Saving Democracy—Realistically

Yes, we disdain the Electoral College. In the meantime, there are more
realistic ways to unlock our democratic Gordian Knot.

By Larry Diamond

Tagged CongresscourtsDemocracyDemocratsElectionspoliticsRepublicansSupreme Court

For more than a decade, American democracy has been in a steep decline. We have known for a long time that our democracy has become more polarized and dysfunctional since the slash and burn politics of the Gingrich era in the House (beginning with the polarizing 1994 midterm elections). The overlap in congressional voting behavior between the most conservative Democrats and the most moderate Republicans has completely disappeared. And opinion surveys of the general public (by Pew and other polling firms) show an increasingly divided populace, with less and less ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans. Worse, Republicans and Democrats increasingly regard one another as “the enemy,” a moral (and mortal) danger to the country’s future. 

Comparisons can be instructive in measuring our democratic decline. Between 2012 and 2022, the United States declined 10 points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale of political rights and civil liberties. Only four other countries declined more in that period: Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary (which all became autocracies), and Poland, which has been teetering on the edge for years. Since 2016, the Economist Democracy Index has rated the United States as a “flawed democracy,” with democracy scores in steady decline since 2008. Both these scales and the “V-Dem” liberal democracy scale (produced by an academic consortium based in Sweden) all show the United States ranking behind (most often well behind) its advanced industrial peers in the quality of democracy. 

The election of Joseph R. Biden as President in November 2020 was quickly embraced by analysts as a swing back toward moderation and reason in American politics. But even though Biden garnered a larger popular vote (by far) than any presidential candidate in history, and with a clear majority, and even though he won by a convincing national margin (of 4.4 percentage points), the election was in one sense a very close call. A shift of fewer than 25,000 votes total in just three battleground states (Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin) would have effectively given the presidential election to Trump. Even the increased voter turnout rate (66.8 percent of the voting-age population, the highest since 1992) could be interpreted as a sign of the intense stakes in the election. And of course, the shocking and brutal assault on the Congress on January 6, as the Electoral College votes were being counted, shattered the illusion of any return to normality.

The following are further signs of deep democratic distress:

  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans (surveyed nearly a year after the January 6th insurrection) feel that “American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing.” Seven in ten Americans say that about the country itself—and this is one sentiment that Republicans, Democrats, and independents all agree on.
  • A majority of supporters of the losing party (Republicans) reject the legitimacy of the last presidential election. And a slight majority of Americans overall now lack confidence that “elections in America today reflect the will of the people.”
  • 57 percent of Republicans view Democrats (and 41 percent of Democrats view Republicans) not as the “political opposition,” who simply have different policies, but rather as “enemies” who, “if they win,” may threaten “your life or your entire way of life.” And a majority of Americans think the biggest threat to America’s way of life is “other Americans.”
  • About a fifth of Americans believe violence can be justified to protect American democracy.
  • An impeached President who habitually lied, violated ethics laws, abused the media and the courts, and actively attempted to overthrow the legitimate results of an election, came close to being reelected and remains the dominant force in his party.
  • In some 20 states, the losing party in the last presidential election has pushed through laws to restrict voting, and in many states, supporters of the losing presidential candidate who deny that he was legitimately defeated are running for state offices that would exercise authority over election administration and certification.

This severe partisan polarization, and America’s broader democratic decline, have been decades in the making, with social, economic, and technological, as well as political roots. Over the long run, we must address the deep drivers of our democratic malaise: increasingly extreme inequalities of wealth, income, and opportunity; the domination of policymaking by extremely wealthy individuals and corporations; persistent and resurgent patterns of racial bias, injustice, and insensitivity; the perverse incentives to polarization and disinformation embedded in social media; the decline of civic education and practice in the United States; and the growing cultural and political gulfs between urban and rural (or exurban) communities, and between the metropolitan coasts and the country’s interior. But in the near to medium term, just as a doctor seeks to heal an ill patient, we must search for practical remedies that will heal the body politic. 

The Paradoxes of American Democratic Reform

Reform of American democracy must wrestle with vexing contradictions. There is a war on voting rights and on impartial electoral administration in the United States, driven by deep partisan mistrust and deliberate disinformation alleging widespread voter fraud that does not in fact exist. New and proposed laws making it harder to vote and subjecting electoral administration to the control of partisan elected officials threaten democracy (though not all to the same degree). They should be confronted and defeated. But they are being pushed by politicians who claim they are necessary to defend democracy, and their constituencies actually believe that narrative. Second, because these issues have come to be framed in intensely partisan terms, efforts to extend (or even simply defend) voting rights and to insulate electoral administration from partisan assaults—efforts that should be seen as non-partisan stances for democracy and good governance—instead require intense partisan mobilization. And as the country recently saw with the defeat of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act, even having unanimous congressional support from members of the party in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House is not sufficient for voting rights and free elections. For without at least some Republican support in the Senate, Democrats will be unable to muster the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster. 

