Singapore: High Government Salaries
There’s almost nothing politicians from both parties can agree on these days, except that giving themselves more money is a very bad idea. Which is why a 2.6 percent cost-of-living adjustment on salaries for House members, who currently make $174,000 a year, withered into oblivion over the summer. The optics of the issue are the same elsewhere; in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised last year for turning down a $9,000 increase on a base salary of $300,000 and freezing Parliament’s wages as well.
But what if the way we think about paying our leaders is all wrong? What if giving them more money resulted in less corruption, higher public trust and better government all round? There’s some evidence, from Singapore, that it does.
Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took home $1.6 million. That’s almost four times more than the U.S. president makes and four times as much as Australia’s prime minister, the highest-paid leader in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year. A Singaporean minister’s salary in 2018 was $800,000. Civil servants, too, are very well paid by international standards; a career in the bureaucracy is regarded as so secure, it’s sometimes called an “iron rice ball.” And on almost every metric, Singapore is thriving. It ranks first in the World Bank’s most recent Government Effectiveness index; the Corruption Perceptions Index gives it an 85 out of 100, whereas the United States is at only 71; and Singapore comes in second, just after the United States, in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index.
These indicators are all the more impressive considering that, at its founding in 1965, Singapore had very few natural resources. It is often talked about as a place where pragmatism has triumphed over ideology, where big, decisive moves were made out of necessity from the beginning in order to attract foreign capital. One of those moves was ensuring that Singapore’s public service was technocratic, not political. In a small country—the population hovers around 5 million today—this meant making government competitive with business as a career path.
A career in the bureaucracy is regarded as so secure, it’s sometimes called an “iron rice ball.”
Government salaries in Singapore have been informally benchmarked to the private sector since the country’s founding. Dramatic reforms in 1994 codified the high salaries seen today. Salaries for ministers are based on those in professions they could have pursued: banking, accounting, engineering, the law. Still, these salaries do not fully match the private sector, “to reflect the ethos of sacrifice that political service involves,” as a 2012 government white paper affirming the policy put it. (This public service discount amounts to 40 percent less than the median income of the top 1,000 Singaporean civilian wage-earners.)
There are also annual bonuses. A “national bonus” given to the prime minister and the cabinet is based on a few factors, including the real median income growth rate and the unemployment rate, which is currently 2.2 percent. From 2013 to 2017, each year’s payout represented an additional three to five months’ salary. Ministers also receive a performance bonus determined by the prime minister. Because the prime minister doesn’t have anyone who can grade him—there’s a president, but her role is largely custodial and does not involve setting policy—he doesn’t get one.
While the bonus is derived from a complicated formula, the salary itself is a simple proposition, unencumbered by what the Singaporeans refer to, dismissively, as “perks.” The prime minister is given a car and driver, and that’s it—unlike the American president, who receives a $19,000 entertainment allowance, a big house and a pension, among other goodies. (There is an official state residence in Singapore, but it’s used only for functions.)
The no-perks policy has been essential in building trust between politicians and the people, says Lutfey Siddiqi, a visiting professor in practice at the London School of Economics’ IDEAS think tank and an adjunct professor in risk management at the National University of Singapore. “The structure of pay is very simple so that nothing can be hidden or obfuscated,” he says. Do the people ever get annoyed about high salaries for politicians, though? Not really, says Siddiqi, a longtime resident: “As long as the social contract keeps working, there is not that resentment you see in other places.”
Do higher government salaries actually pay off for Singaporean citizens? Paying public servants a competitive wage has been intrinsic to the country’s economic transformation, argues Marie dela Rama, a lecturer in management at the University of Technology, Sydney, whose research interests include the corporate governance of family business groups in Asia. “High salaries are part of the meritocratic civil service culture where talent is rewarded, not underappreciated,” she says. Dela Rama’s research has found that a political culture—good or bad—trickles down from the top. “If senior leaders emphasize transparent, accountable and trustworthy actions, then the acceptable scope for bribery and other malfeasance is narrowed,” she wrote in a recent co-authored paper about corruption in the Asia-Pacific region.
