Fixing Our Broken Election System
Alumni advocates outline the problems—and the solutions that are gaining ground.
On March 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” a transformational bill designed to fix our broken election system. The legislation would ensure voting rights, end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strengthen ethics laws, and place limits on campaign financing.
“H.R. 1 would give everyday Americans a greater voice,” says Aaron Scherb ’04, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that works on pro-democracy reforms to make government more fair and representative. “There are some incredibly powerful reforms in there.”
For these reforms to become law, however, the Senate would have to pass its version of the bill, S. 1, and reconcile any differences with the House before it could land on President Biden’s desk for signing. But it is uncertain whether it can pass the full Senate, which has a 50-50 party split and where the filibuster could be used by Republicans to block passage. In the House, H.R. 1 was passed by a slight Democratic majority with no Republican support.
Despite the partisanship in Congress, the bill is popular among voters: A recent poll by Data for Progress found that 68 percent of likely voters supported H.R. 1, including 57 percent of Republicans.
“It’s obvious that this polarized, dysfunctional party system is a complete breakdown of good policymaking and efficient representation of our interests,” says Rob Richie ’84, president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization focused on electoral reforms for a more representative democracy. Richie helped found the organization in 1992.
“Our Constitution depends on a more Quakerly approach grounded in compromise and negotiation,” says Richie, father of Lucas Richie ’18 and Becca Richie ’20; he comes from a long line of Haverford graduates, including his father, grandfather, brothers, and uncle. “This is breaking our democracy.”
Richie and Scherb are among a number of Haverford alumni who are working hard to bring about substantive democracy reforms to ensure fair elections, give a voice to all voters, and fight ethical and financial corruption in politics.
The stakes may be higher than ever. Following months of baseless claims by then-President Trump that the 2020 election was fraudulent, the country witnessed the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by those attempting to change the outcome of the election. To some, it was the culmination of the deterioration of democratic standards and ethics that have chipped away at the foundations of American democracy.
“There is a myth in America that we are a conservative country. We are a progressive country with antebellum institutions,” says Waleed Shahid ’09, communications director for Justice Democrats, which works to elect progressive candidates such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY. “We don’t have a democracy that represents the will of the people.”
At the same time, there are positive changes taking place in cities and states across the country. For example, Maine has enacted ranked-choice voting for most elections, and its Clean Election Act offers public funding for state candidates. And voters in Alaska last November approved sweeping changes to end dark money in elections, establish a single primary for all parties, and allow voters to rank candidates by preference, even for presidential elections.
“We have opportunities in 50 states and many dozens of large cities,” says Alex Kaplan ’09, vice president of policy and campaigns at RepresentUs, a national, nonpartisan democracy reform and anticorruption organization that focuses on change at the state and local level through legislation and ballot measures approved, and often initiated, by voters.
Many national advances, including women’s suffrage and marriage equality, first took root in the states, Kaplan points out. “Every state has some form of a ballot measure to put questions directly to the people.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the major problems, and the ways to fix our broken election system.
THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE VS. THE NATIONAL POPULAR VOTE
Twice in recent years, in 2000 and 2016, a U.S. president was elected who had lost the popular vote. How is it that the candidate with fewer votes wins the highest office in the country?
Blame it on the Electoral College, an archaic system that was designed in part to give more power to slave states. It takes 270 state electoral votes to win the presidency, regardless of whether that candidate wins the most votes nationwide. It’s a system that undermines the basic democratic principle of every vote having equal weight.
Ending the Electoral College, however, would require a constitutional amendment, a lengthy and challenging process unlikely to be successful in such a partisan era.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact solves this problem by having states agree to award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. (FairVote was an early champion of the concept, with Richie coauthoring Every Vote Equal in 2006.) When the electoral votes of the states that join the compact total the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, it would ensure that the candidate with the most votes wins. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact, representing 196 electoral votes. If states whose combined electoral votes total 74 or more sign on, the compact will take effect.
“It renders the Electoral College harmless, and it’s more doable than a constitutional amendment,” explains Scherb, who majored in political science at Haverford and was inspired to work in politics by the rancorous 2000 election, in which a U.S. Supreme Court ruling enabled George W. Bush to win the White House, although he lost the popular vote. (Two of Scherb’s colleagues at Common Case are Jesse Littlewood ’03 and Steve Spaulding ’05.)
