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Opinion polls suggest that Americans are deeply unhappy with their government. Congress, in particular, is the object of much scorn: a recent Gallup survey, for instance, found that only 7 percent of respondents have a “great deal” of confidence in their country’s legislature, which has shown an unwillingness to find bipartisan solutions to long-term problems such as immigration, health care, and climate change.

On September 8, the FiscalNote Executive Institute, in partnership with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC), hosted a virtual fireside chat with Katherine Gehl, CEO of The Institute for Political Innovation and co-author of The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy, and Glenn Nye, CEO of CSPC. The closed-door discussion explored Gehl’s innovative Final-Five Voting (FFV) Initiative.

Katherine Gehl
Founder and CEO, Institute for Political Innovation

Glenn Nye
President and CEO, CSPC

Below are some key insights from their discussion:

Diagnosing the problem

  • Democracy isn’t “hopeless.” Today’s gridlock and hyper-partisanship largely reflect the structural incentives that legislators face, not some peculiar flaws of American politicians at this unique moment in history.
  • Primaries reward extremes. Because voters in primary elections (who account for only about 10 percent of the general electorate) tend to be far more ideological and hostile to compromise than the average voter, political candidates are often incentivized to take stances that most Americans do not support.
  • Aggressive gerrymandering and the dwindling of moderate politicians have further entrenched gridlock. Only about 15 percent of congressional elections are decided in close November races (i.e., in the general election). Meanwhile, previously powerful politicians — such as “Rockefeller” Republicans and “conservative” Democrats — that favored bipartisanship have mostly disappeared as electable candidates.
  • Ending the “tyranny of the party.” Rather than focusing on finding “perfect” candidates, reformers should instead focus on creating incentives that ensure that general elections — where 60 percent to 70 percent of eligible voters frequently turn out — are highly competitive.

Ranked-choice voting

  • Ranked-choice voting improves for politicians. “Final-five voting” (FFV), a form of ranked-choice voting, aims to increase political competition by forcing candidates to take positions that more voters support (therefore, presumably, compromising more frequently to solve difficult problems).
  • How FFV works: step 1. Party primaries are replaced with a single primary, open to all candidates and voters. The top five vote-winners then advance to the general election.
  • How FFV works: step 2. In the general election, voters can choose to rank their candidates, in order of preference. If one candidate receives a majority of votes on the initial tally, that candidate immediately wins. If, however, there is no majority vote getter, the last-placed (i.e. fifth) candidate is eliminated; for voters who opted for the now-eliminated candidate, their first-choice votes are then redistributed to their second-choice candidates. (Note: voters only select their preferences at the outset when there are five candidates; computers subsequently do the work of tallying and eliminating candidates, according to voters’ preferences.) Next, a tally of the four remaining candidates begins. If, again, there is no majority vote winner, the elimination and vote-redistribution process repeats until a single candidate finally receives a majority of votes. 

Ranked-choice voting on the ground

  • Experience of Alaska. In a 2020 referendum, this state adopted FFV, which was recently used in a special election to fill the seat of deceased Republican congressman Don Young, who served for 49 years. From the open primary vote, two Republicans, an independent, and a Democrat emerged. Democrat Mary Peltola — who received about 40 percent of votes in the primary election — ultimately won the general election.
  • Analyzing Alaska. A key reason for victory — over her opponent, Republican Sarah Palin — in the final round of tallying? Peltola built a coalition of voters that included more Republicans and Independents than Democrats. Although Republicans generally win statewide elections in Alaska, the result is also less surprising than it may seem: during his tenure in Congress, Young was ranked as the 16th most bipartisan legislator in the House. Peltola, for her part, appears to have heeded the coalition-building lessons from her victory: she has already bucked her party by, for example, endorsing GOP senator Lisa Murkowski in the latter’s November reelection bid. With the number of votes cast in the special election — the third-highest tally ever in an Alaskan primary — ranked-balloting also helped spark voters’ interest in their government.
  • Ranked-choice voting is popular. Opinion polls suggest that a strong majority of Americans are amenable to experimenting with ranked-choice voting. Such sentiment helps to explain why it is being introduced in diverse places across the country — from Alaska to Maine, at the state level; and from small cities in Utah to the country’s biggest metropolis, New York City. 

Appeal of FFV for business

  • A meaningful way to support democracy. How representative, inclusive, or diverse can a current system be that gives disproportionate influence to, say, only 10 percent of a firm’s employees — or to only 10 percent of its customers?
  • A logic companies can easily understand. To succeed, business leaders know that they must compete hard to serve the needs of customers, usually by providing the latter greater choice and/or quality. The goal of making politicians compete more to better serve the needs of citizens is a message that can similarly resonate with the business community. So, too, is the message that competition is critical to fueling useful innovation.
  • The kind of pragmatic solutions that companies tend to favor. In 1992, for example, Ross Perot ran the most successful third-party presidential ticket in nearly a century, one that focused on balancing the U.S. government’s budget. To lure away Perot voters, both main parties subsequently coopted his platform. Just seven years later, America achieved its first balanced budget in decades.