Still, a direct correlation between higher salaries and better governance is less well established. In the private sector, paying CEOs millions of dollars is often justified as a powerful incentive for good performance. But even economists, famously hardheaded, like to talk about politics as a distinct career path—a calling, not subject to the market’s invisible hand. Renee Bowen, an economist at Stanford, and Cecilia Mo, a political scientist who is now at the University of California, Berkeley, released a paper in 2016 finding that in states where governors earn more money, the minimum wage tends to be higher and corporations tend to contribute a higher share of overall state tax revenue. The data was limited though—the paper, “The Voter’s Blunt Tool,” was mostly theoretical. (Bowen and Mo used game theory to argue that when representatives are paid more, they’re more invested in keeping their jobs by pursuing citizen-friendly policies.) In a 2004 paper comparing the pay of U.S. governors, LSE academic Timothy Besley concluded that there simply hasn’t been enough research on what goes into the making of a political class. It is, Besley writes, “weakly encouraging to the view that pay rates of politicians affect behavior,” but “the efficacy of monetary incentives in political settings is far from clear.”
Although undeniably prosperous—this is, after all, the setting for Kevin Kwan’sCrazy Rich Asians—Singapore has also made compromises along the way that other countries might view as untenable. Its tax rates, for instance, are well below the average of other developed nations. There is still corporal and capital punishment; overzealous courts stifle political expression; and while elections are free, no significant opposition has emerged to the ruling People’s Action Party. The Democracy Index describes the country as a “flawed democracy.”
But dela Rama says Singapore doesn’t get enough credit, especially in the West, for its achievements. Income inequality is not as significant in Singapore as elsewhere in Asia, nor as pronounced as in most Western democracies. In dela Rama’s view, the facts that Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, is the son of the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and that Singapore is sometimes called a “family business,” are not necessarily bad things. “Instances of high-level nepotism have not had a deleterious effect on the country’s development,” she says.
On the occasion of his 2011 swearing-in, the younger Lee made the case for a well-paid political class. “Politics is not a job or a career promotion,” he said. “It is a calling to serve the larger good of Singapore. But ministers should also be paid properly in order that Singapore can have honest, competent leadership over the long term.” To American ears, such an assertion sounds politically brave, which is to say, insane. But Singapore’s record shows Lee might be right: Spending a little more in the first place can benefit a citizenry in the longer term. “There is truth to a statement you sometimes hear from senior members of the Singapore establishment,” Siddiqi says. “They say, ‘There’s a reason why we are some of the best paid ministers and bureaucrats, but we are not the wealthiest by far.’”
Amelia Lester is an Australian writer living in Japan.
Rwanda: Gender Quotas
Judging by political representation alone, Rwanda is the most feminist country on Earth. More than 60 percent of Rwandan parliamentarians are women—a higher proportion than any other national legislature, and a statistic often trotted out to bolster Rwanda’s status as a development darling.
Rwanda achieves equality by design: Of the 10 countries with the highest levels of female political representation, six, including Rwanda, legislate gender quotas that set aside a certain number of seats for women; political parties in at least two others have voluntary quotas.
If the goal is to put more women into national legislatures, Rwanda shows that quotas work—a message the United States, where only about 24 percent of Congress is female, might heed. But whether quotas give women real political and social power is more complicated.
“Even though, yes, there are women here in top positions, it’s more of a smoke screen,” says Diane Shima Rwigara, a 38-year-old Rwandan women’s rights activist and businesswoman. “There’s no space for women who dare to challenge the status quo. And you can’t blame them really, because to be able to be in the government, you have to be compliant. Because no one is allowed to have an independent voice here in Rwanda.”
