Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Why Ranked Choice Voting Could Save Us

About This Episode

Katherine Gehl says reforming our voting system is the solution to political division and gridlock. Our current political system makes polarization and incivility commonplace and compromise nearly impossible, but ranked choice voting promises to make efficient cooperation possible. Katherine founded Democracy Found and The Institute for Political Innovation, organizations that work to catalyze political change in America.

In the first half of this episode, Katherine describes how increased political competition and changing our voting system can make politics better, and in the second half she offers simple steps we can take to make a better election system a reality.

Guest: Katherine Gehl, co-founder of Democracy Found, founder of The Institute for Political Innovation, and co-author of “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.”

Get involved in implementing ranked-choice voting and order Katherine’s book.

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Transcript

Branden Harvey: If I said that the American political system is broken, I don't really think that would cause an uproar.

I don't think that that's a statement that many people would disagree with. There is certainly gridlock and division and inefficiency and even threats to democracy in the way that our government is set up. But is the system broken? Today's guest says that is not. She says that our democratic system is working exactly as it was built to, but what it was built to do doesn't serve us.

She believes that we can and should change it and make it better. And she has a plan on how to do that. This is Sounds Good, I'm Branden Harvey today on the show, I'm talking with Catherine Gehl, a veteran of both the public and private sectors.

She was the president and CEO of a two hundred and fifty million dollar high tech food manufacturing company.

And then in 2010, President Obama nominated her to the board of a government institution that invests in developing countries and emerging markets today.

Her primary focus is on reforming America's voting systems. She sits on the board of several nonprofits. She's the honorary co-chair of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers and the co-founder of Democracy Found, an organization that advocates for new elections system called Final Five Voting and Ranked Choice Voting.

This system of voting makes so much sense and it gets me really fired up. You'll hear more about this later on in our conversation. She also co-authored the new book, The Politics Industry How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.

She's also the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that catalyzes modern political change in America. Basically, Katherine Gehl knows politics and she has some great ideas for challenging and changing the political system. I'm so excited for you to hear our conversation, and I think you'll leave feeling hopeful about the future of politics in America. I know I did. Most Americans think that the political system is broken, but I know that you disagree. You say that the system is working exactly how it was designed and it's just not designed to benefit the American people.

What are the problems that we're facing and how is the system designed to create these results?

Katherine Gehl: Oh, such a good question. But before I answer, let me just say thank you, Branden, for having me here today. I'm so happy. Absolutely happy to be talking to you and happy to be reaching your listeners.

So here, let's think about looking at our politics specifically with an eye to looking at it in a way that would help us figure out how to fix it. You and I, we and any of your listeners, we could at any time read 15 more books or listen to 10 more news programs that would all tell us that things aren't going well because that information is out there in spades. What I've done in my work is apply a lens of competition thinking, which I'm going to explain in a moment specifically so that we can understand the political system in a way that relates to our own lives, because then we'll know how we need to fix it.

So here goes in the United States, in our lives, we're always buying things and we can see that the products that are available to us are, in a sense, competing against each other or let's say the companies that are making these products, making the cars that they want us to buy, are making the cell phones they want us to buy. They're competing to give us the best product, the product that has the features. We want the product at the price point we want. And in many cases, those products get better over time.

Now, when we look at politics, that is not at all what's happening, which is to say the Democrats and the Republicans that are competing to get our votes are not making what they deliver to us when they're legislating. So when they get to Congress, they're not making that product better. In fact, we see in politics that 90 percent of the customers so think the voters as customers are totally dissatisfied with how Congress is performing. Democrats, Republicans, independents, that's practically the one thing everybody does agree on is that Congress isn't doing a good job, and yet Congress never gets better, even though we as customers aren't satisfied.

So we say, why is that? And discover that it's because of the way the politics industry works right now. There's actually no connection between someone in Congress acting in the public interest and solving problems and the likelihood that that person is going to get re-elected. In fact, they're less likely to get re-elected if they solve the difficult problems in a consensus way, which would be the only way you could solve them by working together with the other side. And so that's why nothing gets done.