And this is the third paradox: Democratic reform at the federal level requires not only that the political stars align to a degree that they rarely do (with unified party control of the House, Senate, and White House), but also the elimination of the Senate filibuster—which provides some protection against a future undemocratic President forcing through legislation to roll back democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. Hence, the very measure that is needed now to defend democracy—elimination of the Senate filibuster—also places democracy in future jeopardy.

What can be achieved in the near term to secure and reform American democracy? And what might a plausible medium-term agenda look like?

The two voting rights bills were doomed on January 19, 2022, when Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema voted against a narrow change in Senate rules that would have allowed their passage by a simple majority vote. Now that they are dead for the life of this 117th Congress (and probably for some time to come), a shift in strategy is needed. Privately, some reform advocates felt the Freedom to Vote Act (and its more ambitious predecessor, the For the People Act) sought to accomplish too much with one sweeping bill, and that more progress might have been made with a sequence of smaller bills. Now, reform efforts will need to navigate through the choppy waters of partisan anxiety, opportunism, and disinformation. The questions then are: What can be achieved in the near term to secure and reform American democracy? And what might a plausible medium-term agenda and strategy for democratic repair look like?

Below I make the following arguments. First, in the near term, we must do whatever we can to defend and strengthen the rules and infrastructure of free and fair elections. Democracy’s defenders must draw distinctions between reforms that are desirable in expanding democratic rights—such as greater access to mail-in ballots—and ones that are essential, because they could make the difference between a free and fair election and an undemocratic one. The latter category includes all attempts at what is called “election subversion,” such as the Georgia state legislature’s seizure of power to displace county electoral administration, or the potential election as secretary of state of Trump fanatics who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election and are prepared to politicize electoral administration to win at all costs. Having failed to prevail narrowly on a broad agenda for voting rights, democracy’s defenders should settle on a narrower agenda of essential steps that could mobilize a broader supporting coalition.

Second, we need a broad, long-term strategy to alter the institutional incentives favoring polarizing politics and extremist politicians. The major culprit here is our ancient system of first-past-the-post elections, combined with the more recent (but now one-century-old) practice of nominating candidates in party primaries. What makes the two principal electoral reform alternatives so appealing is that they would not only reduce political polarization, but they would also invigorate American democracy by making elections more competitive and giving voters more choice and control. Add to that universal “civic-duty” voting, and you have a broad non-partisan formula for revitalizing electoral democracy in the United States. 

Third, other reforms can also reduce the extremely high stakes in partisan political divides. One I find particularly appealing is Supreme Court Reform. And fourth, we need to work in parallel fashion to supplement our democratic procedures with new civic methods that bridge our brutalizing political divides with reasoned deliberation on the issues and mutually respectful dialogue. Recent experiments with deliberative polling show promise in this regard.

Protecting Free and Fair Elections

The minimum requirement for “democracy” is the ability of citizens to choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections. Elections cannot be fair unless they are administered impartially. Partisan gerrymandering already casts a significant cloud over that condition. But the administration of elections in the United States is also rendered vulnerable by the fact that in 33 of the 50 states, the chief electoral officer, the secretary of state, is itself filled in a partisan election (and could and often does provide a springboard to higher office). One simple and long overdue reform (endorsed by the former elected Secretary of State of Connecticut Miles Rapoport, and by at least two currently serving secretaries of state) would convert the position into a non-partisan position, either by changing the election to a non-partisan one or (my strong preference) making it a career, civil service position, appointed from outside politics on the basis of merit (which is how most of our peer democracies administer their elections).

In the near term, we must take steps to enhance the credibility, capacity, and professionalism of electoral administration in the United States. Two highly respected election scholars, Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III, have set forth a 12-point program for action that includes: full and sustainable federal funding to meet the needs of local and state election administration (an amount that has been estimated at about $2 billion per election cycle); clearly specifying the authorities and procedures for dealing with elections under emergency (e.g. public health) conditions; systematic risk-limiting audits of all state and federal election results to ensure and promote confidence in the accuracy of the count; increasing the transparency of the vote tabulation (while protecting it from interference or intimidation); insulating the U.S. Postal Service from partisan politics; standardizing procedures for mail-in ballots, and using computer software to track them; and uniform standards for handling deficient absentee ballots. Some of these issues would have been addressed by the For the People Act or the Freedom to Vote Act. But reformers must do what they can to raise them on a non-partisan basis.