Rwigara would know. She ran for president in 2017, challenging Rwanda’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame, who has been in office since 2000 and has maintained his grip on power by squashing the free press and disappearing opposition members. Just a few days after Rwigara announced her run, nude photos of her appeared online, part of an apparent smear campaign (Rwigara says the images were photoshopped). A few months after that, the country’s National Electoral Commission disqualified her from running—a move that was criticized by the U.S. State Department, the European Union and Amnesty International. By August, Rwigara was placed under house arrest. That month, Kagame won the election with 99 percent of the vote.
Rwigara and her mother, among others, were arrested in September 2017 and charged with “inciting insurrection” and other offenses. They were eventually acquitted, but the message was clear. “Everyone has to follow the party line,” Rwigara says. “So, that’s all I can say about being a woman in politics in Rwanda. You have to just do as you’re told.”
“That’s all I can say about being a woman in politics in Rwanda. You have to just do as you’re told.”
Rwanda’s gender quotas grew out of the country’s 1994 genocide, which killed between 500,00 and a million people; women were raped in staggering numbers. The majority of the dead were men, and in the aftermath of the genocide, a great many perpetrators and suspected perpetrators, also overwhelmingly men, fled the country, leaving behind a scarred nation that was 70 percent female. Women who had long been excluded from politics and public decision-making, not to mention the economy, were suddenly thrust into new roles as heads of their households and leaders in the reconciliation process. This is not unusual: Aili Mari Tripp, professor of political science and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Melanie M. Hughes, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, have written that women often gain political legitimacy and power in post-conflict settings in part because they “are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as having had less of a hand in creating conflict.” According to Tripp’s research, African countries that ended conflicts after 1985 have almost twice the number of women in Parliament than African countries where recent conflicts have not occurred.
In Rwanda, Kagame, who had led the forces that fought back against the genocide, took over as president in 2000 and found himself in charge of a country where women were a crucial political constituency and had played key roles in rebuilding peace and security. He seemed to demonstrate a genuine interest in women’s rights—promoting women in politics was good for development, for the nation’s reputation and for shoring up women’s loyalty to his Rwandan Patriotic Front. When Rwanda adopted a new constitution in 2003, it mandated that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be set aside for women. While only women can cast ballots for the women’s seats, Rwandan men have been quick to vote for women, as well. By 2008, women were taking a majority of parliamentary seats after every election. Yet, as Kagame’s administration adopted increasingly harsh strategies to stay in power and crush opposition, Parliament became an institution largely charged with doing his bidding and hostile to dissent, while women’s empowerment became an expedient way to distract credulous international aid groups and members of the press.
The authoritarian exploitation of quotas doesn’t totally undermine their value: Research outside Rwanda has found that quotas translate into policies that benefit women. And in Rwanda, female politicians say their presence does make a difference. “We sometimes have different priorities,” says Odette Nyiramilimo, a Rwandan senator and former minister of state for social affairs. Female legislators, she says, were the force behind legal reforms that gave women equal property rights, and in 2012, women in Parliament pushed to legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality or threat to the pregnant woman’s life. “This is something that if women were not there, it would never have passed,” Nyiramilimo says, of the abortion law. “I know that men didn’t want to hear anything about that.”
The elevation of women in power also has “a significant symbolic effect … on the general expectations that young women have in their lives,” says Marie Berry, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and author ofWar, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Women are more likely to elevate other women, and researchers have found that gender quotas, even in authoritarian countries, might help to gradually integrate women into influential roles not just in politics, but in business, culture and even the home.
The trouble comes, Berry says, in the gap between expectations and reality. The effect of quotas has been to tell women in Rwanda that they have representation and a political voice. “But the reality is that, especially in Rwanda, the labor market has not caught up,” she says. While Rwandan women have relatively high levels of employment, there is a significant wage gap, with men taking on more wage labor and women remaining concentrated in unpaid domestic work. Families still expect that women will handle the bulk of child-rearing; domestic violence remains pervasive.
Here, Nyiramilimo agrees that Rwanda’s feminist work is unfinished. She disputes the idea that women’s political power only goes as far as Kagame allows, and argues that Rwandan women are doing well politically and legally. It’s the home front that still needs to change. “Women still face big challenges in the culture,” says Nyiramilimo. “In our culture, for example, the man has to be the head, the chief of the family. But, in the law, it has changed. The two have the same power. … And that has been put in place because women are there.”