And then we see a second problem, which is even though nothing gets done and we're all dissatisfied, there's never any other choices. Right now we have Republicans and Democrats. And in the if the existing rules don't change, we are guaranteed to continue to have only Republicans and Democrats, regardless of what they do or do not do to solve problems for the country. And that is really crazy. Now, I don't have a problem with Republicans or Democrats.

I don't have a problem with political parties. I don't even have a problem with just two parties. What I have a problem with is that the current two are guaranteed to continue to be the only two, regardless of what they do or don't do for us. So what we need to figure out and we have done this and talk about it in detail in our book, we need to figure out how to create a system where the way to get re-elected is by solving problems in the public interest and a system where if you don't solve problems, you're actually going to see some new competition. And that's what would make a difference.

Branden Harvey: I like that. I think that's already exciting because I see that as a challenge that's looking a little bit deeper. When I think about the problems facing the political system, I think about gerrymandering. I think about lobbyists. I think about there being too much money in politics. And it sounds like while you acknowledge that those problems are worth solving, it might be easier to solve those problems if we reform how? We choose the elected officials who do solve those problems if we reform elections and specifically I know from your book that you advocate for primaries with a single nonpartisan ballot where basically all of the candidates, regardless of party, would be on one ballot.

And it's called the final five voting because the top five candidates who are elected from that ballot, regardless of their party affiliation, would then proceed to the general election. Can you tell me about how this would improve the primary process and why the traditional party system isn't beneficial in this scenario?

Katherine Gehl: One of the things I just said is that in our political system, we don't get results and there's no accountability for not getting results. So when we say why do we need to change, we need to change the rules in a way that in a sense the results and creates new competition for accountability. If there aren't, the main reason we don't get the results is because of the party primary system. And I said the main reason there are also lots of other reasons.

But let's talk about the biggest structural reason party primaries, which are low turnout. Elections push each side further to the right and further to the left than voters as a whole really are. But the most important thing and the most deleterious aspect of party primaries is that their influence extends far beyond who gets elected and what they say to get elected. But it extends to their behavior when they're legislating, which is to say. The party primary pushes Democrats so far to the left and Republicans so far to the right that they can't afford to work together on a solution because the foremost concern in their mind is, will I make it back through my next party primary if I vote for this compromise consensus solution on one of our big problems and on all the biggest issues, the answer for both sides to that question is virtually always no.

I say the party primary creates an eye of the needle to which no problem solving politician can pass. So the first thing we're going to do for political innovation is get rid of that eye of the needle. Let's just eliminate party controlled primaries. And instead, as you've noted, will have one primary.

Everybody's on the same ballot and the top five finishers advance to the general election.

So what that means is that now once someone is elected, when they're legislating and trying to solve problems, they know that they won't automatically 100 percent lose their job in a party controlled primary. If they solve a problem in a consensus oriented manner, that's huge. That alone provides a whole new level of freedom to our senators and congresspeople to figure out how to address our biggest issues instead of needing to adhere to sort of lockstep orthodoxy with each extreme side of their respective party.

Branden Harvey: This is so fascinating. And I guess to kind of clarify a little bit more here, essentially what you're saying is that constituents, when they're voting in these primaries, they're going to vote for the people who are paying attention to the issues that they care about more than the traditional party politics. Is that kind of the core reason why these primaries would be more effective?

Katherine Gehl: Well, here's the challenge. The current system of low turnout party controlled primaries means that very few people show up and those people tend to be further to the right or further to the left.

And so the candidates that they select that make it through that primary is necessarily then going to be a candidate that has been pushed to either side. Once you put everybody, all the voters in the primary, everybody's voting on the same set of candidates and five people are going to advance from the primary. You're going to have a broader set of candidates right now. You have one Democrat advancing and you have one Republican advancing and actually Branden in 80 percent of the districts.

The decision was already made in the primary because the district is already safe for a Democrat or safe for a Republican. So the most important election today is virtually always the party primary, which means that's the constituency that our representatives are answering to when they're legislating. They're not answering to the needs of the entire district. They're answering to the narrow swath of party primary voters, and that gives them no freedom. So now what we're going to do is when we have five vote getters advance to the general election, we've made the general election the most important election there is.

