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IDEAS

To save our democracy (and our sanity), blow up the two-party system

A practical plan for making Congress more interesting, more effective, and more representative.

Multi-member congressional districts could give voters more options and inspire new governing coalitions.
Multi-member congressional districts could give voters more options and inspire new governing coalitions.Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Our already hyperpartisan politics keep becoming just a little more hyper. Now that Republicans are pushing through a vote on President Trump’s replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, Democrats are talking openly of ending the filibuster, expanding the Supreme Court, and adding DC and Puerto Rico as states. As a big-D Democrat, I think it seems fair. But as a small-d democrat, I cower at the further escalation. I honestly don’t know whether our now-fragile old democracy can handle it.

To make our democracy work, we’re going need to stop escalating and break out of the polarizing trap of our two-party system. Simply crying “fairness” isn’t enough; Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on what’s fair. This is serious. For democracy to work, competing parties must agree on a neutral process, with neutral arbiters, and these rules must remain consistent. Once the basic rules are up for grabs with every election, we no longer have a meaningful democracy — just competitive authoritarianism, where though elections persist, those in power rig the rules in their favor.

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There is only one way to wriggle free of this democracy death spiral: End the zero-sum binary that has separated us into two competing mega-identities, each fighting for an elusive permanent majority, and each convinced that if the other side gets the permanent majority, they will use it for evil, and therefore everything should be on the table. Break the two-party doom loop.

Our two-party system exists not because Americans want just two parties. They definitively want more. But our antiquated “first-past-the-post” system of voting, where the candidate with the most vote wins, renders third parties as spoilers and thus directs all political ambition to the two major parties, entrenching the two-party system. The way to fix this is to modernize how we vote and create multi-member congressional districts with ranked-choice voting.

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For example, Massachusetts is split into nine congressional districts. Each elects one representative to Congress. Under the system I propose, the state would have fewer districts, but each would have more members. For example, the state could split into two districts, one with four members and one with five. The top four vote-getters in the first district would go to Congress, as would the top five candidates in the other district.

Right now, all nine of the state’s representatives are Democrats. Massachusetts is a heavily Democratic state, for sure, but what about the third of voters who generally pick Republicans? Don’t they deserve more representation? If the delegation fairly and proportionally represented the state’s voters, roughly a third of delegates should be Republicans and two-thirds Democrats. Or more likely, voters would get to choose among a wider spectrum of candidates from left to right in a competitive general election. And with a ranked-choice vote as part of this — which Massachusetts voters can choose to enact next month — candidates would work harder to build coalitions, and voters could be assured they wouldn’t waste a vote. This is how Ireland votes.

Apply this to all 50 states, and you wind up with a much more representative Congress. The right might benefit in Massachusetts, but the left would benefit in many other states. Take North Carolina, for example: a purple state, where 10 of 13 Congressional representatives are Republicans.

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More important, every voter would count equally, regardless of partisan preference. Gerrymandering would become irrelevant, because there would be little point in carving up districts to minimize the presence of some voters. And as left and right became less rigid, less binary, voters would have more choices. Instead of just two parties, we could have five or six parties.

Americans disagree with one another, but not nearly as cleanly as the two parties force them to. With more parties, they would form more fluid governing coalitions, as they do in other multiparty democracies, with no permanent majority and no permanent minority. More voters would have candidates and a party they are genuinely excited to vote for, not just a party they are voting against. Turnout would almost certainly increase.

We can do this through a simple act of Congress, with no constitutional amendment. In fact, there is already federal legislation introduced to accomplish this: the Fair Representation Act. Massachusetts voters can also help advance the cause by supporting ranked-choice voting on Question 2, following Maine’s lead in adopting ranked-choice voting.

If Democrats win unified government in 2021, they will face what feels like an impossible choice: Fight back against Republican hardball and escalate further, or back down and let them get away with it. But this is a false binary. There is a third option: Exit the system that forces only two choices.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at the think tank New America, co-host of the Politics in Question podcast, and author of the book "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”

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