“We don’t see a simultaneous dismantling of patriarchal structures within the home, within the economy,” Berry adds. For the average Rwandan woman, the high proportion of women in Parliament doesn’t mean much.
What can Rwanda’s experiment with gender quotas teach the United States? It’s clear that quotas, if enforced, increase women’s political power at least to some degree, and the symbolic value of women in power can have trickle-down effects. While Americans might bristle at a constitutional mandate, political parties could adopt voluntary quotas, pledging that a certain percentage of the candidates they run will be women. That would be easier for Democrats than Republicans: There are twice as many female Democratic senators as Republican, and nearly seven times as many Democratic congresswomen as Republican. Still, neither party is at parity, let alone even approaching Rwanda’s numbers.
But quotas alone don’t bring equality into being. Once in office, women need to be able to legislate and set their priorities, not simply take orders from an executive or party leader. And to be effective advocates for women more generally, elected officials have to be accountable to robust civilian movements. “What /Rwanda/ really shows is that for women’s empowerment to be meaningful, to be durable, to be impactful and felt in the lives of ordinary women, it has to be coupled with strong civil society organizations and a women’s movement that is able to hold the government accountable and operate in the space between the government and ordinary people,” Berry says.
Representation without true political freedom is a feminist farce, Rwigara believes. Until all of a country’s citizens can speak, organize and compete for power without fear, she says, “the percentage of women in Parliament is just a number.”
Jill Filipovic is a journalist and author ofThe H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.
Australia: Compulsory Voting
ByTodd N. Tucker
U.S. and Australian politics have much in common: a colonial history of Anglo settlers; a powerful Senate that gives disproportionate power to low-population states; two major parties, a left-leaning one with an identity crisis and a right-leaning one that campaigns on white identity. But while voter turnout regularly dips below 40 percent for federal elections in the United States, nearly nine in 10 Australian citizens turn out to cast a ballot in every election.
The reason? Compulsory voting. Australia, practically alone among developed democracies, requires all citizens over age 18 to enroll and vote in federal elections. Non-voting is in fact against the law, punishable by a $20 fine or jail time. The system is wildly popular. Polls going back to at least 1967 show that support for compulsory voting regularly tops 70 percent.
But if the United States were ever to attempt a similar system, it would have a lot of catching up to do to match Australia’s efforts to ensure that mandatory voting is also convenient.
Much of Australia’s distinctive political trajectory owes to the fact that its constitution dates to 1901, not 1789. Social reformers in the 1800s sought a more expansive role for the state than their liberal “don’t tread on me” forebears: By the time voting was made compulsory in Australian federal elections in 1924, eight U.S. cities or states had toyed with compulsory voting, and Belgium had actually instituted it. (In the United States, opposition from business and media groups ensured that these proposals never got off the ground; Kansas City, Missouri, used compulsory voting from 1889 to 1898, but the state Supreme Court overturned it, arguing the city had overstepped its powers.)
Australian political scientist Judith Brett’s new book,From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, explains how the proposal managed to pass Australia’s House and Senate in a single day in 1924, with practically no debate. First, compulsory voting was seen as an anti-corruption device. Many Australians looked with distaste on special interest groups that pledged their members’ votes in exchange for favors; universal voting ensured that politicians would speak to the interests of the population as a whole. Second, World War I—when the Australian government mandated military service—was fresh in the minds of lawmakers, who also noted that vaccination, education and even union membership were often compulsory. Why would the parliamentary body that made such requirements of its citizens not itself be subject to all citizens’ approval?
After the rule went into effect, turnout increased by 32 percent in the next election. The uptick was especially notable among women, who had turned out at lower rates than men.