And when we combine that with ranked choice voting, which I'm sure we'll talk about in a moment, you create a situation where the legislature can really look at the broader needs of everybody in the district and can, you know, be in a situation to creatively and innovatively address problems in a way that nobody can right now. I mean, those of us in business are very useful in any of our jobs. Actually, we're very used to. Needing to perform our jobs well in order to keep them.

And the conundrum in our current political system is that the people who are elected have to perform their jobs well, only in the view of that tiny swath of more ideological party primary voters, as well as special interests who may fund their campaigns. And that's who they have to answer to. So instead of complaining about that, let's just change it so that now the votes in the general election and the votes of the entire population, the district, become more important then special interests and a small number of party primary voters.

Branden Harvey: And that's a great segue to the main election, the opportunity for rank choice voting in the general. Tell me a little bit more about rank choice voting. This is something that I geek out about and I'm so excited to talk about with you.

Katherine Gehl: So there's something really interesting about how we vote right now in America. And our rule is whoever gets the most votes wins now on its face. That sounds totally rational, but I want to point out how irrational it actually is. So way back historically, when our country started, there were really other examples of democracies. Right? So our founders and framers had to figure out how we should choose the winner. And they just copied some countryside elections in Britain, which was this whoever gets the most votes wins.

And that's called plurality voting. And that can work fine, except whenever you have an election of more than two candidates, it means that someone could win with less than true majority support. So, for example, in a three way race, a candidate could win with thirty four percent of the race winning. The other two candidates each had thirty three percent. So that was really close, with sixty six percent of the people wanted someone else. And yet you now have a winner.

And that seems kind of unfair or undemocratic. And I have sympathy with that. But the real problem, if we care about results and solving problems in Washington, D.C., is that when you run your elections that way. You eliminate the opportunity for new competitors. Here's why, let's say you're a Democrat and a Republican running and that's going to be the two way race. And then someone else comes in and says essentially, hey, everybody, since you're so dissatisfied with both Democrats and Republicans, how about you vote for me?

I'm going to do X, Y and Z, and I'm this new kind of candidate who's better than both of the existing options. Well, that could sound good until. It is pointed out, as it always will be, oh, you may like that new candidate, don't vote for new great candidate because they'll never have any chance of winning. And the only thing you'll do is take a vote away from the candidate you like second best and you'll accidentally end up contributing to the election of the candidate you like the least.

So let me give your listeners an example. If you think back to the presidential election of 2016, there were some people really wanted to vote for Jill Stein. She was the Green Party candidate for president, but they were really told, don't vote for her because you'll inadvertently contribute to the election of Donald Trump. You'll spoil the election for Hillary and people who wanted to vote for the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. We're told the same thing in the other direction, which is don't vote for Gary Johnson because you'll take votes away from Trump and spoil the election for him and help elect Hillary Clinton.

So with this dynamic, no one can ever compete against the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, because new competition is always a spoiler. So we have to get rid of that, because if there's no new competition, then the two parties can continue to win just by being the lesser of two evils. And that's why they don't have to do what needs doing, so creating the opportunity for new competition is absolutely critical for us to start solving problems and get ourselves on a different trajectory.

So long story short, how you create an opportunity for new competition is by instituting rank choice voting. You're going to take those five candidates. You rank them all the way from your first choice. Oh, my goodness, I love that candidate. I hope they win to your fifth choice, something akin to over my dead body.

I want that person to, you know, to be my senator. And then when the polls close, you just create a series of instant runoffs. It's very simple. They counterspell the first place votes. And if someone out of those five has a true majority, over 50 percent, well, no problem. The election is over. That person wins. But if nobody of the five has over 50 percent, then the candidate who came in last place has dropped.

And if you had selected that candidate who's now out of the race, your vote is transferred to your next choice, who's still in the running, and we continue doing that, as I said, in a series of instant runoffs, until we elect the candidate with the broadest appeal to the most number of voters. That in and of itself is a good result. But also what it means is that now no candidate is a spoiler. So we will see new competition and when we see no competition.

