By Katherine M. Gehl for the Chicago Tribune
For a nation torn apart politically, a cure is emerging, of all places, in Alaska.
On Nov. 8, voters in the 49th state will elect a U.S. senator and representative in a new way. The system, called “final four voting,” is aimed at choosing public officials — of any party — who will focus not on tearing down their opponents but on getting things done.
Alaska’s system, approved by the electorate in 2020, directly targets America’s greatest political challenges: how to get government to produce real solutions and, at the same time, mitigate unprecedented threats to the survival of our democracy.
The root cause of our crisis is that most November elections for Congress are meaningless. According to Unite America, so far only 8% of eligible voters this year “cast ballots in primaries that effectively decided 84.8% of Congress.” The Cook Political Report concludes that 80% of House and 63% of Senate seats are already safely in the hands of one party or the other. In those races, whoever wins the primary — before most voters come to the polls — is guaranteed to win in November. Districts — and, more and more, entire states — are either Republican or Democrat.
Just as employees answer to whoever signs their paychecks, public officials answer to who elects them. Their bosses are primary, not general election, voters, and primary voters tend to be driven by what political scientists call “negative partisanship.” They cast their ballots for one major party because they hate the other one so much.
As a result, Stanford University scholar Larry Diamond writes in CNN opinion piece, candidates that emerge from the primary process “are the most uncompromising.” In office, senators and representatives must continue to woo these same voters to get reelected. Compromise becomes a dirty word, and America suffers gridlock.
The inability to address our worst problems, in turn, shakes faith in democracy as a whole.
The best solution to this crisis is not exhorting politicians to get along but to change their incentives through structural reform. The Constitution, in Article I, Section 4, grants each state the authority to make the rules for its congressional elections, and Alaska changed those rules for the better.
On Aug. 16, the state held what’s called a top-four primary, the first round of its final-four voting process. In the Senate race, 19 candidates, including three Democrats and eight Republicans, participated. The top four finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election. As it happened, Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski is competing in the general against two other Republicans and one Democrat. In the top-four primary for Alaska’s sole House seat, one Democrat, two Republicans and a Libertarian qualified for the general.
That general election is decided by an instant runoff. It’s exactly like a series of runoff elections, but instead of having to keep coming back multiple times, voters cast all their votes at once using a ranked ballot. The winner is the candidate with a majority.
Final four voting ensures that party primary voters aren’t the bosses anymore. General election voters are, and that changes incentives for campaigning and governing.
Barriers to cooperation fall. Senators and representatives are liberated from the constraints of negative partisanship. They are free to enact solutions to complex problems by reaching across the aisle, innovating and negotiating. They can make deals while still maintaining the ability to advocate for their preferred policies. Final four voting makes bipartisan leadership and problem solving possible.
For this reason, I became a founder of a national campaign for final five voting, a system that I proposed in 2017. It’s the same as Alaska’s system except that more candidates advance from the primary to the general. Final five voting is the subject of a ballot initiative Nov. 8 in Nevada.
A Quinnipiac poll, released Aug. 31,
found that 69% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans believe that “the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse.”
And no wonder. Partisan hostility has reached the boiling point. A Pew Research Center survey in August, for instance, found that large majorities of both parties think members of the other party are more “immoral,” “dishonest,” “closed-minded” and “unintelligent” than other Americans.
Such attitudes are generated, in part, by politicians themselves, who recognize that to get elected under our current system, they have to proclaim loudly that the other party is a danger to the American way of life.
But the real danger emanates from how we structure our elections. That’s something we can change. Alaska — and soon, I hope, Nevada and other states — will show us how.
Katherine Gehl, former CEO of a major food manufacturer, is the originator of the final-five voting concept and founder and chairwoman of the Chicago-based Institute for Political Innovation.