Today, in part to minimize the burden of the voting requirement, election authorities work to make the process painless and efficient, with half of voters reporting wait times under five minutes. Australia also offers early voting, mail-in voting, mobile teams that visit remote locations to collect ballots and embassies that serve as voting stations for Australians overseas. No proof of identity is required to vote, unlike in some American states. Ballots also ask voters to rank their preferred candidates, which eliminates the need for costly runoff elections. When no candidate gets a majority, less popular candidates see their voters automatically reassigned to their voters’ backup choices.
It’s not only the process that works: It’s also the policy and economic outcomes, as policymakers are incentivized to appeal to the broadest set of interests. Australian political scientist Lisa Hill has documented how compulsory voting led to higher pensions in Australia, as well as more social spending and lower economic inequality in other countries that have adopted the system.
Yet Australia’s system is not perfect. Empirical research shows that compulsory voting, once introduced in Australia or elsewhere, has tended to benefit the political left, which could be one reason the right in Australia has periodically toyed with eliminating it. Citizens have also challenged the requirement over the years, arguing that the candidates on offer were too capitalistic, anti-Aboriginal or corrupt (voting for “none of the above” is not an option); those challenges have been blocked in court. Since Australians can’t sit any race out, whether an election, by-election or referendum—and same for state elections, which aren’t held on the same day as the federal ones—they need to educate themselves on a lot of different issues. (In practice, this isn’t too onerous, though: The last mandatory federal referendum was two decades ago, on sacking the queen as head of state. It failed.) Like their peers abroad, Australians also report declining faith in government. Only 41 percent of Australians say they are happy with democracy in their country, compared with almost twice that about a decade ago. And Australia is following the lead of the United States in becoming more stratified by wealth.
Citizens have challenged the requirement, arguing that the candidates on offer were too capitalistic, anti-Aboriginal or corrupt.
Could compulsory voting happen here? Late in his second presidential term, Barack Obama praised Australia’s mandatory polls, noting that a vastly increased electorate in the United States could help to balance out the influence of corporate money in politics. “The people who tend not to vote are young. They’re lower income. They’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said at a Cleveland town hall in 2015. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.” A mandatory vote could be seen as a coordination device for the working class and poor, who outnumber rich voters but historically vote in lower numbers: While it might be irrational for any one individual to vote, a mandate ensures everyone that people who share their economic interests will turn out.
Compulsory voting in federal elections would certainly be a reversal for the United States, where officials at the state and local level administer thousands of separate electoral systems. Many of these systems, in recent years, have been geared toward keeping people from voting. An estimated 1 million people lost their votes in 2016 because of restrictive ID laws, long lines and registration problems. Maine and Vermont allow people in prison to vote, as a growing number of states like Florida do (or plan on doing) for those with felony convictions who have completed their sentences. But voting restrictions on convicted criminals made it illegal for as many as 6.1 million people—a group that is disproportionately nonwhite—to vote in 2016. (Racial disparity was one reason that, in 1983, Australia extended compulsory voting to indigenous citizens, who constitute 3 percent of the population but 28 percent of prisoners there. And unlike in the United States, all ex-felons and even prisoners serving less than a three-year sentence are required to vote.) Add to this the fact that working class and poor Americans are as much as 40 percent less likely to turn out than the rich, and it’s little surprise social scientists have documented how politicians cater more to the latter.
A voting mandate surely would attract the ire of America’s libertarians, who argue for a right not to vote on First Amendment grounds. According to Georgetown University political scientist Jason Brennan, “blacks, ethnic minorities, the uneducated, women, the young, and the poor also have a lower level of basic political knowledge.” He likens forcing them to vote to forcing drunks to drive and asserts that compulsory voting would lower the quality of governance as a result. Of course, to advocates, that is precisely the point: Forcing everyone to vote forces them to think about politics, which opens a window to make them more informed.
Compulsory voting in the United States would all but require other dramatic changes to make voting more accessible and appealing. Unlike the United States, Australians vote on a Saturday, and they can vote at any polling station in their state, not just the one they happen to be registered at, making it easier for the homeless and the itinerant to vote. (Arts, crafts and “sausage sizzle” barbecues also make voting more festive.)
