Vanderklipp is a Principal Investigator at Network of Electoral Reformers.
Just hours after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot, with calls to “stop the theft” still echoing beneath the Capitol rotunda, 139 Republican members of the House of Representatives voted to oppose valid electoral votes sent from Arizona and Pennsylvania, in effect endorsing the rallying cry of the insurrection.
Seventy-two Republicans voted the other way, supporting the electoral vote count. What are the important characteristics that distinguish those who opposed it from those who did not? Some are predictable. Members may have felt more pressure to oppose if they came from districts and states that voted more overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Members with fewer years in Congress objected to a higher rate, perhaps with a greater need than more veteran colleagues to make a name for themselves.
A new analysis reveals another unexpected characteristic that many opponents have in common, one that points to a structural danger in our electoral system. Objectors were more likely to have entered Congress without majority support in their initial primary. This idea stems from an Election Reformers Network database that tracks members’ paths to Congress, and in particular how they fared in the primary election the year they entered Congress, before the power of the holder comes into force.
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The primaries for congressional elections have become much more intense in recent decades. With party control diminishing over candidate nominations, races for open seats often feature half a dozen or more candidates, and major incumbent contests have become commonplace. This context increases the likelihood of “plurality winners” – candidates who win with less than a majority of the votes cast – and “low plurality winners”, defined in this analysis as candidates who win with less than 40% of the votes cast. voice.
As the table below illustrates, objection voting was much more common among low plurality winners than among majority winners. More than 75% of the 45 members who reached Congress via a primary victory of 40% or less voted to oppose the Pennsylvania and Arizona electoral votes. The corresponding figure for “majority supported” members is slightly over 50%.
The same pattern appears in the voting records of House members as a whole, not just on Jan. 6. A political science measure called the Nomination Score compares the ideological intensity of members based on their vote. Low plurality members score about one-third more ideologically intense on this metric than members supported by the majority, controlling the partisan standing of members’ constituencies.
This pattern becomes more worrisome when we consider the new congressional districts emerging from the ongoing redistricting process in the states. This mapping cycle resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of competitive districts between Republicans and Democrats. When all the cards are finalized, membership will basically be decided by who wins the primary as long as 94 percent of home quarters. Worse things, 80% of voters does not participate in the primary elections.
The solution to this problem is preferential voting. A candidate with strong popularity among one faction of the electorate but little support among other voters has a much lower chance of winning under RCV than under conventional rules. In a crowded primary, a candidate with a plurality of first-choice votes will also need second- and third-choice votes and (in almost all cases) will need majority support to win.
States can choose to implement preferential-choice voting in conventional party primaries or take a more comprehensive step and follow the Alaska electoral model. The “first four” model recently endorsed by Alaskan voters opens the primaries and allows for the participation of political independents, a growing faction of American voters tired of the two-party system. The four most popular candidates (regardless of party) advance to the overall, where voters can rank themselves by preference, spurring candidates to run positive campaigns and secure second or third place votes from their opponents’ supporters.
Both parties should consider it in their interests to stem the centrifugal force that makes Congress a hotbed of extremists. The constant threat of more radical primary challengers from party wings creates deep internal divisions and Stalinist standards of purity. A highly polarized Congress cannot reflect the views of most Americans and cannot manage the basic legislative functions on which the country depends.
While the kind of extremism that has led Republican House members to oppose legitimate election results has many sources, it’s clear that our antiquated primary systems are making the problem much worse. It’s time we put in place a voting system that will make it difficult for largely unpopular hyper-partisans to find a way into our Congress.
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