Undermining voter participation privileges partisanship over democracy, whether it’s through distorted one-party districts (gerrymandering), or voter suppression. We need to consider not only strategies that re-configure districts fairly, maybe blindly, but also alternative voting methods that increase turnout.
Gerrymandering produces extreme policies. And those are rarely our best choices, according to economics consultant Joel Naroff. “If we are to improve economic policy-making, we must eliminate the artificial factors creating so many one-party districts.”
Capitalism depends on competition, especially in the marketplace of ideas. Politicians may espouse capitalism, yet gerrymandering—distorting voting districts to favor one party—chokes debate and exacerbates polarization.
Most gerrymandered districts’ elected officials face competition from within their own parties: The only voters who matter are primary voters. Since those are usually the most motivated, if not the most extreme, members of each party, Naroff notes, “in those cases, economic policy veers toward the extreme ends of the governing party, so that elected officials can get reelected in the primaries.”
Candidates who face competition are forced to consider alternative viewpoints to attract support, including those of communities of interest, such as minority voters.
We need more, not less, voter participation. Extreme voter ID and absentee ballot restrictions are on the rise. Partisan efforts to control elections by removing local election officials and taking control of election administration have passed, or are pending, in many states, according to the Brennan Center.
American democracy, rooted in slavery, continues to disenfranchise black and other minority voters. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 tried fixing unequal voting access, but in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court in 2013 voided the VRA formula specifying that districts be subject to federal oversight on electoral rules. The Court has since passed up chances to intervene.
Participation and minority representation remain problems, particularly in light of the United States’ history of voter suppression, according to economists Alessandra Casella, Jeffrey Guo and Michelle Jiang, of Columbia University. Their recent paper tests an alternative known as “cumulative voting:” Voters cast as many votes as there are seats up for election; in an election with five winners, a voter may divide the five votes however they choose, three votes to one and two votes to another, or give them all to one candidate. Some U.S. localities already use cumulative voting to decide referenda and municipal elections.
The authors compared standard one-vote-per-open-seat voting and cumulative voting, varying the number of seats and relative size of the minority. Their experiment confirms CV’s potential to increase minority turnout, compared to the majority, and the minority share of seats. “The most noticeable deviation from the theory is the majority’s persistently high turnout under [cumulative voting.]”
Companies have used cumulative voting to ensure proportional representation, with each shareholder receiving one vote per share, multiplied by the number of available director seats.
In another alternative, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Ranked choice voting is used in 43 jurisdictions in the United States.
A candidate wins by receiving more than half of “first choices,” in races where voters elect one winner. If there’s no majority winner after counting first choices, there’s an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who chose that candidate as their first choice, will have those votes count for their next choice. This continues until there’s a majority winner, or a candidate winning more than half the vote.
Voting rules like CV or Ranked Choice may increase minority turnout and buttress voting rights. Maybe even discourage gerrymandering. Can we create non-partisan districts in which candidates must win by wooing voters with alternative views, not simply pander to those who agree with them?
The N.C. Superior Court recently upheld the state redistricting maps as drawn. The N.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case Feb. 2; the ruling is expected shortly thereafter. The Court postponed March 8 primary elections until May 17, 2022 because of lawsuits challenging the recently re-configured districts.
Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. She writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com