What’s more, Australian voters have more options to choose from, compared with America’s two dominant parties, which many voters dislike equally or see little difference between. And Australia, like most advanced democracies but unlike the United States, gives parliamentary representation to its federal district and territories, incentivizing citizens of those areas to vote. If the United States wanted to improve on Australia’s system, it could consider a positive inducement to vote—like a cash payment or credits for local farmers’ markets—rather than a fine for not voting.
Don’t expect rapid action on compulsory voting in the United States anytime soon. Then again, with less ambitious voting measures floundering, maybe a big push for universal voting would more likely succeed than the arduous piecemeal extension of the electorate.
Todd N. Tucker is a political scientist at the Roosevelt Institute.
Ireland: Citizens’ Assemblies
In 2018, something astonishing happened in Ireland. In a groundbreaking vote, the people decided to amend the country’s constitution to allow the government to legalize abortion, a stunning resolution of a seemingly intractable, divisive issue. But the referendum did not happen in a vacuum. It was preceded by a long period of careful, detailed, informed and fully public deliberation by what is called a citizens’ assembly, a group of regular citizens tasked with thinking through the country’s most pressing political problems, including abortion, and making recommendations.
As a consequence of this slow and deliberate process, the democratic legitimacy of the decision to make abortion legal is not in question—even though a substantial number of Ireland’s Catholic voters would no doubt have preferred a different outcome. The result offers a striking contrast with Britain’s 2015 vote to leave the European Union, a referendum called by then-Prime Minister David Cameron in a misguided ploy to maintain power. The Brexit plebiscite was rash, rushed and, for many, regrettable—there have been consistent calls from Remainers for a do-over.
Over the years, political scientists have amassed plenty of empirical evidence attesting to the virtues of citizens assemblies, but the Irish example makes the case for such deliberative methods as never before. Regular people can, if given the space and support, engage in high-level discussions about complex political and social issues, and the process can be beneficial, even transformative, for not only the participants but also public policy.
The roots of the citizens’ assembly in Ireland go back to 2008, when there was a dramatic loss of public trust in the wake of the financial crisis. Building on a constitutional convention convened in 2012, where regular citizens were involved in tackling issues including gay marriage (which was also eventually legalized through a referendum), the Irish Parliament established the first citizens assembly in 2016.
In the most recent iteration, 99 citizens formed the body of the assembly. They were, in the words of theIrish Times, “selected through a process designed to be both random and representative,” a procedure overseen by a respected polling company. Organizers went door to door to gather a group broadly reflective of the general electorate in terms of geography, gender, age and social class.
The assembly was asked to think through five challenging topics—including abortion, climate change and an aging population—and make recommendations that were nonbinding but well publicized. Abortion took up a disproportionate share of the allotted time: five two-day-long livestreamed meetings, staggered a month or so apart. During these remarkable gatherings, participants received information from reputable sources, including experts and advocates who represented diverse perspectives. Small breakout groups, moderated by a facilitator, allowed for a nuanced and disciplined conversation, with a judge presiding over the entire proceedings. The assembly ultimately called for the government to put the matter of ending the constitutional ban to a referendum, with 64 percent of those assembled recommending legalizing abortion before 12 weeks. In the end, the people of Ireland voted to amend the constitution by almost precisely that margin.
Earlier this year, theGuardiangathered reflections from Irish citizens about why the abortion-focused deliberations worked. “It meant that there was a long lead-in to the referendum during which debate was reasoned and detailed, before the inevitable agitation of the campaign itself,” one reader reported. Another described the process as a “revelation,” observing that “extreme arguments” gave way to “plain, simple facts” and “logic.” People saw the participants as peers and didn’t feel “preached at or lied to.” The assembly gave Ireland a sense that “the people” had deliberated before the vote.
In other words, the assembly renewed a degree of civic confidence, which seems to be in dwindling supply in a growing number of liberal democracies. Looking ahead, Ireland plans to keep using citizens’ assemblies, with plans for a session focused on gender equality set to begin this autumn and last six months.
