Americans are in a reformist mood this year.
Across several states and cities, political reform was on the ballot, and where it was, it did well. Independent redistricting, campaign finance, and voting reforms all won. This should send an important message to politicians: Reform is popular.
But we also need to approach reform with appropriate caution. None of the reforms are transformative in their own right, and might have limited effects. They are all experiments, and we should watch closely. Still, they are all encouraging developments.
Let’s start with redistricting. Independent commissions were on the ballot in four states: Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah. They appear to have passed in all four and by overwhelming margins in the first three.
In Colorado, voters approved two independent redistricting commissions overwhelmingly, one for congressional districts (71 percent to 29) and one for state legislative districts (also 71 percent to 29).
In Michigan, voters approved an independent redistricting commission 61 percent to 39.
In Missouri, voters approved an independent redistricting commission as part of a broader lobbying, campaign finance, and redistricting commission 62 percent to 38.
If these results hold, that would mean that 12 states will now have independent redistricting commissions, up from eight.
Independent districting commissions are certainly an improvement over state legislatures drawing district lines. In Missouri and particularly Michigan, for example, Republicans have much more representation in their state legislatures than they do in the electorate.
But if independent districting commissions are an improvement over the status quo, they are no panacea. For one, there is no “fair” way to draw a district. Districts should be compact and contiguous. They should keep communities of interest together. They should be equitable to both parties. They should be competitive. They should ensure minority representation.
But every districting scheme involves trade-offs among these competing values. And there’s no agreement on how to trade off among them. Nor is there any agreement for an acceptable standard on any of these dimensions. All districting schemes create winners and losers, and the losers are rarely happy. In these hyperpartisan times, even independent commissions are rarely seen as neutral.
Additionally, independent districting commissions will still be working within the single-winner district framework, which means that most districts will still be noncompetitive as long as Republicans live with other Republicans in sparsely populated exurban areas and Democrats live with other Democrats in densely populated urban areas.
Larger multi-winner districts with ranked-choice voting would be a better way to end gerrymandering. But we’re not there yet.
Widespread support for independent redistricting is a victory for political reform and a clear rebuke of the status quo way of drawing districts.
When it comes to campaign finance, cities are taking the lead. New York City, which has already established itself as a national model with its 6-to-1 public matching system for small donors, has now improved the system by encouraging even more public funding, upping the ratio to 8 to 1 and lowering the limit on donations that can qualify for matching. The citywide referendum passed, 72 percent to 28.
Portland also overwhelmingly passed a campaign finance reform, placing very strict limits on campaign contributions, and requiring more disclosure, 87 percent to 12.
Missouri also approved new campaign finance rules as part of a broader initiative, placing strict limits on lobbyist gifts (nothing over $5) and place limits on individual campaign contributions state lawmakers can receive.
The small-donor matching model is worth watching because it’s a key provision in Democrats’ Better Deal for Democracy platform. I’ve long been a supporter of small-donor matching programs. I think they incentivize candidates to do genuine grassroots organizing, rather than holding high-dollar fundraising events where they get an earful about the concerns of wealthy donors and lobbyists. Anything that encourages candidates to spend more time doing on-the-ground organizing and less time pandering to the superrich is probably a good thing, on balance.
The big one here is Florida’s referendum on felon enfranchisement, on which lots has been written already. But besides convicted felons who have served their time getting the right to vote in Florida, there are a few other voting rights referenda worth noting.
Michigan passed a sweeping voting rights referendum, with a 67-33 margin. Michigan’s Proposal 3 makes it much easier to vote, combining automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and no-excuse absentee voting. Nevada also passed automatic voter registration, 60-40. With two more states passing automatic voter registration, that brings the number to 13 nationwide.
Maryland, which already offered same-day registration during early voting, voted 67-33 to expand same-day registration to Election Day as well. With Maryland and Michigan joining the states implementing some form of same-day registration, the number is now up to 19 nationwide.
All of this is good news. It should be as easy to vote as possible. However, it’s important to be realistic about how much of an impact all this will have on turnout. For half a century, it has gotten progressively easier to vote in America, yet overall turnout levels have barely budged. Instead, they’ve bounced around based on the stakes of the election.
The 2018 midterms appear to have produced unusually high turnout, while the 2014 midterms produced unusually low turnout. What changed was that a lot more voters felt there was something at stake and more elections were competitive. The general consensus in political science is typically on the side of stakes and competition mattering more than registration rules. And it’s pretty clear that one reason turnout is so low in America is because single-winner districts produce a majority of lopsided, uncompetitive elections, whereas in more proportional democracies, every vote counts equally. But that’s for a different piece.
A few states, however, are making it harder to vote. North Dakota passed a referendum asserting that “only a citizen” can vote, 66-34. North Carolina passed a referendum requiring voters to present a photo ID, 56-44. And Arkansas passed a referendum requiring photo ID to cast non-provisional ballots or vote absentee, 79-21.
Here, it’s important to remember that about four in five Americans, including most Democrats, do support requiring photo ID to vote. But almost two-thirds also support automatic voter registration.
Finally, on the topic of voting reform, Maine successfully used ranked-choice voting, making it the first state in the nation to elect its federal representatives using the new system. And it looks like it will determine the result of the Second Congressional District, in which neither candidate got a clear majority on the first round. I’m an extremely enthusiastic supporter of ranked-choice voting, which I believe has the potential to take some of the toxic zero-sum negative partisanship out of our politics, so I’m glad to see it went off largely successfully in Maine. The collective judgment of staff reporters at the Bangor Daily News was that “Mainers seemed generally comfortable with their first experience with ranked ballot.”
Finally, the city of Fargo, North Dakota, approved a new voting system called approval voting, 64-34, making it the first public jurisdiction anywhere in the world to use the system. Under approval voting, you vote for as many candidates as you like, and the candidate that is most widely “approved” wins. It’s often pitched as an alternative to ranked-choice voting.
I prefer ranked-choice voting because it does a better job of allowing voters to sincerely choose their preferences without worrying too much about the strategic implications, whereas approval voting doesn’t allow voters to register preferences and instead forces them to treat all candidates they might like as equally preferable. But I’m glad to see a city experimenting.
Reform is in the air, but let’s not get carried away
Here’s my big bottom-line takeaway: Reform is popular. Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the way the political system is working, and they are increasingly open to bigger changes. The support for reform reflects that. This is an important lesson to politicians.
And here’s another takeaway: Maybe ballot initiatives on political reform are promising. I’ve long agreed with my colleague Mark Schmitt that ballot initiatives are a risky strategy. All else equal, it’s probably better for reform to come from lawmakers themselves, and voters often struggle with complex reform. But, like Schmitt, I agree that they are increasingly promising now. Especially at a time when parties are very top-down and politicians of both parties are stuck in hyperpartisan fighting that views everything through a “what’s good for my team” lens. Some pressure is going to need to come from the outside.
But we need to temper our expectations. Reform doesn’t always deliver what it promises. Some small reforms may not make much of a difference. Independent districting commissions, for example, might get rid of gerrymandering but find it hard to improve competition. Making it easier to vote might not increase turnout unless parties and campaigns make voters feel like there’s enough at stake to vote.
And, of course, all reforms always have unintended consequences. Some reforms make things worse. But keeping the status quo is also an affirmative choice, which also has its own set of unintended consequences.
What is clear to me is that we should be experimenting. But we should also be honest. We should see what works and what doesn’t, and know how to tell the difference. And we should learn and continue improving. The status quo right now is bordering on dangerous.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the details of Maryland’s same-day voter registration initiative.