Fixing Our Democracy by Fixing Voting

The key to ending polarization and political dysfunction

Our democracy is broken. But I don’t have to tell you that—you can just feel it.

We’re living in an era of unprecedented tribalism, polarization and political dysfunction. Politicians regularly choose party over country. Extreme views are on the rise. Misinformation reigns supreme over truth. And more than ever before, people justify using violence to advance political goals.

Too much conservatism is not the problem we face, and neither is too much liberalism. No, the problems we face are born out of the two-party political system, where voters are trapped in a matrix of limited options.

Independents are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, and Democrats and Republicans alike must must pander to extreme views within their parties, rather than building a nationwide coalition on issues the vast majority of the country support.

Further, there are good indications that a “left vs right” country isn’t who we naturally are, but rather what we have become as a result of our political environment. See how a strong majority of Americans believe the existing parties do an inadequate job of representing the people and thus a third party is needed.

In fact, there is evidence that “left and right are entirely tribal designations and have no unifying philosophy or principle.”

In my writing to follow, I’m going to present a solution to our tribalism—a way to fix our political environment as a means to fixing our democracy. And I’m going to try to convince you:

  1. that this is *the* solution

  2. that this solution is one that works by convincing people that it works

  3. that there are enough of us who want this change to happen that it *can* become a reality—all we need to do is beat the same drum.

So what is the solution?

In short, it is to change the way we vote from single-choice voting, where you choose one candidate, to ranked voting, where you rank the candidates.

Whether you are familiar with ranked voting or not, read on for:

  1. Why this is not only beneficial to our political system, but it is the single most important change that we need to make

  2. Precisely how this seemingly monumental change can actually be set into motion

The System

To understand what we need to do we need to describe our political system. We’ll call this The System.

Elections are held each year in all 50 US States (major elections every two years). In each of these elections, voters go to the voting both and choose from one of two options: Democrat or Republican. Yes, there are often more choices but they are essentially non-choices, given that everyone knows they will never win.

As a result, ideological D’s vote for D candidates, ideological R’s vote for R candidates, and even most of the independents, who outnumber D’s and R’s, end up voting for either D’s or R’s.

After the election is over, people tend to subconsciously identify more with the side they ended up voting for. They consume more media on that side and they get sucked into one ideological side or the other.

Each of us are told there is no middle ground, that we must choose a side, that voting independently is letting the worst party win, and that a non-binary ideology is simply futile. Media frames issues in “left vs right” language, and non-duopoly parties are routinely kicked off the ballot.

Thus, the two parties are strengthened even more and their strength protects their duopoly. They are in a “stable equilibrium,” or a state of the world that tends to return to its original position when disturbed, much like a marble in the bottom of a bowl.

The parties appear to be enemies but they are actually allies. They need each other. They feed off of each other. If one party gets too strong, the other experiences a surge of enthusiasm and funding to provide balance. All the while keeping other parties out.

At the same time, I want to stress neither Republican nor Democratic politicians are to blame. Rather, they are victims of the two-party system, just as we all are. Just as voters conform their views and behaviors to the two-party system, so must politicians.

The Root Cause

Before we get to a solution, we must understand why this duopoly occurs and persists.

The root cause for this duopoly is simple: the single-choice voting system.

Duverger’s Law states that a single-choice voting system marginalizes smaller parties, generally resulting in a two-party system, while voting systems where you can select multiple candidates tend to favor multiple parties.

This means that creating new parties is futile unless you first change the voting system, as under the existing system a third party will always be marginalized.

In fact, every single time a new major party emerged throughout the history of the US, the new party displaced one of the two existing major parties.

The Solution

Now that we understand the root cause, the fix should be straightforward.

We must switch to a voting system where voters indicate preferences for multiple candidates.

If we make this switch, non-duopoly parties will no longer be marginalized, and new parties will be able to emerge.

There are two major types of voting systems that fit this criteria:

  1. Ranked voting systems

  2. Approval voting systems

Both are excellent, but we’ll focus on ranked voting because it has had the most real world deployment to date.

See Nicky Case’s interactive voting system guide for a brilliant visualization of different voting systems and how they directly influence the party landscape.

The Strategy

OK, so you may be convinced that ranked voting is the solution to our political woes.

But you’re like “so what if this never gets implemented in the first place.”

And you’re totally right. Let’s talk about how we actually make this happen.

So far, over 20 cities have implemented ranked voting (including New York City and San Francisco) as well as two states (Maine and Alaska).

The key to expanding on this success is to repeat what has worked in the past:

First, in each of the cities and states that implemented ranked voting, a referendum was put to the voters to see if they would like to adopt the new voting system. In Santa Fe, 65% of voters approved ranked voting. In New York City, an overwhelming 74% approved.

Second, referendums for ranked voting won’t pass if voters aren’t convinced that ranked voting is an improvement over the status quo. We need to spread the word about how single-choice voting is at the core of our political mess and how ranked voting is the answer.

Third, ranked voting actually needs to be properly implemented. If the implementation of ranked voting is a disaster, for example with confusing forms or unreliable tallying, then it will be reasonable for voters to push for a return to the status quo.


So there we have it. In summary:

  1. We’re trapped in a political system defined by “left vs right” that favors tribalism and political division.

  2. Ranked voting is the opportunity for us to escape from our tribalist politics.

  3. We can make ranked voting happen by spreading the word, pushing for referendums, and making sure ranked voting systems are properly implemented.

So what do you think? Do you support ranked voting? Have a different take on the problem or solution?

Let me know in the comments below or send me a tweet at @ryaneshea.