The assembly renewed a degree of civic confidence, which seems to be in dwindling supply.
Of course, citizens assemblies, even in their Irish variant, can’t solve every problem. Some critics, for example, have complained that the process gives politicians a pass, allowing them to punt to their constituencies on notoriously difficult issues. That might well be true, but it could also be said that letting public officials pass the buck is a small price to pay to avoid destructive, cynicism-producing gridlock. It also could be said that citizens’ assemblies expose the limits of leaving thorny decisions to a professional class concerned more with scoring points and securing reelection than facilitating public understanding and solving problems.
In addition to shifting the dial on abortion, the citizen assembly made strides on climate change, shaping Ireland’s landmark Climate Action Plan released earlier this summer. Recognizing the potential, British activists associated with the grassroots mobilizing campaign Extinction Rebellion began to demand their own citizens assemblies dedicated to the ecological crisis. In response, the UK House of Commons announced a plan to hold an assembly focused on “combatting climate change and achieving the pathway to net zero carbon emissions.” Why couldn’t something similar happen in the United States, perhaps focused on the necessary transition to renewable energy or the possibility of a Green New Deal?
Given how polarized society has become, inviting a haphazardly selected group of strangers to deliberate might seem ridiculously idealistic, or even dangerous. But that’s all the more reason to take the plunge and try to create conditions for constructive deliberation and decisive action. Our elected officials seem incapable of effectively addressing the most urgent crisis of our time. Why not let the people weigh in and see what they can do?
Astra Taylor is a filmmaker and author ofDemocracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.
United States: Ranked-Choice Voting
Last November, incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin received more votes than Democrat Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd District election, yet Golden was the one who ended up being sworn in to Congress this January. The results weren’t overturned by a recount or a lawsuit. Rather, Golden became the first winner of a U.S. House seat by what’s known as instant-runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting, a system for determining the will of the electorate that’s all the rage among political theorists.
These days, ranked-choice voting is not a theoretical fix to our broken politics. It’s already here. Countries such as Ireland and Australia have used variations of the system for decades, and a growing number of American cities and states are experimenting with it now. The early results are promising. It’s reducing the need for costly, low-turnout primaries and runoffs.
More important, advocates say it’s making campaigns more civil, and more diverse. But the system is not without drawbacks, as some voters have already learned.
The premise of ranked-choice voting is that government officials should be elected with majority, rather than plurality support, but voters should need to go to the polls only once. The system also empowers third parties by eliminating the idea that casting a ballot for them is a wasted vote or could spoil the election. In the ranked-choice system, instead of selecting just one candidate on the ballot, voters can rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives an outright majority of first-place votes cast, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate will have their votes count for their next choice. If still no candidate breaks the 50 percent threshold, again the bottom candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed. The process repeats until there is a majority winner.
In Maine, Golden received 45.5 percent of the vote to Poliquin’s 46.4 percent on the initial count. But after the two third-party candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed, Golden won the race with 50.5 percent.
FairVote, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that has been pushing ranked-choice voting since 1992, tracks and analyzes the 11 cities that have implemented it, plus the state of Maine. The group’s research supports the idea that ranked-choice voting promotes civility in campaigns. FairVote President Rob Richie thinks that’s part of the reason Golden defeated Poliquin in Maine. At a debate, Poliquin said all the other candidates were unqualified, while the other candidates shared how they would rank each other on their ballots. Richie argues that this might be the reason that many third-party candidate voters chose not to rank Poliquin second. With ranked-choice voting, he says, “You have to look for connections and not just divisions—try to build majorities and not just run to your base.”
Richie also points to Northern California, where cities like San Francisco and Oakland have used ranked-choice voting for several years now, as evidence that the system helps make public officials look more like the mix of people they represent. Since implementing ranked-choice voting, cities in the Bay Area have seen an increase in women and minorities running and being elected to office, which Richie says might be attributed to the fact that multiple candidates can appeal to the same demographic without having to worry as much about splitting the vote.
