underlying spiritual strengths. From my personal experience at the front lines of the faith-based climate action movement in the 2010s, I witnessed how the highly technical language of climate science began to speak to the hearts of millions of marchers, strikers and grassroots organizers — a movement now so strong, it only needs a more representative democracy to radically change our planet’s fate. A significant contributor to this “conversion” of the climate movement was the role traditional religions and emergent spiritualities played in adding depth to scientific fact. Published in 2015, Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, subtitled “On Care for our Common Home,” is a preeminent example of the climate movement’s paradigm shift.

To illustrate what a similar shift in the electoral reform movement may look like, consider the following thought experiment: What makes voting, as a spiritual act, good? Below are four criteria to consider in regards to electoral system reform.

  • Is the act authentic? The idea that authenticity is fundamental to spirituality was the grand insight of Pietists in the 17th and 18th centuries and Existentialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. FPTP voting strains authenticity by demanding voters cast their ballots strategically rather than from the heart. That is, instead of voting for who they genuinely want to win, FPTP often forces voters to select the least intolerable candidate with a reasonable chance of winning. Approval voting and RCV remedy this dilemma by empowering voters to select both desired and strategic choices.
  • Does the act bolster integrity? Mahatma Gandhi highlighted satyagraha, or “truth force,” as a central tool in his nonviolent resistance movement. However, as Martin Luther reminds us, faced with our own lack of integrity, the human inclination is towards self-justification. Because humans rationalize their past behavior, the temptation after casting a FPTP ballot is for the voter to contrive reasons why they did not vote for a different, perfectly qualified candidate – perhaps magnifying a character flaw or exaggerating a policy disagreement. With the freedom of approval voting and RCV, this temptation disappears, allowing voters to carry themselves with a little more satyagraha and save the need for grace for a time other than Election Day.
  • Does the act enhance agency? The liberation theologians, with their emphasis on praxis, understood the power of spirituality for claiming agency in an otherwise oppressive world; likewise, a good spiritual act promotes agency. FPTP voting reduces agency through the “spoiler effect,” where an additional candidate’s entry into the race may split the majority of voters such that an unpopular candidate ends up winning. Occasionally, shadowy interests even recruit sham candidates to spoil an election! By empowering voters to express a range of preferences, both approval voting and RCV mitigate against the spoiler effect, increasing voter agency.
  • Is an act sensible? The sociologist-theologian Peter Berger understood that religion constructs a “sacred canopy,” or worldview. Similarly, participation in a spiritual act should leave someone with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. As we have seen, FPTP forces voters to cast their single vote strategically. These strategic votes muffle the “prayer for the world we desire” implied in each ballot, enabling elected officials to misconstrue the mandate of an election into something that bulwarks their own agenda. By reducing the noise of strategic votes, both approval voting and RCV accurately express the electorate’s collective desire.

Adding these criteria to the public discourse is a step towards building an election reform movement that embraces its latent spiritual strengths. One step further is building coalitions with voting rights activists who have long believed the right to vote is sacred. For electoral reform advocates, this means joining voting rights activists in the street for marches and more “good trouble.” It also means taking a posture of humility; after all, the question of who votes remains a more fundamental question than how we vote!

The resulting synergy will undoubtedly bolster the electoral reform movement. If changing the way we vote will reinvigorate our political order to solve difficult problems, then now is the time to get heads and hearts out there together.

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