Commentary & Analysis

Democracy Has a Scoreboard and Right Now the People are Losing

While this year’s Super Bowl had most of us on the edge of our seats, the Super Bowl is hardly ever such a nail-biter. Over the NFL’s 55 championships, the average margin of victory was far from close: 14 points. The 2021 Super Bowl was more in line with history, with Tom Brady‘s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beating Kansas City by 22 points.

Without a doubt, Tampa Bay deserved to be there and solidly won over KC. The Super Bowl is one game a year, but the contests that impact us most―elections―often result in less-than-decisive victories and the names on the ballots rarely represent the real voice of the people.

Analysis from The Center for Election Science shows that something is changing the game in U.S. elections―more competitors.

We studied each of the 485 Members of Congress elected since 2010, and found that nearly every one of them, 88%, emerged from a contested primary scrum.

And these contested primaries are big. On average, there are more candidates in a contested primary, six, than there are offensive linemen on the field (five) or Jets’ wins this season (four). Like a mad scramble for a fumble, that many candidates creates the sort of chaos where anything can happen.

With more candidates in the mix, it takes fewer votes to win.

The average number needed to win in the 64 contested races in 2020 was just 45%. This is due to vote-splitting where similar candidates intercept each others’ votes. Voters only have one vote, and often feel torn between the “lesser of two evils.”

A common outcome of this is all the moderate candidates taking each other down, creating a hole just big enough for the most extreme candidate to run up the gap like a running back.

Unfortunately, it’s only getting worse. Since 2010, the average number of candidates in a primary has only increased―from 5.4 in 2010, to 7.3 last cycle. In 2021 there were 85 candidates in contested primaries for just six open seats in Congress. The winners of those six races averaged a whopping 39% support. Maybe if people are starting to lose faith in democracy, we should start by looking at the numbers on the scoreboard.

Should someone who got 39% support be elected to Congress, probably for life, due to incumbency? Do they deserve to be there?

Starting in March, a new competition will begin across the country―a 50-state sprint of primaries including all 435 members of Congress in their newly drawn districts. Texas kicks off the slate of elections with 65 candidates running in primary match-ups for nine open seats. With so many candidates and so few seats, vote-splitting is a certainty.

At least the teams in the Super Bowl had to win multiple contests over the course of the year to prove they should be there. In 2020, 80% of Congressional districts were drawn to tilt the field dramatically for one side or the other, according to the Cook Political Report. The new 2022 districts will likely have the same amount or more.

That means whoever wins this first primary in 2022 will probably sit there, safely, until 2032. With so many candidates, it’s likely people will become members of Congress with less than 40%, 30% or even 20% of the primary electorate’s support.

That’s like a team winning their first game of the season with a score of 7-6 and then being crowned NFL champs for the next 10 years. Fans would never accept such unfairness and nor should voters.

Voters have the ability to change the rules with two new words on the ballot instructions―vote for one or more.

By allowing voters to choose all the candidates they like, the threat of vote-splitting goes away. Voters like not having to pick the lesser of two evils, and candidates like running without being labeled a spoiler. The person with the most votes, and the broadest appeal, is the one that wins.

Take St. Louis, the former home of this year’s winning team. Even without the Rams, there is a new cause for hope that should make St. Louis the envy of the nation. In 2020, city residents overwhelmingly supported a measure with 68% of the vote to implement this vote-for-one-or-more system, called approval voting. They made the change for the exact reason Congressional primaries should―lots of candidates were running, winning with less than 40% of the vote, and people were unsure if their leaders deserved to be there.

In 2021 they held their first election with this system. The now-mayor garnered 58% approval―an unquestionable victory and clear mandate to govern.

While voters may not yet see what’s happening on the sidelines with their primaries, they clearly feel uneasy with our democratic process. Every year, slimmer and slimmer electoral victories leave us with more questions than answers. Questions like “did the best person win on their own merit or from vote-splitting?” or “does this person truly represent our state, our district, or our party?”

Approval voting is easy to understand, and because most jurisdictions already have machines capable of running these elections, it’s free and immediate to change. Think of the move to instant replay―the cameras were already there, they just needed to use them to get it right.

Voters, it’s time to challenge this system. Let’s demand a system that empowers our voices, not splits them. Democracy is a team sport, let’s update the rules to make it better for everyone.