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How to Improve Our Democracy in the Midst of a Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis is bringing both opportunity and challenge for those looking to create a fairer, more responsive electoral system.

Election Day often results in voters having to make hard choices, but April 7, 2020 presented a particularly tough dilemma for 29 year-old Wisconsin resident Angela Warner. Eight months pregnant and understandably concerned about the potential impacts of a deadly pandemic, Warner was forced to choose between participating in the democratic process by entering a potentially dangerous polling site or protecting the health of herself and her unborn child by forgoing her right to vote.

“I can’t believe I have to choose between voting and the safety of our child,” Warner told a reporter with The Daily Beast. “It almost feels like choosing life or death, to be honest.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of American life, from our economy, to health care, to the manner in which we educate our children. And the elected officials who are attempting to navigate these difficult waters were often put into place via an electoral system that many believe is in dire need of reform.

“The decisions our elected officials are making have a huge impact on our lives,” say Sam Mar, Vice President, Office of the Co-Chairs at Arnold Ventures. “Those officials have been chosen by a system that is not as functional or representative as we'd like it to be.”

Arnold Ventures, along with a growing number of advocacy groups and frustrated individual voters, is calling for a set of systemic changes designed to increase electoral fairness and hold elected officials more accountable to the public. These measures include enhanced opportunities for vote-by-mail; redistricting reform; expansion of ranked-choice voting; and open primaries.

A worker at the San Francisco Department of Elections sorts vote-by-mail ballots. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Vote at Home

Amber McReynolds believes that Warner never should have been forced to choose between her safety and her legal right to vote. As CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, she is painfully aware of the fact that more than half of America’s eligible voters don’t make it to the polls. “It's not because they don't want to,” McReynolds says. “It's because the timing or the process or the barriers prevented them from doing so.

She argues that vote-by-mail is more convenient than on-site voting, just as secure, and offers a unique opportunity to enhance voter engagement. These improvements explain why 28 states have supplemented their on-site polling with a vote-by-mail option, and why five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) use mail-in ballots as their primary method of voting. Oregon has sent out more than 100 million mail-in ballots since 2000 and has only encountered about a dozen cases of fraud during that time. Colorado, which has the nation’s most comprehensive vote-at-home system, has seen its voter turnout numbers increase by 9 percent since implementing the reform, and it has lowered election-related costs by 40 percent. Nationally, states saw a 15 percent higher turnout using vote-by-mail during the 2018 primaries than those with polling-place-centric systems.

“If we have a system that doesn't work in a pandemic, we likely have a system that doesn't work generally,” said McReynolds. “We need to ensure that every single voter can vote in a safe, secure, accessible way, and vote-at-home provides a solution for that.”

Anti-Gerrymandering

At a moment when a majority of Americans report record-low confidence in the government’s COVID-19 response, the problem of gerrymandering is more urgent than ever. Partisan gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating district lines so that election results favor one party over another, has been around since 1812, when it was first used in Massachusetts. But it has only recently become a flashpoint for reformers.

If we have a system that doesn't work in a pandemic, we likely have a system that doesn't work generally.
Amber McReynolds CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute

Katie Fahey, founder of The People, got involved in the issue with a simple post on Facebook. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” she wrote. “If you’re interested in doing this as well please let me know.” The response to her post was overwhelming, and it galvanized her resolve to initiate change. She and others fanned out across Michigan, gathering over 400,000 signatures for a petition to put redistricting reform on the ballot. On Election Day 2018, more than 2.5 million people voted to pass a bill that limits partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. Four other states — Ohio, Colorado, Missouri, and Utah — did the same.

Fahey attributes the effort’s success to a disconnect on the part of elected officials. Gerrymandering gave incumbents a sense of inevitability, she said, leading to a feeling of political invincibility. “We had politicians who stopped holding office hours and doing town halls,” Fahey said. “We saw lots of laws being passed that the majority of Michiganders did not want. A vote for redistricting reform, then, was a vote for better representation.”

Fahey says that this sort of detached democracy is unhealthy in the best of times and potentially deadly in the age of COVID-19, which is why she expects to see even more states adopt anti-gerrymandering measures moving forward.

“Something that's been really striking in this time is that no matter how people personally vote, or where they live, there's this weight in their voices when it comes to trusting government,” she said. “When it comes to an experience like COVID-19 that’s being felt by the entire world, I think people are just hungry for a way to participate in democracy and government that is actually nonpartisan and puts voters first.”