One of a couple of things is going to happen, either that new competition is going to start winning and do a better job in Washington, D.C., and they're going to, you know, eventually create their own party in a sense, or the threat of their ascendancy will simply basically force existing parties, Democrats or Republicans, to finally do a good job at solving our problems. And I'm neutral as to which of those ends up happening either.

Branden Harvey: Sounds great to me.

Katherine Gehl: No problem.

Branden Harvey: And it sounds to me like there might even be this whole secondary benefit of like right now, just paying attention to political races is exhausting and terrifying. And there's a lot of division. But perhaps because, you know, you get to rank your first choice and your second choice in your third choice, candidates will be a little bit nicer to each other. There might be some more public compliments because, you know, I may have my first choice, but that other candidate who's being nice to my candidate, I might put them as my second choice.

And it becomes this strategy where it actually perhaps benefits you to start, you know, quote unquote, reaching across the aisle even before you're elected because you can appeal to more people. And I think it might just make our lives a little bit happier during election years.

Katherine Gehl: Yeah, there's absolutely a piece of that, this likelihood for more civil campaigning, because what we want to understand is that people competing in politics are every bit as rational as how we compete in, let's say, a for profit businesses.

So right now, it makes a lot of sense when there's only one other choice to not only build yourself and your side up, but to demonize the other side, because then even if you're not doing such a great job, at least you're better than those really awful people. So this challenge in a country when there's only two choices of making everything such a binary. All good or all bad choice really contributes to exacerbates and reinforces, you know, division that may arise naturally, even from other reasons.

So we need to to get out of this what Lee Drutman has called the doom loop of two party politics. We need to create an opportunity for new entrants to come in because again, then we have competition to hold the two parties accountable, but we also diminish the benefit of demonizing the other side.

Branden Harvey: And I think that that brings me to my final question, which is if we implement this, if we bring this to life, like what does this more hopeful future look like? What are we able to take on that we can't right now? And what reason do we have to feel optimistic about what's to come?

Katherine Gehl: It's amazing, even in these really, really tough times because of the work that I do, I can look at my daughter, who's 15. I can look at my son, who's three, and tell them that there is a brighter future ahead, because once we align the system to reward solving problems, that's actually what will get. So once we understand that this isn't the only way it has to be, then optimism can replace the depression that we have right now and we can change these rules, send people to Washington, D.C., with a different set of incentives, and then expect them to solve these tough problems.

Now, here's what I'll tell you. I am not promising some kind of democratic utopia where everything is easy to figure out. We have hard problems. I mean, if they weren't really hard problems, even the existing system would have solved them. There are tradeoffs to our problems are pros and cons. And that's the way it is in today's society, but also that's the way it is in a democracy, in a diverse country where we have to figure out how we all want to share this country together.

So Winston Churchill is known to say that democracy is the worst form of government out there except when compared to all the others. So what I will say about this is if we change our system to have final five voting, we will still have a democracy and it will still be messy and hard. But right now we have messy, hard and really bad results.

With final five voting, we can have messy, hard and some good results to show for all of that. And that is the definition of utopia for democracy. Messy, hard and good results.

Branden Harvey: Wow, I just learned so much about this new way of voting, and I I really wish that this was the reality everywhere because it just makes sense.

We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, Catherine is going to share simple steps for how you and me can get involved in changing our election system for the better.

And it's actually more simple than I expected. We'll be right back.

--

Branden Harvey: I am just so inspired by this idea of having a better election system that works for the people and is the kind of thing that I know many of our listeners are wondering how they can be a part of making this happen. And so that's my question for you. How do we begin to get this implemented? And specifically, what can we do this year and next year to lead to this being the reality on perhaps even a national level in our lifetimes?

Katherine Gehl: Thomas Jefferson is sometimes credited with saying that we don't have government by the majority here in America. We have government by the majority who participate. And historically, at least for me, I always thought that meant I needed to participate by voting and maybe by supporting a particular candidate or a policy. But I now realize that it really also means we have to participate in the design of the rules of the game, the design of our political system. The Constitution is short, it's tiny. It fits in a pocket. Right. These people are pulling out their pocket constitutions.

