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Democracy is under threat; let’s protect it with smart election reform

Peter Afriyie
A woman marks her ballot at a polling site located in George Mason University in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

The discourse on what we’ve learned from this last election is missing the mark, and if we don’t look at the bigger picture, we’re in serious trouble. While it’s a useful exercise to predict what the 2022 results mean for the next presidential race, or how they’ll change future political campaigns, there is a much greater concern on voter’s minds: the state of democracy itself. Exit polling shows more than half of voters think democracy is under threat. The majority of both parties believe the very fabric of government, the system upholding power to the people, is at risk.

Let that sink in.

We need to do something about this, and the most logical place to start is to look at our voting system.

I say this from a purely nonpartisan perspective. I’m not here to promote any matter of election denial, nor will I touch on gerrymandering. What I’d like to address is the system that traps us into choosing just one candidate in each primary election, known as “plurality voting.” In today’s crowded races, this limitation only serves to skew results and widen the divide between political ideologies.

Look at the recent race in Colorado. Ask any Democrat, and they’ll likely say the results were accurate, but too close for comfort. Ask any Republican, and they’ll tell you the results are skewed and unreflective of true sentiment. And we’ll never know which is right, because of vote splitting. Vote splitting happens in the first place because people often want more options than the choose-one voting system can provide them, and this can distort candidate support.

Third-party votes took large margins of the already tight races. The results are now doubted by nearly half of voters, leaving both reds and blues unsure about where they stand with those important third-party voters. The solution goes back to the choose-one limitation. We need to allow voters to select more than one candidate, for a more accurate reflection of their sentiments and approval of the choices. And notice, I didn’t say anything about ranking — a separate, complicated and expensive approach that has left us with odd results like in Alaska, where a segment of voters would have received a better outcome for themselves by not voting at all.

Despite what you hear or read, few voters fit perfectly into one of two political parties. American voters crave the common sense, nuance, and collaboration our democracy used to be known for. In fact, many voters continue to go against party lines, selecting candidates they think are the best fit, rather than limiting themselves to one party per ticket.

This “split ticket” method, choosing a candidate based on merit rather than the letter following their name, was more common during the more civilized, less contentious political era of old.

Today’s political sphere isn’t built to handle this subtlety and choice; instead, we’re limited to “saving” our votes for the candidates we expect to win — sometimes the lesser of two evils — rather than the candidates we truly connect with. After all, we only have one precious vote.

It doesn’t have to be this way; giving voters the power to pick all they like would put the power back in the hands of the people, and provide better data for better results. By picking all the candidates one likes, you could ensure your vote still counts with a clear conscience because you’re also voting with your heart. The results would show who voters actually respect and want to see in power. With that information, those in power could adjust accordingly to better serve a broader group of constituents. Eliminating the one-choice limit would also make room for more candidates of different ideologies, giving third parties an equal voice without risk of spoiling the results. It’s a multi-partisan solution to arguably, the most complex and dangerous problem we face right now — the state of our democracy.

Full disclosure: I have a horse in this race as the executive director at The Center for Election Science, a nonprofit focused on approval voting. But don’t just take it from me. Ask the voters in places like Fargo, N.D., and St. Louis, Mo., where letting voters pick all they like has already yielded incredible results.

Registered Democrats, Republicans, and third-party voters disagree on quite a bit, but jarringly agree that our democracy is in jeopardy.

It’s imperative that we address this, and I can think of no better way than sensible election reform that gives all voters more options, freedom, and better data. 

Aaron Hamlin is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Election Science, a national, nonpartisan non-profit focused on voting reform. He is also a licensed attorney with two additional graduate degrees in the social sciences.

Tags American democracy ballots election reform Elections in the United States political polarization Voting

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