There is another non-partisan reform that both parties should have a strong and urgent interest in: fixing the hopelessly vague and flawed Electoral Count Act of 1887, so that we do not have another presidential election, like that in 2020, at risk of being overturned by a purely partisan vote of the Congress or a rogue vice president. Election law experts of varying ideological inclinations have proposed a reform package that would prevent Congress from questioning a state’s electoral votes once the state certified them “through policies established in advance of the election,” and create a non-partisan tribunal mechanism to resolve electoral disputes at the state level. One of those experts, Edward Foley, proposes in this issue of Democracy a sensible plan for modernizing the Act by entrenching the courts, not a congressional majority, as the arbiter of any dispute. Democrats should not let the ideal and expansive be the enemy of what is necessary and attainable. 

A Truly Universal Franchise

The Democrats’ defeated bills on voting rights would have significantly expanded the right to vote, but in ways that became embroiled in intense partisan controversy over mail-in ballots, means of voter registration, and a host of other issues that came to be seen (however wrongly) as favoring one party over the other. It’s time to transform the debate with a cleaner, simpler, more comprehensive approach: Why not just have everyone vote? This of course would require that states systematically register all eligible adults (and then allow anyone who is missed to provisionally register and vote at the polls). In their new book, 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting, E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport have proposed that the United States do what some two dozen other democracies around the world do: require that all citizens cast a vote. A voter could protest and check “none of the above,” or return a blank ballot, or write in other names, but every eligible adult would be expected to cast a ballot as a civic duty (at the eventual cost of a very minor fee for not complying, and with generous provisions for excusal on the basis of health or conscience). 

It is not necessarily the case that universal voting will favor one party or demographic. True, non-voters are disproportionately young people (who lean Democratic), but much of the non-voting public is also more rural and less educated, and Republicans—not least Donald Trump, but more recently Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial election—have demonstrated an ability to appeal to these lower-turnout constituencies. A grand bargain might reduce the suspicions and anxieties of Republicans who allege (without any evidence) widespread voting fraud. Let’s give everyone a valid photo ID that can be used to verify their identity at the polls (or through a unique number written on a mail-in ballot). If we make that a requirement to vote, however, we should also invest the time and resources needed to ensure that every adult American, irrespective of race or class, has what should be their right: a quality photo identification (driver’s license or equivalent state ID) that can enable them to travel freely and access all government services.

To facilitate universal voting, we should do what most other democracies do and schedule elections on the weekend or at least make voting day a public holiday. An existing public holiday (such as Columbus Day or Veteran’s Day) could be utilized for this purpose.

As Dionne and Rapoport argue, universal voting, focused around a weekend or a holiday when most people are not working, would not only broaden and invigorate the electoral process. It would also likely moderate it, for a simple reason. Most of the people who passionately favor one party or the other, or one political candidate or cause, already vote. Those who sit out are less attached to parties and less engaged with politics. Some ask, why would we want those people to vote? Broadening the electorate to include everyone will temper the partisan fever of politics, precisely because parties and politicians will have to appeal to more voters who lack strong partisan or ideological attachments. Universal voting is the final step in the long democratic journey of the franchise from its various restrictions of class (the unpropertied), then of gender, then of race, and then age (lowering the barrier to 18). But as Dionne and Rapoport argue from the Australian experience, universal voting will likely also diminish partisan polarization, especially if it is combined with Australia’s most important contribution to democratic practice: ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-Choice Voting

When voters in most states go to the polls in November, they are either given no electoral choice at all—because their congressional district or state is so heavily Democratic or Republican that there is effectively no contest—or else their choice is, realistically, limited only to a Democrat or Republican, since voting for any other candidate would mean “wasting” one’s vote on a candidate with no chance of victory. Thus, our antiquated electoral system of single-district plurality (“first-past-the-post”) voting stifles competition and often, thus, interest in elections as well, at the same time as it polarizes politics. Once upon a time in political theory, this system was seen to encourage moderate outcomes, by inducing the two parties to compete for the “median voter” in the middle of the ideological spectrum. But that logic has been vitiated by partisan gerrymandering and the residential sorting of voters by party and ideology, as well as by the growing political gulfs between rural and urban voters and the rise of extremely partisan broadcast media.

