Montana debates electoral “reform”

We’ve noted before the way that changes to electoral systems, whether desirable or not, tend to only happen when they’re seen to be in the interests of the party in power. Recall, for example, the Queensland Labor government’s abolition of optional preferential voting in 2016 – intended to force Greens voters to preference it instead of letting their votes exhaust – and the South Australian Liberal government’s attempt to move in the opposite direction four years later, with the same reasoning in reverse.

The South Australian move was defeated in the upper house, and the government that sponsored it lost office last year. Nonetheless, I think it was trying to do the right thing, albeit for self-interested motives. For single-member positions, optional preferences are a fairer and more democratic option than their rival on either side, compulsory preferences and first-past-the post.

Now welcome Montana to the club. Its Republican-controlled legislature is pursuing a plan to change voting for its federal senators (and only that) from first-past-the-post to a two round, or “jungle primary”, system, which largely mimics the effect of optional preferential voting. The top two candidates from the first round of voting, regardless of party, would contest the second round. This is the system already used in California and Washington.

But in Montana it has a very specific purpose. Although the state mostly votes Republican (Donald Trump carried it in 2020 with 56.9% of the vote), it has one incumbent Democrat senator, Jon Tester, who is up for re-election next year. And as you might expect, his margin is very tight: in 2018 he won with just 50.3% of the vote. His Republican opponent had 46.8% and a Libertarian took the remaining 2.9%.

The Republicans figure that if they can knock the Libertarian off the second round ballot, most Libertarian voters will vote for them instead, making their task of beating Tester that much easier. (Nathaniel Rakich explains the mathematics here). And with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, Montana is one of the states where there’s a lot at stake.

The Democrats, of course, are not happy with the idea. Nor, for that matter, are the Libertarians: here’s Andy Craig at the libertarian Cato Institute arguing against the proposal. He makes some valid points, and he accepts that “Exploring alternatives to first past the post elections is a worthy goal,” but that “Making such a change only for one election, targeting one particular incumbent, is an improper way to design election rules and procedures.”

That’s true, and I agree that there would be better ways of doing this. But the election is not for another 18 months – the Republicans cannot fairly be accused of attempting a last-minute change. And the two round system does fulfil the basic requirement of ensuring that the person who is elected actually has majority support. It’s not as if any alternative is likely to get up; while there are certainly better systems around, given the politics of the question it’s probably this or nothing.

But the other constant in electoral reform is that self-interested changes quite often backfire. If the change goes through and Montana Democrats are energised by the thought of the system being rigged against them, it’s not impossible that Tester will benefit more from that than he will lose from a small number of Libertarians preferring his opponent.


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