So here's the key. The Constitution, Article 1 delegates the ability to make all the rules about elections to each state. So the current system that we have of party primaries and plurality voting isn't in the Constitution has nothing to do with that. And it's totally available. The power to change it is available to us. So essentially, each state will change these rules individually and any state could use legislation. The state legislature passes the law, the governor passes the bill, the governor signs it into law.

And then you have those rules changed for how you elect Congress in your state in half the states. We also have the option of putting the question on the ballot. So if you can't get the legislature to pass the bill or the governor to sign it, then in half the states you can put a question on the ballot by getting enough signatures from citizens of that state. And then at the next election, the voters will not just vote on candidates.

Also have an opportunity to vote yes or no on final five voting. And through a combination of legislative changes in some states and ballot initiatives and others, we will see final five elections, final five voting expand across the country. But Branden, here's what's fascinating. We don't need to get final five voting in every state in order to begin to see some different behavior in Washington, D.C., because if you can imagine five states passing final five voting, you'd have 10 senators already. They will still have their ideology.

And so they should and they should have their passion, their beliefs, but they will now be in Washington, D.C. with that passion and belief, but now responding to their entire district now knowing that they can make a compromise here or there and not automatically lose the election. And now having the freedom to work on behalf of the people and having solving problems for those people be the key to their reelection, which means that they will behave differently, whereas right now lockstep orthodoxy with their party leadership is really the only option available to them.

And we see that all the time. When Democrats line up on one side of an issue and Republicans line up on the other side, now they can work together. What a novel concept.

And when you have 10 people working together out of 100 senators, that already makes a big difference. So here's what individuals can do. Yes, please.

Yes, you can join the campaign in your state for final five voting. Or if there's not one, you can found one. I actually encourage people to go to my website, which is political-innovation.org. And there you can get in touch with us and we can let you know if there's a campaign for final five voting in your state. And if there isn't one, we can work with you to see if you're the right person who wants to be the founder of that campaign.

And that's really how it's going to happen. I mean, this is going to be led by citizen leaders. It's incredibly exciting. It's amazing to me. That what is the most powerful innovation, which is to implement final five voting also turns out to be in the scheme of things, relatively achievable. I'm not saying to you or to your listeners that we need a constitutional amendment. I'm not telling you we need Congress to agree on this. I'm not even saying that in in half the states, we don't even need a single politician to agree we can make this happen.

Branden Harvey: That's amazing. I'm so energized by this and I am just so excited to hear listeners' stories of of those who have stepped up to implement this in their states and their communities. And I just want to thank you for leading the way on this, for sharing your wisdom and providing us the action steps to get involved. I feel more hopeful already. So thank you, Catherine.

Katherine Gehl: Oh, thank you, Branden. I feel optimistic about this every day, and particularly when I have a chance to talk to people like you and to know that others are listening who are ready to do what we need in our country. And I'm ready to do it alongside you and all the others. So super fun.

--

Branden Harvey: That's Katherine Gale, the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation and the co-author of The Politics Industry How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.

You can learn more and find out how to push for ranked choice voting in your community on the institute's website, political-innovation.org

This podcast was created by Good Good Good at Good Good Good. We help you feel more hopeful and do more good. You can find more good news and ways to make a difference in our weekly email newsletter, our beautiful print Goodnewspaper or online at Good Good Good Dotcom.

This episode was created by Kailey Thompson, Megan Burns, Chad Michael Snavely, and me Branden Harvey. Please do us a favor by leaving a review wherever you listen to podcasts, hit the subscribe button so you don't miss a single episode. And when you find an episode you love, please share it on Instagram so we can repost you.

That's a wrap for this week's episode. Go out and create some political change and we'll be back next week with more good news and good action Sounds Good.

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Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Every week, Good Good Good founder Branden Harvey sits down with the people driving positive change against the world's greatest problems. Each episode will leave you with a sense of hope about the good in the world — and a sense of direction on how we can all be a part of that good. Episodes are released every Monday.

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