“You have to look for connections and not just divisions—try to build majorities and not just run to your base.”
But not all the ranked-choice trials have been successful. One notable failure was in Burlington, Vermont, in 2009.
That year, there were three competitive candidates for mayor: a Republican, a Democrat and a Progressive. After multiple rounds, the Progressive defeated the Republican in the final matchup to win the election. To the layman, that might appear to be exactly how ranked-choice is supposed to work. But to mathematicians, the Burlington election represents a paradox: When paired against any other candidate one-on-one, the Democrat was preferred by the majority of the electorate. Yet in a three-way race, the Democrat got the fewest votes and was eliminated. Republican voters who would rather have had a Democratic mayor than a Progressive mayor, it turned out, would have been better off ranking the Democrat first despite the Republican being their favorite.
“The pro-/instant-runoff voting/ people say, you just vote your heart, and you don’t have to think strategically,” says Anthony Gierzynski, a political scientist at the University of Vermont and author ofSaving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy. “But what these paradoxes show is that you do have to think strategically, maybe even more strategically than you would in a normal election scenario.”
Warren Smith, a mathematician and outspoken opponent of ranked-choice voting, says the system presents not only mathematical risks but logistical ones, especially if used in statewide or federal elections. One of the hallmarks of the American system of voting is its decentralization; voters cast their ballots at the precinct level, and those precinct tallies get totaled. But with ranked-choice, the outcome depends on each voter’s unique ranking, so ballots must be counted centrally. “There’s no such thing as a precinct subtotal anymore,” Smith says. “That’s bad if you’re worried about election fraud or cyberattacks. With plurality winner elections, there’s more transparency, and it’s more immune to fraud.”
Most ranked-choice elections in the United States use paper ballots, which can help protect against hacking, but manually counting or recounting ranked ballots is a long and arduous process, which would delay results. As Smith puts it, “If you thought it was bad just figuring out who had won between Bush and Gore, with instant runoff, there could be 10 rounds of near-tie nightmares” and manual recounts.
In 2020, at least four states will use ranked-choice voting in their presidential primaries for the first time: Hawaii, Alaska, Kansas and Wyoming. The Democratic Party requires that a candidate meet a 15 percent threshold to earn delegates in a state’s primary or caucus. But citizens in these four states don’t have to worry about wasting their votes on a candidate who won’t get delegates, because an instant runoff will ensure that their votes are redistributed until only candidates meeting the threshold remain. “This is essentially what already happens in a caucus,” FairVote’s Richie notes. “Almost every Iowan who goes to a caucus ends up standing with someone who’s winning delegates, even if they may have started with someone who didn’t.”
In what is referred to as his “Impossibility Theorem,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow demonstrated that no voting method is perfect—no system can decipher an electorate’s truest preference without the potential for paradoxes. Under a plurality-winner system, after all, the Republican would have won the Burlington mayoral election instead of the Progressive, even though most voters still would have preferred the Democrat in a one-on-one matchup. Still, after the 2009 election, Burlington voters decided to revert to a plurality-winner system.
But more cities have gone the other way in the years since. In May 2018, theSan Francisco Chronicleran an editorial criticizing two mayoral candidates for “trying to game the system” in a race that used instant-runoff voting to determine the winner. The two candidates were campaigning together, asking their respective supporters to rank them first and second in a bid to defeat the more centrist front-runner. The duo was unsuccessful, but supporters of instant-runoff voting, like political scientist Lee Drutman, say their colluding was a good thing—proof of concept for the moderating effects of ranked-choice.
“To ‘game’ the system in a simple plurality-winner election, the basic strategy involves mobilizing your base while trying to tear down competing candidates,” Drutman wrote at the time for Vox. “This involves lots of scorched-earth negative campaigning. To ‘game’ the system in a ranked-choice voting election, the basic strategy is to try to appeal broadly and say,I’d like to be your first choice, but if I can’t be your first choice, I’d like to be your second choice.”
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna is an assistant editor atPolitico Magazine.