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This is a guest post by Timothy Sisk, professor of international studies and director of the Institute for Comparative and Regional Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. This post is the first in an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. This series is part of the Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. This program is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Trump-induced 2020 electoral crisis in the United States underscores that, in the world’s most long-standing democracy, the “rules of the game” for presidential elections, the Electoral College, is irreparably obsolete.  The diagnosis of the problem is simple: in two of the three most-recent electoral cycles, prior to 2020, the “winner” in fact failed to win in the popular vote. The presidency was won by a plurality of voters.  The U.S., in so many ways, has tendencies toward a “minoritarian” winner-take-all democracy.  If we know one thing in comparative politics, it is that minority- and bare-majority rule governments – especially in ethnically diverse societies – are not sustainable: such systems create broader susceptibilities to political violence.

Observers including the Editorial Board of The Washington Post and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer mission to the 2020 U.S. elections have called for the U.S. to move beyond the Electoral College.  Even some from the Republican party, which has ostensibly benefited from the disproportional effects of the Electoral College, have argued it should be jettisoned.  The national move toward rank-choice voting is a step in the right direction in efforts to induce moderate campaigning in a polarized society.  But ranked-choice voting is at best a baby step, as the systems adopted in Maine, Alaska, and New York City for example, ultimately still function as winner-take-all, or simple-majority rule.

Setting aside the question of how to reform an ossified electoral system, reformers must contend with an equally daunting question: What is the best electoral system to replace it?

While a good question, scholars of comparative politics should tread lightly in answering it because, in sum, there is no “best” electoral system.  Thus, academics with expertise on arguably some of the most critical questions for sustainable democracy and sustainable peace face a common dilemma when engaging at the research-to-policy frontier: discussing policy alternatives in situations where evidence hints that there is no single right answer and that evidence is either ambiguous or highly context-specific, or unique. 

All electoral systems involve trade-offs and prioritization of one or more democratic values, such as representation, accountability, fairness, stable coalitions or inclusion.  Maximizing one, such as inclusivity, may involve trade-offs with others, possibly accountability; this has been one of the trade-offs in enhancing women’s participation in parliaments around the world, as a recent report and analysis by UN Women and the Interparliamentary Union finds.

To replace the Electoral College, then, we should start by identifying the values that need to be enhanced or prioritized in our new system. Personally, I see two that seem critical at this juncture in the United States.  The first responds to the most distorting effects of the Electoral College: the need for proportionality.  In a rapidly evolving, multiethnic society, inclusion of a wide range of identities and interests proportionate to the size in the population seems like a good principle on which to ground elections, which are about “representation.”  Second, given the long history of the United States, retention of a territorialized or district-based system (that is, the 50 States, or more) seems a necessary principle to retain.

While there may not be a versatile system that would excel in all contexts, in my view, there is a plausibly “best” system for a post-Electoral College U.S.: a mixed-member plurality (MMP) system. In MMP systems, each voter gets two votes: one to decide the representative for their single-seat constituency, and one for a political party. This system combines the positive attributes of majoritarian systems, such as candidate identifiability (the voter knows who they are voting for) with enhanced proportionality and inclusiveness, as it is much less punishing to small parties. This system is used in Germany, New Zealand, and, as of 2019, South Korea, among other countries.

But while the case for MMP is persuasively “best” in the scholarly literature, and at times in the popular press, unfortunately… no, it can’t be said to “be best.” Why the tepid claims from otherwise confident sounding scholars?  There are three reasons why an ostensibly responsibly engaged scholar should be cautious when claiming to know what’s best (so take my previous statement about MMP as the best with a grain of salt).

First, much of our understanding about the intricacies of how electoral systems operate is highly contextual, with “what works best” recommendations contingent on context-specific knowledge about things like demographics, historical narratives, economic inequality, or the spatial distribution of identity groups. “All politics is local,” indeed, a phrase former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill coined and made famous.  In the U.S. there is inconclusive evidence that diversification of local constituencies has led to support for anti-immigration candidates, for example, challenging some otherwise conventional wisdom in the literature.

Second, even rigorous research which looks at electoral systems in comparative perspectives with a mid-range sample of countries comes up with findings that are highly conditional, or, in terms one might expect from a scholar: “It depends.”  For example, while it appears proportional representation systems like MMP have helped tame populism in some European countries — keeping extremist parties represented, but out of power on the fringes — in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Italy populist parties have won power nationally anyway.  In Europe, the reality is more complex.

Finally, there is a more important reason to be cautious, and humble, on the research to policy frontier when looking around for the “best electoral system” for the USA: deep uncertainty and counter-veiling evidence.  While I’m persuaded MMP is best for the ailing USA, at the same time I know there is deep uncertainty on two important assumptions in academic literature and popular debates.   The first is that it is impossible to, a priori, pair a theory of how an electoral system “works” against a set of social, economic, and historical factors and be able to adequately anticipate whether a system would have moderating effects as predicted: Bassel Salloukh’s analysis of electoral reform in Lebanon bears this out. Second, policy changes always have both intended and unintended consequences. Absent the ability to perfectly foresee them, there are significant risks of unanticipated consequences and ambiguous or null confirmation of core claims about “what’s best.”  Is it conceivable that MMP might make things worse for the ailing U.S. democracy? Sure.

Even though comparative politics research cannot yield a definitively best policy prescription for reviving democracy, I like MMP for the USA:  Despite the uncertainty, “It’s my story and I’m sticking with it.” But it’s not the only possible story, and on such fundamental and critical issues of democracy and peace scholars must be humble and cautious when proffering policy prescriptions.