“I think people of many different political persuasions and backgrounds can get behind the idea that the person with the most votes wins,” says Andrew Eldredge-Martin ’01, who runs the political firm Measured Campaigns and previously led digital paid media operations for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE: GETTING BIG MONEY OUT OF POLITICS
“Until we get big money out of politics and ensure everyone’s sacred right to vote is protected, we won’t be able to fully address climate change, gun violence, cutting prescription costs,” and other issues that go against corporate and other big-money interests, Scherb says.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, about $14 billion was spent on the 2020 national elections, about twice as much as in 2016. Only about $1.8 billion of that came from small donors.
The problem of big money in politics worsened after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which removed many campaign finance safeguards. H.R. 1 includes campaign finance provisions that would undo much of the fallout from Citizens United.
Meanwhile, cities and states are moving forward with their own election finance reforms. Seattle, for instance, gives every registered voter four $25 vouchers to donate to candidates. “It’s very different from going to a lobbyist’s fundraiser,” Kaplan says. “There’s $100 in every door; it gives every person the same power.”
The Maine Clean Election Act, passed in 1996, offers a public funding option for state offices, including governor. “It gives an ordinary person a way to run a decent election,” says Anne Carney ’84, who was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2018 and the state Senate in 2020. Public funding for a contested House seat, for example, is $5,075, and once funded, candidates may not accept outside donations. Although she considered public funding for her own races, Carney faced primary and general election opponents who raised money the traditional way, showing the limits of the Clean Election Act. “I needed the flexibility to match what they brought to the campaign,” she says. Even so, her senate opponent spent almost twice what she did.
If your U.S. congressional district looks like a pretzel, chances are it’s the result of gerrymandering. Every 10 years, the number of congressional seats assigned to a state may go up or down based on new U.S. Census data. In a practice going back to the early 1800s, the party that controls the state legislature often redraws district lines to favor its party.
It’s a tactic used by both Democrats and Republicans and, ultimately, results in unfair voter representation. It also creates mostly safe districts for candidates, Richie says, thus further removing incentives for them to speak to all voters, not just those in their own party.
A more equitable way to redistrict is by establishing independent commissions that include all parties. Eight states already do this to varying degrees, says Kaplan, with Arizona, Michigan, and California representing the gold standard with independent, multi-party commissions, a transparent process, and clear rules.
Another five states—Colorado, Ohio, Utah, Missouri, and Virginia—have enacted beneficial redistricting reforms.
Tellingly, redistricting reforms in these states came from ballot measures passed by a majority of voters, says Kaplan, who got hooked on democracy reform at Haverford and earned a master’s in public policy analysis and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. “Even conservative voters want reform.”
Currently, six additional states are moving toward redistricting ballot measures, and H.R. 1, if enacted, would require states to create independent redistricting commissions and end gerrymandering. What happens this year is critical, as any redistricting changes from the 2020 census will remain in place for the next 10 years.
Kaplan is optimistic: “I do think we can stop gerrymandering by 2031,” he says. “It’s a worthy, achievable, and audacious goal.”
WINNER-TAKE-ALL VS. FAIR REPRESENTATION
Our political system is primarily winner-take-all: Candidates win elections even if they receive only a few more votes than their opponent. The result is that the views and values of about half of the voters in these elections are unrepresented.
“In winner-take-all, 51 percent of votes is 100 percent,” Richie says.
The Fair Representation Act—first introduced in Congress in 2017 and introduced again this year—would address this inequity by creating new, multi-member congressional districts that would be drawn by independent commissions and elected through a form of ranked-choice voting that provides proportional representation. These larger districts with more candidates to choose from would give voice to a wider swath of voters who may not be represented in our winner-take-all system: red-state Democrats, urban Republicans, independents, women, and communities of color.
To put this in perspective, Shahid says if his Brooklyn congressional district were to be enlarged to include three nearby districts, and this larger district similarly represented by four members of Congress, voters in the larger district would probably end up electing two Democrats, one Republican, and one Socialist candidate.
But in the current winner-take-all system, he says, the four separate districts that cover the same geographic area would likely elect only Democrats. The fair representation approach gives a larger, combined voice to people whose votes may be diluted in smaller, gerrymandered districts of our current system.
