Senator Tim Kaine has a new Washington Post op-ed entitled The Jan. 6 attack demands that we protect voting rights, in which he says: “Only by passing comprehensive voting rights legislation can we live up to th[e] responsibility” to protect democracy from another attempt to subvert it like the one that occurred on January 6.
The problem with Kaine’s argument is that while the right to cast a ballot, and to have it counted as cast, is necessary if democracy is to survive in the United States, safeguarding these voting rights does not suffice. Perfect protection of these essential voting rights does not address what I’ve called the “Portman problem” and now “the Gonzalez problem”: the structural flaw of partisan primaries combined with plurality-winner general elections.
This structural flaw enables an authoritarian-leaning faction within one of the two major parties to win for its candidate the party’s nomination in its primary, beating a non-authoritarian primary opponent who would have been the “Condorcet winner” in the general election. The authoritarian-leaning major-party nominee then goes on to prevail in the plurality-winner general election, because the “Condorcet winner” was knocked out in the primary and has no way of prevailing in the general election as most majority-preferred candidate (which the Condorcet winner is) given that the general election awards the office to a plurality winner and does not require a show of majority support. In this way, the plurality-winner rule for general elections, combined with the antecedent partisan primaries, enables an authoritarian faction that only has minority support within the electorate overall (and whose candidate is not the Condorcet winner) to capture government power.
If America is going to protect itself from the risk of another January 6, it is going to need to fix this structural flaw. As is altogether too obvious, and is exemplified by Anthony Gonzales withdrawing from his reelection bid to avoid a Trump-inspired primary fight, Trump is endeavoring to exploit this structural flaw to recapture political power even though he represents only a minority faction and lacks majority support in the November electorate (statewide or district-specific, as in the Portman or Gonzalez examples). If he is able to use this structural flaw to take control of Secretary of State offices, governorships, and U.S. Senate and House seats, then his authoritarian-leaning minority faction is positioned to repudiate the result of the 2024 presidential election based on a “Big Lie 2.0” and the systematic plague of electoral McCarthyism he has been spreading.
I have no doubt Senator Kaine is well-intentioned. But he is misdiagnosing the threat and the remedy necessary to address it. Making sure every voter can cast a ballot in the midterms, and counting those ballots correctly, does not solve the Portman-Gonzalez problem. (Even ending gerrymandering does not suffice, since the “Portman problem” applies to statewide as well as district-specific elections.) To adequately address the current danger of incipient authoritarianism to America democracy, it is necessary to eliminate plurality-winner general elections, which Congress is constitutionally empowered to do for U.S. Senate and House seats. Regrettably, however, Senator Kaine’s Freedom to Vote bill makes no effort to do that.