Some House Democrats hope to pass legislation this year that would give voters the option to list their choices in order of preference in future federal elections, a practice known as ranked-choice voting.
It’s part of a package of reforms designed to reduce extremism in politics, making politicians more responsive to the majority of voters rather than the noisy minorities in both parties. Advocates also want to increase the number of House members for the first time in over 100 years, and to move to multimember congressional districts.
“The most likely piece, which I hope we can pass this year, is just ranked-choice voting in primaries and general elections for federal elections,” Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., told Yahoo News.
The package of reforms is “a medium- to long-term project,” Beyer said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. But it’s hard to know how many Democrats in Congress would support such legislation, much less Republicans.
But, Beyer said, “every year, it becomes more plausible as ranked-choice voting is adopted by lots of different states and by cities. People who are afraid of it look and say, ‘Oh, this is how it works. I understand this. This is good.’”
The state of Maine used ranked-choice voting for the first time statewide in 2018, and Alaska voters approved the method in a referendum last fall. At the same time, Massachusetts voters rejected it.
But the practice is gaining enough steam elsewhere in the U.S. that it is being tested incrementally. New York City is using it for the first time this week in a special election for a City Council seat, and will use it again this June in its closely watched mayoral primaries.
In two states that are known for innovation when it comes to elections — Democratic-leaning Colorado and deeply conservative Utah — municipalities have started to use ranked-choice voting, and state lawmakers support expanding it.
There are a few advantages to ranked-choice voting, advocates say. Most importantly, it requires a candidate to win with a majority of votes. As it stands, the American system rewards candidates who win a plurality of votes, meaning many officeholders never clear 50 percent support from voters.
This is most significant in party primaries, where an extremist or unqualified candidate can win with 30 percent of the vote or less if there are a high number of candidates in the race who split up the vote.
“If you have just four candidates, and one is extreme and has a very devoted 30 percent base but nobody else likes that person, they’re not going to win on the first ballot. Then as the votes migrate, the viewpoint that represents the 70 percent will prevail rather than the viewpoint that represented the 25 percent,” Beyer said.
There are other causes of polarization in primaries, such as gerrymandering and weak party controls, but ranked-choice voting would be one way to dilute this.
Ranked-choice voting could also create space for candidates to run outside the Republican and Democratic parties, because voters who place the third-party candidate as their first option wouldn’t be at risk of wasting their vote. If the third-party candidate was not among the top two vote-getters, then the votes of those who chose that third-party candidate would go to the person they listed as their second preference.
At the same time, it helps prevent third-party candidates from playing a spoiler role.
One implication of this is that if a third party wanted to be competitive, they would have to run candidates who actually have a shot at winning. But over time, ranked-choice voting would also increase the chances for parties like the Libertarian and Green by making them a more viable option for more voters who didn’t want to throw away their vote.
Beyer said he became a supporter of the three reforms — ranked-choice voting, expanding the size of the House and multimember districts — after overcoming his initial skepticism. Multimember districts — in which more than one representative is elected from a single district — currently don’t exist at the House level but are utilized by some state legislatures.
“I was pretty suspect that it would be possible to go to multimember districts. I didn’t really understand how ranked-choice voting worked, and the notion of expanding the House seemed a far cry. But ... I started to realize that the House was really broken in some fundamental ways,” he said.
“If you’re a Democrat in the House right now, with some exceptions, you generally don’t worry about Republican opposition. You worry about somebody beating you in a primary who is going to have to be more faithful, more true blue, more extreme than you are,” said Beyer, who represents the portions of northern Virginia most proximate to downtown Washington, D.C., just across the Potomac River.
And of course, the same is true for Republican primaries. Primaries often function now like councils of war, where a small tribe meets to select the best “warrior” to fight the other side, rather than as a process intended to find the best public servant who would work to solve problems and represent all the people in a district, a state or the country as a whole.
“The notion of trying to bring people back to a center-right or center-left perspective was what really drove my interest in it,” Beyer said.
Multimember districts could also greatly reduce another source of polarization and gridlock in Washington, which comes from gerrymandering. This is where partisan politicians in state legislatures draw the lines of a congressional district in such a way that only a member of their party can win it.
But, Beyer said, “I don’t think it’s really plausible for us to pass multimember districts until we’ve expanded the size of the House. Piece by piece.”
Expanding the House would be one way to reduce the size of these multimember districts, to ease the burden of travel in larger states. But it would also reduce the number of people that each House member is supposed to represent.
At the nation’s founding, each House member represented an average of about 30,000 people. Now, the average is about 765,000 people per House member, according to Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Drutman proposed expanding the House from 435 members to 700 in his 2020 book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”
But Beyer said he and his fellow House Democrats want to push for a more modest increase, to 500 members in the House.
Still, Drutman said, ideas like these are gaining more of a hearing because of the dire state of American politics.
“Things are going to hell a little bit,” he said in an interview last year. “I think that’s part of the reason why people have become so engaged in democracy reform throughout the country.”
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