By Kevin Johnson, Larry Garber, and Edward McMahon
Since Ronald Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy in 1982, the U.S. government has regularly funded American organizations working to support democracy overseas. In scores of countries around the world, Americans have advised on the design of new election systems, nurtured emerging civil society, funded voter education, and monitored pivotal elections. This work contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa, ousting communist dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe, and creating the greatest expansion of democracy in human history.
That’s quite a track record, and it raises the question of how such expertise can be returned to American shores to help address the significant challenges facing our democracy, (a question recently discussed in this Foreign Policy article by Ashley Quarcoo and Thomas Carothers.)
The idea of leveraging international expertise for the benefit of much-needed reform in the U.S. spurred the formation of the nonprofit we help run, Election Reformers Network (ERN). ERN started as a conversation among former colleagues in 2016 and has grown to comprise a high-profile Board and Advisory Council, hundreds of members, and funding from one of the leading election reform foundations in the country. Staff, Board, and Advisors all participate in their individual capacities, but do so leveraging experience gained at the leading organizations in the field, including the National Democratic Institute, the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, Democracy International, and International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
As we’ve grown, we’ve come to understand that the opportunity for an organization with this background to add value in the U.S. arises from three characteristics of America’s democratic system and America’s reform discussion.
The first is the greater weight placed in recent decades on addressing voting rights issues than on improving our democratic institutions. This prioritization understandably arises from the monumental voting rights problems of our country’s history and the epic struggles to expand and ensure the franchise. But the importance of those issues has overshadowed questions of institution design — how to reduce conflicts of interest in election administration, how to optimize representation — that receive less scrutiny here than in other democracies, and less attention now than in prior periods in our history, most notably the progressive era.
To illustrate the point, consider debates over low voter participation in the U.S, which typically do not take into consideration election rules that reduce the element of competition so important to turnout. Our method of electing representatives from single member districts, for example, translates into mostly uncompetitive races at both the federal and state levels, a problem intensified by gerrymandering. Interest in the institutional side of reform is starting to grow, as evidenced by increased attention to anti-gerrymandering and ranked choice voting, but in media coverage, reform funding, and public discussion, institutional issues still lag far behind.
An institutional perspective helps illustrate the second source of opportunity for ERN, America’s status as a democracy outlier in some categories. We are one of a very small minority of countries that gives the task of district boundary drawing to legislators who have personal and political interests in the outcome. In most established democracies, the burden of ensuring voters are registered falls on election administrators, not on voters. Only America relies on an intermediary body with no other function, the Electoral College, to elect the head of state. Only America uses partisan elections to fill the most senior election administrative positions, resulting in secretaries of state who often compete in elections they supervise.
This is not to say that everything we do differently is negative. We vote for a far greater range of offices than most other democracies, and that’s an important source of strength for our country. We can maintain the mostly positive elements our uniqueness, while addressing the elements, like those noted above, contributing to dysfunctions of our system.
A third opportunity for ERN to add value arises from the contrast between the bipartisan nature of our work overseas and an election reform landscape here that has taken on partisan characteristics. Election missions overseas are often joint efforts of Democratic and Republican affiliated organizations jointly led by high-profile members of both parties. In other countries, we played as neutral a role as possible. By contrast, many reform organizations here are perceived as aligned with or biased toward one side of America’s political divide.
This perception of partisan alignment stems in part from challenges of raising money, and the greater yield from fundraising focused on “bad guys” on the opposing side. At ERN, we believe that no side has a monopoly on bad actors, particularly historically, and we also believe that the problems of our democracy have much more to do with bad rules than bad guys. We are part of a small group of organizations testing the hypothesis – so far successfully – that there is a funding base in this country to sustain a bad-rules-not-bad-actors approach.
We are also developing reform ideas that do as much as possible to appeal to both sides. For example, one approach we support for much-needed Electoral College reform would keep many of the elements conservatives like, such as the constitutional advantage for small states and state-based (rather than national) elections, in exchange for an end to winner-take-all allocation of electors, which makes only swing states relevant and allows a second place finisher to win the presidency. Detail on this reform can be found at this page on our website.
To sum up, these three characteristics of democracy in the U.S. – relatively limited focus on democratic institutions, our outlier elements internationally, and partisan leanings in our reform organizations — have made our institutionally-focused organization with an international perspective and a nonpartisan methodology new and needed.
The actual work we have done has focused on two long-term goals that flow from this context. Those goals are a) decreasing partisan influence in election administration, and b) shifting voting rules away from extreme winner-take-all structures. Specific activities have included supporting independent redistricting ballot initiatives, assessing alternatives to partisan elections for secretaries of state, supporting ranked choice voting, developing the alternative Electoral College reform mentioned above, and advocating for multi-member district elections for Congress.
An example of our work is our advocacy for change in the system of electing members to the House of Representatives from single member districts using “first past the post.” We share this system with our cousins in the United Kingdom and with other former British colonies, but it’s interesting to note that in the great wave of democratization of the last 50 years, very few countries have selected first past the post in single member districts. Writers of new constitutions and designers of new elections systems in those countries realized that first past the post in single member districts is not very effective at managing the divisions and conflicts challenging their countries. Americans are also learning that the single member district system has in recent years exacerbated our division into hostile blue and red blocks across the country.
The alternative we support is called the Fair Representation Act, through which we would elect three-to-five House members from each district using a form of ranked choice voting called “single transferable vote.” With multi-member districts, that distinctly American system of close relationship between representative and district could be maintained, while our Congressional elections would better represent the range of political perspectives, including, say, Republicans in New England or Democrats in the Great Plains, who now have little voice in Congress. The Fair Representation Act has the strong support of prominent scholars like New America’s Lee Drutman, Harvard’s Danielle Allen, and columnist David Brooks.
Institutional change like this will take a long time, but our nation has successfully fixed bad rules in the past. Take for example our method of directly electing Senators, in place of the bribery-prone system of selection by state legislatures. Since that change in the early 1900s, the world’s experience with democracy has grown massively, built by advances in democracies both young and old. Our path now toward improved institutions can benefit from and leverage that experience.
The bringing home of overseas assistance reflects a paradox about America’s position in the world of democracy. While some of our specific institutions urgently need retooling, and while we can learn lessons from other democracies, when it comes to fundamental principles, it is America that continues to be the model for others. The ideals enshrined in America’s Bill of Rights have stood out for generations as a symbol of what people around the world want for themselves. We who have worked in democracy support overseas have seen that first hand countless times, and even as we focus now on the reforms needed here, we are rightly proud of that heritage.
Kevin Johnson, Larry Garber, and Edward McMahon are members of the Board of Election Reformers Network. Additional biographical information is available here.