Most of all, the “median voter” theory has been undermined by the evolution of party primary elections, which have increasingly been dominated (particularly on the Republican side) by the more ideological, intensely partisan, and more recently populist extremes of the electorate. Even in one of the higher-turnout midterm elections (2018), less than a fifth of registered voters across the country voted in congressional primary elections. In its recent 2022 primary election, Texas had the highest turnout of its last six midterm primary elections, yet only 17.7 percent of registered voters participated. Since only about 80 percent of eligible Texans are registered to vote, that means that only 14 percent of eligible voters determine who will get to the November ballot. Assume something like 8 or 9 percent vote in one party primary and 5 or 6 percent in another. That means, in a typical year, in a typical state like Texas, the Senate nomination of the likely winning party is decided by just 3 to 5 percent of eligible voters. And who are these voters who show up in a party primary six to eight months before the general election? They are the most partisan and intensely committed. The formula is then set either for more extreme candidates to waltz to victory in November in safe House or Senate seats, or for two intensely partisan, diametrically opposed alternatives to face off against one another in a polarizing general election that offers no viable third option.

A growing array of political scientists and reform advocates believe that ranked-choice voting (RCV) could pull American politics out of this death spiral. Under RCV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference, and a candidate must win a majority of votes to be elected. If no candidate obtains a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the least of those is eliminated and the votes for that candidate are transferred to each ballot’s next-ranked choice. The “instant run-off” then continues until a candidate emerges with a majority of votes (or least more than the final alternative).

If voters were given the opportunity to rank their preferences in an election, incentives would change. Candidates would have to craft broader appeals, knowing that they would need a majority of the votes to win. Voters would be liberated to give their first-preference votes to a wider array of candidates and parties, since they would no longer be wasting their votes in the process. This would make elections more competitive (and hence more democratic) by giving third parties—Libertarians, Greens, and others—as well as credible independents a greater incentive to compete. With more potentially serious options, elections would be less of a bipolar, and hence naturally polarizing, affair. And there is some evidence to suggest that campaigns might be less negative and mutually destructive.

Competition would sharply increase if RCV were combined with proportional representation in multi-member districts.

As is now done in Maine (and New York City), RCV can be used in party primaries as well, making it more difficult for extreme candidates to win nominations by requiring them to win a majority of primary voters. Or imagine a more far-reaching innovation. What if the primary election was not fractured into separate party contests, with their incentives for partisan and ideological outbidding to narrow constituencies? Imagine instead a single, “blanket” primary, with the top four or five finishers advancing to the general election. A “top five” general election would likely include at least one candidate from each major party, and quite possibly one or more independents or third-party candidates as well. If the state or district leaned heavily toward one party, it might enable a more moderate member of the dominant party to win—as Lisa Murkowski hopes to do in November in Alaska’s new “top four” system, with a voting coalition of moderate and centrist Republicans, independents, and Democrats.

But there is one potential flaw in conventional forms of RCV. If in the November general election Democrats in Alaska rank the Democratic candidate as their first preference (even though that candidate is unlikely to win a majority of the vote in a final “instant run-off”) and if a majority of Alaska Republicans rank a more extreme Republican first, Murkowski might finish third in first-preference votes. She would then be eliminated before the final instant run-off of the ranked-choice voting, even if (as seems likely) she would defeat any other candidate in a head-to-head contest. The candidate who beats every other candidate in a head-to-head contest is known in voting theory as the “Condorcet winner.” That is arguably the most democratic principle for choosing a winner, and in any case the one most likely to reward moderation. Voting machines can be designed to use ballot rankings to identify the Condorcet winner, the candidate who would prevail in a series of “round robin” contests. 

While Congress will not soon adopt RCV nationwide, states are free to do so, not only for all their state elections but also for their elections to the U.S. House and Senate. Maine and Alaska have already done so by voter initiative, and voters in Oregon and Nevada are pushing RCV initiatives this year (the latter a “top five” system). Party establishments often oppose these reforms, but ordinary voters tend to like the increased choice and control RCV affords them. One simple reform Congress could adopt would be to require that members of the House and Senate be elected by majority vote. States would then be free to choose the specific method, either some form of RCV or a run-off election between the top two candidates if no one obtains a majority in early November. States could also adopt RCV in presidential elections to require a majority winner for their electoral votes.

