This Election Reform Would Reveal the Soul of the Nation
For a president, Joe Biden talks about souls quite a lot. It started with his 2020 campaign slogan, “Battle for the soul of America” and has continued into his presidency. Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, he gave that soul a name.
“Democracy — that’s the soul of America,” he said. “I believe it’s a soul worth fighting for.”
Most Americans agree and are ready to do their part. Yet, many are left to wonder, “How does one fight for the soul of a country, exactly?”
For everyday people to join the battle, they must understand the threats, opportunities, and true nature of the struggle. Ultimately, the battle for the soul of democracy can be defined by the direct question: do Americans have confidence that their elections represent the will of the people?
Elections are the primary battleground deciding who holds power. What gives any election legitimacy is a shared belief that the results represent the true will of the people. The soul, the animating force, of elections is the shared faith that, through them, we can hear what the public is saying.
The problem is that we are losing faith in our elections' ability to truly represent us. Without a shared belief that elections represent anything deeper than who wins, elections become just raw, soulless competitions for power.
This year, America’s highest profile election is in New York City where 13 Democratic candidates are competing to become mayor. New York is also using a new system this year where voters ranked candidates, then use a series of instant run-offs to pick a winner. People are hopeful that this system, called ranked choice voting (RCV), is the solution. Unfortunately, this system is leaving voters with more questions than answers.
New York City voters will manage to navigate their way through their first RCV election. But will the public really understand why a candidate won? It’s likely New York’s race will take 10 or more runoff rounds to decide a winner. With so many rounds and transfers, the will of the people will be as indecipherable as ever.
If a candidate ends up with 50% after getting only 20% in the first round, is that good or bad? Does an RCV winner have 20% or 50% support from the people? If a voter ranks a candidate second, is it clear whether they even like that candidate? What did the community want? Where did my vote end up?
None of these questions engender a greater faith in democracy.
Americans’ loss of faith has a simple source. Elections are getting more complicated. At every level, more candidates are running — which most Americans would agree is good for democracy. This perception reverses, though, when someone appears to win with little public support. It’s hard to say someone is clearly the people’s choice when they win with only 40%, 35%, or 30% of the vote.
That’s what often happens using a traditional vote-for-one ballot. In 2020, Joe Biden won five of the crucial early primaries with less than 40% of the vote. Donald Trump won 11 early primaries this way in 2016. The victories were small because votes were spread across large fields of candidates (up to 18 and 17 respectively). More candidates leads to thinner victories, miniscule mandates, and a murky understanding of what the public really wanted.
While the problems seem deeply philosophical and frustratingly realistic at the same time, there is a better, and much simpler, solution — approval voting.
In March, St. Louis, Missouri held the second approval voting election in American history. Instead of picking just one, or ranking candidates (as New Yorkers will do), voters were able to choose all the candidates they approved of.
Back in 2017, seven candidates for mayor of St. Louis split the vote when voters could choose only one. Then, the winner received just 32%. City Treasurer Tishaura Jones came in second with 30%. By contrast, in the approval voting election in 2021, Jones topped the primary race for mayor with 57% support (or approval).
The same candidate, four years apart. The only difference was that people could show their true support for Jones (and others if they wished) with approval voting. The results demonstrate, without a doubt, she was the candidate that most people in St. Louis wanted. The candidate with the most votes still won — but much more was learned, and the will of the people (the soul) was clearly, fully represented.
The soul of American democracy — the will of the people — is still there. But people need to see it to believe it. With approval voting we can — finally — let it shine through.
Chris Raleigh is Director of Campaigns & Advocacy at The Center for Election Science, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on voting reform.