There are a bunch of different ways to do democracy. In Western Europe, most countries have proportional representation and a lot of different parties representing voter interests. In this country we’ve gone with a two-party system and winner-take-all elections.
During the middle of the 20th century, it seemed like we’d chosen the right approach. The proportional multiparty system allowed an extremist named Adolf Hitler to rise to power with the initial support of a tiny fraction of Germany’s voters. Both American parties, meanwhile, seemed to bend toward compromise, knowing they had to win over the median voter in order to get to 50.1 percent majorities.
But even then, as Lee Drutman of the think tank New America points out, America really had a four-party system. There were liberal Republicans from places like the Northeast and conservative Republicans from the West. There were liberal Democrats on the coasts and conservative Democrats from the South. The four groups floated into different legislative coalitions depending on the issue and the moment, allowing for flexible bipartisan majorities.
Now the two-party system has rigidified and ossified. The two parties no longer bend to the center. They push to the extremes, where the donor bases and their media propaganda arms are. More and more people feel politically homeless, alienated from both parties and without any say in how the country is run.
Partisans’ chief interest is in proving that the other party is despicable — in ramping up fear, hatred and the negative polarization that is the central feature of contemporary American politics.
The result is that people, especially the young, lose faith in democratic norms altogether. There are over 6,000 breweries in America, but when it comes to our politics, we get to choose between Soviet Refrigerator Factory A and Soviet Refrigerator Factory B.
The good news is that we don’t have to live with this system. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says there have to be only two parties. There’s nothing in the Constitution about parties at all. There’s not even anything in the Constitution mandating that each congressional district have only one member and be represented by one party. We could have a much fairer and better system with the passage of a law.
The way to do that is through multimember districts and ranked-choice voting. In populous states, the congressional districts would be bigger, with around three to five members per district. Voters would rank the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate had a majority of first-place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes would be eliminated. Voters who preferred that candidate would have their second-choice vote counted instead. The process would be repeated until you get your winners.
This system makes it much easier for third and fourth parties to form, because voting for a third party no longer means voting for one with no chance of winning. You get a much more supple representation of the different political tendencies that actually exist in the country.
The process also means that people with minority views in their region have a greater chance to be represented in Congress. A district in Southern California, for example, might elect a Bernie Sanders-type progressive, a centrist business Democrat and a conservative.
The current system — wherein a vast majority of seats are safely red or blue and noncompetitive, with only a handful of fiercely contested districts — disappears. Every district becomes a swing district, each vote much more important. Congress begins to work differently because with multiple parties you no longer have stagnant trench warfare — you have shifting coalition-building.
There’s a reason voters in proportional representation countries are less disenchanted with politics than we are. Their systems work better.
Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to fight gerrymandering, a reform that would have only a marginal effect on our politics. The good news is that attention seems to be shifting to ranked-choice voting, a change that would have much bigger and better effects.
In 2016, voters in Maine passed a referendum installing ranked-choice voting. The state’s Legislature has done everything it can to fight it, but it looks like voters there will use the system for their June 12 primary, and have a chance to make the system permanent.
Right now our politics is heading in a truly horrendous direction — with vicious, binary political divisions overlapping with and exacerbating historical racial divisions. If we’re going to have just one structural reform to head off that nightmare, ranked-choice voting in multimember districts is the one to choose.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: One Reform to Save America.