Competition would sharply increase—and evolve into a multi-party system—if RCV were combined with proportional representation in multi-member districts. A version of this system, proposed in federal legislation by Democratic Representative Donald Beyer of Virginia, would divide up most states into multi-member districts containing three to five House seats, with seats then being allocated proportionally to political parties, or slates of candidates, based on their share of the vote. Because electoral districts would be larger and seat allocations would be proportional within them, it would be much harder to gerrymander districts for partisan advantage (and in any case the Beyer bill would eliminate that). Moderates would get elected in some states where their party is now largely shut out (e.g., moderate Republicans from the Northeast, moderate Democrats from the South). The system would not only be fairer in partisan terms, it would also better represent women and minorities. Scholars debate the probable net effect on political polarization; on the one hand, it might enable more ideologically extreme parties to win some House seats, but on the other hand, it might liberate mainstream Democrats and Republicans to break away from their more militant flanks.

In the near term, I believe the best prospect for reducing partisan polarization lies in instituting a “top-four” or “top-five” form of RCV, using a counting method that will select the Condorcet winner whenever possible, and ensuring the broadest possible electorate by 1) requiring general election voting as a public duty; 2) holding elections on a weekend or holiday; and 3) moving primary elections (partisan or not) to early September, when more voters are paying attention and hence likely to vote. 

Reforming Supreme Court Nominations

Increasingly, Supreme Court nominations are bruising, nasty, intensely partisan battles. This is not only because politics in general is . . . bruising, nasty, and intensely partisan, but also because very long service on the Supreme Court (a quarter-century or more) is increasingly becoming the norm. All nine of the recent successful Court nominees were sworn in at the age of 55 or younger (and most around 50). So the stakes in each nominee are multi-generational. The United States is the only advanced democracy that allows its constitutional court justices to serve without limit as to term or age. This allows for random unfairness (by January 2021, Republicans had held the White House for only 24 of the previous 44 years but had nominated 11 of the 15 Supreme Court justices seated in that period). And it greatly raises the stakes for each nominee. Arguments and options for term limits for Supreme Court justices have recently been analyzed in depth by the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court. A simple reform, introduced by Congressman Ro Khanna and endorsed by several other House Democrats, would establish 18-year term limits for future Supreme Court justices, after which they would rotate to other service in the federal judiciary. A President would nominate a new justice in the first and third years of each presidential term; the Senate would be required to vote the nominee up or down within 120 days (or else the nomination would be automatically approved); and the Court would temporarily expand to accommodate the newer justices until the currently serving justices (exempted from the term limit) retired. As The Economist wrote in 2018 in endorsing the concept, “Each presidential term would thus leave an equal mark on the court, and no single justice would remain on the bench for 30 or 40 years. New blood would make the court more vital and dynamic.”

Deliberative Democracy

The possibilities and needs for invigorating our democracy and easing our bitter divides go beyond the formal political arena. We need to heal and renew our broader civic life, by encouraging more active civic engagement, more thoughtful deliberation, and greater respect for diverse views and life experiences. One proven method for doing so is Deliberative Polling, which brings stratified random samples of a public together to talk about important issues under conditions that encourage thoughtful deliberation. Participants are first surveyed about their views on specific issues and policy proposals. Then they are given balanced briefing papers that fairly and concisely present arguments for and against those issue positions and proposals. Next, they are convened into small groups to discuss the issues under rules that promote mutual respect and balanced, inclusive participation. The small groups then prepare questions to pose in plenary sessions to experts representing diverse viewpoints, after which they deliberate further and then take the same survey again upon finishing the deliberation.

I believe that ranked-choice voting is the mater reform that will unravel the Gordian Knot of our democratic sclerosis and enable a new era.

This method, pioneered by Stanford political scientist James Fishkin, has achieved some astonishing breakthroughs in public opinion in its more than 100 applications in over 30 countries, and some of these have led to changes in law or constitutional provisions. When (in September 2019) the “America in One Room” project—a collaboration of Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, NORC at the University of Chicago, and the problem-solving non-profit organization Helena—applied the process to a national sample of 523 Americans, we observed dramatic reductions in partisan polarization between Democrats and Republicans. In a second “America in One Room” focusing on Climate and Energy in September 2021, partisan differences again dramatically narrowed, with Americans moving toward greater appreciation of the urgency of addressing climate change and greater support for switching to alternative sources of energy. The recent development of an online platform for deliberation raises the possibility (which the Center for Deliberative Democracy is now exploring) of scaling up cross-partisan deliberation to tens, hundreds of thousands, or potentially millions of citizens, while retaining the principles of objective and balanced issue briefings and mutual respect for diverse perspectives. If we rededicated ourselves to the importance of civic education and dialogue, we might find in diverse communities and networks across the United States what we have found in the representative microcosm of “America in One Room”: a hunger to move past our paralyzing political divisions, engage one another on a human level, have our opinions heard and respected, and explore where we can find common ground. Other methods of public consultation and deliberation are also showing promise of giving the people greater voice while bridging partisan divides.