To date, more than 200 U.S. cities and counties use some form of fair representation voting to elect city council members, supervisors, school board members, and other elected offices, according to FairVote. Illinois has elected its House of Representatives by fair representation for more than 100 years.
If enacted nationally, it would be a wholesale change in the way we elect U.S. House members that would give more voters a say in government and encourage candidates to reach out beyond their own base.
“Third-party candidates and independents are so weak now, but a lot of people are hungry for additional choices,” says Richie, noting that passage of The Fair Representation Act is a top priority for FairVote. “Given the troubling state of our democracy, winning in 10 years is not only possible, but an imperative.”
In our winner-take-all election system, large numbers of people end up unrepresented, and third-party and independent candidates don’t have much of a chance to compete—or, worse, are considered spoilers. It’s a system of government unlike those of most western democracies, which have multiple political parties and proportional representation of elected officials.
To remedy winner-take-all, there is growing support for ranked-choice voting, an alternative that FairVote says would make our democracy more equitable and functional. Ranked-choice voting allows people to rank a number of candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first count, he or she would win the election. If not, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and those who voted for that person as their top choice will have their votes go to their second choice. This continues until there is a majority winner.
“Winners in this system tend to get highly ranked by 65 to 70 percent of people,” Richie says, noting it creates an incentive for candidates to make connections with more people. “At the end of the day, almost everyone gets to elect someone they like. It also means you can vote for a third-party or independent candidate and not feel like you’re throwing your vote away.”
It’s a system that’s gaining traction. Some 25 cities are using ranked-choice voting for their local elections, with over a dozen adoptions just since 2018. San Francisco has been doing it since 2004, and New York City recently adopted ranked-choice voting for mayoral and city council primary races.
“This is something we think can win everywhere,” says Richie. “It’s a one-person, one-vote system with backup.”
Since the landmark Voting Rights Act was passed in 1966, barring racial discrimination in voting, state laws have been chipping away at its impact by making it more difficult for people to register and vote.
Following the historic turnout in the 2020 general election, hundreds of bills in 43 states have been introduced this year that would restrict voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Typically, these include restricting mail-in and early voting and registration, allowing purges of voter rolls, and limiting voting by felons who have completed their sentences. Many of the proposed bills would have the effect of disenfranchising voters of color who tend to vote Democratic.
“We don’t make it easy to vote in our country,” says Kate Stewart ’92, mayor of Takoma Park, Md., since 2015. But this city of 17,000 just outside Washington, D.C., has expanded voting rights in recent decades, automatically sending ballots to all registered voters and offering same-day registration, early voting, and ranked-choice voting.
And in 2013, Takoma Park became the first U.S. city to lower the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. The success of this move is evidenced in the city’s 2020 election report, which found that 69 percent of 16- and 17-year-old registered voters went to the polls—the highest rate of all age groups. Stewart isn’t surprised: “Many of them are working and paying taxes, and the issues we face as a country, such as climate change, will impact us for a generation or more.”
Stewart, who works in public relations promoting women’s reproductive rights in addition to serving as mayor, thinks lowering the voting age would be good national policy: “Voting is a habit, and getting into the habit of voting early on helps predict you’ll be a voter for the rest of your life.”
Further north, Carney says Maine is a model of voting rights: same-day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, and multiple ways to apply for and return ballots. “People can register to vote on the day of the election; even if you just moved to Maine, you can bring a utility bill and an ID to the polls and register and vote,” she says. “There are so many ways to vote, and it supports high voter turnout.”
REASON TO BE OPTIMISTIC
While the problems in our electoral system are pervasive and entrenched, those working on the front lines for democracy reform are cautiously optimistic that we could see positive changes in the foreseeable future. Flaws in the voting process seem to be fueling public support for large-scale reforms that would create a more fair and just system.
“Four years of nonstop ethical abuses and scandals from the Trump administration can hopefully catalyze significant reforms,” Scherb says. “As a Chicago Cubs fan, I have to be an eternal optimist, but it’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint.”
Shahid agrees there is reason to be hopeful, especially with Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, and a possibility of ending the Senate filibuster rule that requires a super majority of 60 votes for legislation to pass.
“There is enormous opportunity to transform our democracy,” Shahid says. “I have to be optimistic because I want to see this country become more representative and pass laws that address people’s needs.”