Preferences and the Republicans

Readers might have been hoping for results of last week’s congressional by-election in Alaska (which I previewed here), where Sarah Palin was attempting a political comeback. Unfortunately, counting is not yet complete, with “thousands” of ballots yet to be dealt with and a deadline of next Wednesday for postal votes to arrive.

Once that passes, the third placegetter will be eliminated and their preferences distributed – a process familiar to Australians but still very much a novelty in America. On the current figures, mainstream Republican Nick Begich will be the one to drop out: he is running third on 28.2%, behind Democrat Mary Peltola on 38.9% and Palin on 31.4%.

So there are more than enough votes there for Palin to overtake Peltola if Republican preferences hold reasonably tightly. But that’s far from a given; Palin is a sufficiently controversial figure that there will be a lot of moderate Republicans who voted for Begich and then either preferenced the Democrat or let their votes exhaust (preferences are optional). It remains to be seen just how many.

Since Republicans, and especially the Trumpier sort, are still demonising postal voting, it’s quite likely that the votes still to come in will trend against Palin, increasing slightly the 7.5 point gap that she needs to make up. It’s very possible that she will fall short, and that Alaska will send its first Democrat to the House since 1972. (The last one, as it happens, was Begich’s grandfather.)

A loss, or even a narrow win, for Palin will confirm the recent trend towards the Democrats in by-elections. Republicans remain favorites to win control of the House in November’s mid-term election, but the odds have shortened considerably in the last two months. As of this morning, FiveThirtyEight’s “Lite” forecast (the one based just on opinion polls) gives them just a 65% chance of a majority.

While we wait for Alaska results and other data to come in, you can have a read of Henry Olsen’s piece in the Washington Post last week on the significance of preferential voting. Olsen argues, as we’ve noted here many times, that electoral systems matter, and that the strength of Trumpism is an artifact of a bad electoral system.

The problem is the way that the primary system combines with first-past-the-post voting. Primary elections have lower turnout, so more extreme candidates are more likely to win endorsement; when it comes to the general election, more moderate supporters of the party then have no alternative unless they are willing to defect altogether and vote for the other party.

Preferential voting (or “ranked-choice voting”, as he calls it) allows states to dispense with single-party primaries. With more moderate candidates effectively guaranteed a place on the ballot, they have the opportunity to rally and defeat extremists. As Olsen puts it, “This gives the increasingly disaffected middle a real voice in America’s increasingly polarized politics.”

Ned Foley at the Election Law Blog takes up Olsen’s argument and proposes nationwide legislation to ensure that all states adopt preferential voting – not necessarily the Alaskan system, but something that ensures that senators and representatives are only elected with majority support. He suggests that there is currently a window of opportunity for such a move because it would not only be good for democracy but would suit the interests of the Republican leadership.

That’s because one of the main reasons Republicans are not doing as well as they would like is that primaries keep saddling them with Trumpist or just plain crazy candidates. A system that favored more moderate Republicans would also make Republicans more electable, increasing the chance of a House and even a Senate majority for the party in November: good news for Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

We can be pretty certain the reform won’t happen. It would require McConnell to make an explicit stand against the Trump wing of his party, which he has previously shown great reluctance to do. It would also require the Democrats to vote against their short-term political interest, at a time when they have been doing quite the opposite – even promoting extremist Republicans in the hope of getting themselves weaker opponents for November.

The Democrats aren’t the first party to think that pushing their rivals out to the fringe is a fine idea, and no doubt they won’t be the last. But as many have discovered to their cost, it’s playing with fire. Strengthening democracy would be a much better idea, even if it carries a short-term price.

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