The Path Forward

I have identified here five priorities for political reform: 1) strengthening the neutrality, capacity, and professionalism of election administration; 2) making the franchise truly universal; 3) reforming our electoral system to democratize elections, by encouraging more competition and moderation; 4) reforming Supreme Court nominations to make the process fairer and less polarizing; and 5) using deliberative democracy to induce thoughtful and bridging conversations in our civic life. This excludes a variety of other reforms that are important for improving American democracy, and I think achievable, but beyond the scope of this essay, as well as other reforms that might dramatically improve our democracy but that are unachievable. 

In the first category (of other achievable national reforms in the coming decade) I would include: 

  • eliminating partisan gerrymandering in the drawing of legislative district boundaries (by requiring states to use non-partisan redistricting commissions); and
  • reforming campaign finance by extending requirements for transparency in all significant campaign giving and spending, and by strengthening rules to ensure the independence of super PACs and the enforcement capacity of the Federal Election Commission; all of these provisions (and more) were contained in the Freedom to Vote Act. The failure to pass it should not deter reformers from seeking these worthy goals in the future.

In the second category lies virtually any reform that would require a constitutional amendment, including two that I strongly favor: elimination of the Electoral College, and a provision to allow government regulation of independent campaign spending (and thus to nullify the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo). The Electoral College is an abomination that grossly contradicts a basic principle of democracy: that a political minority should not be able to prevail over a majority. No other democracy in the world uses such an indirect method of election to choose an executive president. But because the system now clearly favors Republicans, there is no chance of a constitutional amendment to eliminate it in the foreseeable future. More conceivable (if the Supreme Court would uphold it) is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, by which states commit to casting all their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote (if enough states, equaling a majority of 270 or more electoral votes, similarly agree). But, so far, the necessary legislation has only been passed in 15 states (and the District of Columbia) that combine for 195 electoral votes, and because of the severe gerrymandering of state legislative districts, it is difficult to see a path to adoption any time soon in the requisite number of states. 

One could imagine other, more far-reaching constitutional reforms that would make American democracy fairer, more inclusive, and more functional, including giving bigger states more senators than smaller ones. (In 1790, the biggest state, Virginia, was only about 12 times more populous than the smallest, Delaware, whereas today California’s population is 68 times that of Wyoming). But this would be blocked by the smaller states. We could take a small step toward fairness by finally giving the District of Columbia (which has more people than Wyoming and Vermont) statehood, and thus voting representation in the House and Senate. While many Republicans insist this would require a constitutional amendment, a sizable group of constitutional scholars have recently argued that it could be achieved by an act of Congress. 

Doing so of course would be deeply polarizing, and unachievable without eliminating the Senate filibuster. And that returns us to the central dilemma of America’s current political plight. Dramatic progress toward a better, fairer, more functional democracy will require either a Democratic Party electoral sweep of the House, Senate, and White House with margins big enough to eliminate the Senate filibuster, or incremental reform at the state level to alter electoral incentives and create new possibilities for reformist coalitions, built from the center out. The latter is a harder slog because it requires reform victories in one state after another. But it may also prove more sustainable for two reasons. First, this second path will produce more enduring change in political incentives away from political polarization, whereas a Democratic Party sweep (given American political history) could easily be followed a few years later by a swing in the other direction, and reversal of many democratic reforms (as we are now in fact seeing). And second, the effort to impose sweeping political reforms on a purely partisan basis will inevitably further polarize politics, and it might feed paranoid political narratives that stimulate much greater political violence on the part of extreme partisans. 

The wheels very nearly came off American democracy on January 6, 2021. Whenever possible, political reforms should be pursued in ways that recruit broader political coalitions that transcend existing partisan divides while marginalizing the political extremes. This is why I believe that ranked-choice voting is the master reform that will unravel the Gordian Knot of our democratic sclerosis and enable a new era of democratic innovation, engagement, and effectiveness. 

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Larry Diamond is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy. At Stanford University, he is professor by courtesy of political science and sociology, and he coordinates the democracy program of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

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