Arnold Ventures is playing a key role in helping to move that effort forward, supporting reformers like Fahey in jurisdictions across the country. “We are looking to invest in states that have grassroots campaigns ready to go,” Mar said. “We are active in states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia, where citizens have been petitioning for independent redistricting commissions that would allow voters to determine who their politicians are going to be, rather than politicians picking their voters.”

“You're looking to officials to make life and death decisions for you that impact your income, your health, and your safety,” Fahey said. “We can actually change the rules so that our politicians have to be more accountable to us.”

Ranked-Choice Voting

Elsewhere, reformers have taken on systems that limit voter choice. Typically, voters can only choose one of two candidates in a winner-take-all election. When additional candidates enter a race, they are often considered “spoilers” who are splitting the majority. Voters feel forced to cast their ballot for the lesser of two evils instead of choosing the candidate they like the most, and elections are frequently decided based on small pluralities. For example, since 1992, 49 U.S. senators have been elected with less than 50 percent of the vote.

“It's a terrible system when voting for the candidate you like the most could help elect the person you like the least,” said Rob Richie, President of FairVote. That’s why FairVote promotes ranked-choice voting, a system that allows people to vote for multiple candidates in order of choice. If their first choice loses, their vote goes to their second (and third and so on) choice until one candidate breaks 50 percent, in what is sometimes called an “instant runoff.”

49

Number of U.S. senators elected with less than 50 percent of the vote since 1992

While ranked-choice voting has been in use since 2004, when San Francisco implemented it for municipal elections, it has recently taken root more widely. In 2018, Maine became a test case when it began using the system for all elections statewide, and voters there will use ranked-choice voting in this year’s presidential election.

Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, and Wyoming all used the approach in the 2020 primary elections, combined with vote-by-mail options. This allowed Wyoming, for example, to cancel in-person voting entirely as COVID-19 spiked, making it safer for voters to cast their ballot even with record rates of participation. More cities and states have begun to advance legislation that would support similar voting packages.

Research shows tangible benefits of ranked-choice voting. Candidates are more likely to speak to voters in person. Voters are more likely to talk to their family and friends about politics. Women and people of color are more likely to run and win office under ranked-choice voting. It results in more civil, less negative campaigning, since candidates must rely on winning a larger proportion of the electorate. It also saves costs when replacing runoffs.

“Using ranked-choice voting in primaries to get a good nominee is such a slam dunk answer, not just for president but for all the offices,” Richie said.

Open Primaries

Other advocates are taking aim at the closed and partisan primaries used in most states. These systems exclude voters not registered with a party, and political independents, who constitute the largest and fastest growing proportion of voters. Closed and partisan primaries disproportionately exclude voters of color and young people, who are more likely to identify as independents, said John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries. “You have a system that's out of whack with how the voters are evolving.”

The result is a primary system that caters to the agenda of a small number of party loyalists. In the majority of districts nationally, primaries decide the final outcome of the election. Because elected incumbents stand little risk of being unseated, they have “zero incentive” to work with members of the other party on legislation that addresses difficult issues that voters care about. “If you're a Republican, you never appear on a gun-regulation bill,” said Opdycke. “If you're a Democrat, you never appear on a school-choice bill.”

Advocates like Opdycke believe that open and nonpartisan primaries can foster a more inclusive democracy by making it possible for fresh political faces to challenge incumbents. High-profile support from politicians like Ro Khanna, Michael Bloomberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger helps the cause, but Opdycke says the real work is in building local coalitions between business leaders, good government groups, and civic associations in states around the country that are considering the move from closed to open primaries.

Nebraska and California now have open primaries, and both states have seen dramatic shifts in their politics. Whereas California was rated the least competitive primary in the country from 2000 to 2010, with only two incumbents defeated for any office, it saw 14 incumbents unseated in its first open-primary election alone. Meanwhile, public approval of the state Legislature has soared to 44 percent in 2015 from 14 percent in 2010. Since Nebraska shifted to an open primary system, it has seen the passage of a slate of progressive laws that abolish the death penalty, raise the gas tax, and give driver’s licenses to undocumented-immigrant youth — this despite the fact that the legislature is 71 percent Republican.

“This is what we see in the states that have the public primary,” Opdycke said. “Elected officials are much more ready, willing, and able to buck the norms of party politics.”

The Next Frontier

Despite positive results such as these, broad-based reform still represents a significant challenge. Federal courts recently refused to declare political gerrymandering illegal, and some states like Missouri have taken the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to reconvene in an attempt to roll back progress on measures like redistricting reform and open primaries. .

And then there is Angela Warner, who sat waiting in a parked car in front of a Wisconsin polling site trying to determine whether risking exposure to the coronavirus was worth the reward. She was cautious that day and decided to drive on without casting her ballot.