Barney Frank, Liz Cheney, Rob Portman & Democracy

Barney Frank, the long-time member of Congress from Massachusetts whose memoirs every student of politics should read (or better yet listen to, since Frank narrates the audiobook), has written an ingenious op-ed for The Washington Post on Liz Cheney’s battle to win reelection to her House seat despite the GOP’s all-out effort to replace her with a Trump loyalist.

Frank’s two-part proposal is that, first, Cheney pull out of the Republican primary, which she’s likely to lose, and run as an independent, and second, that Democrats refrain from running their own candidate, so that the November general election can be a one-on-one match between Cheney and the Trump loyalist.

Frank’s purpose is to make the Wyoming election a referendum on democracy itself, with all the state’s voters having a choice between two candidates equally conservative on all issues of public policy, but one (Cheney) committed to safeguarding the procedures of democracy itself while the other (the Trump loyalist) willing to destroy democracy in service of Trump and his Big Lie.

Frank’s idea is a superb solution for the specific problem of Cheney’s race, since (as he forthrightly acknowledges) the Democrats have no chance of winning this Wyoming seat and thus can serve the cause of democracy by backing Cheney in the general election over her Trump loyalist opponent.

But Cheney’s specific problem is just one glaring example of the deeper structural flaw in America’s electoral system–the fact that the plurality-winner rule to decide the outcome of the general election can deny victory to the candidate most preferred by a majority of the general election’s voters–and Frank’s proposal, as clever as it is for handling this one Wyoming race, does not address the systemic threat to American democracy that the plurality-winner rule poses in the current Trump-afflicted condition of American politics.

Frank’s proposal is built on the basic truth that Cheney very well might be capable of winning the November election against the Trump loyalist winner of the GOP primary even stipulating that Cheney will be unable to beat that same Trump loyalist opponent in the GOP primary itself. This is true for at least true reasons. First, the voters in the general election are not the same as the voters in the primary; by definition, November’s voters are the state’s entire electorate, whereas the primary’s voters are only those wishing to participate as GOP partisans. Second, and even more significant, unless Democrats refrain from supporting their own candidate in the way Frank suggests, votes in November for the Democrat would siphon off voters for Cheney, making the Trump loyalist the November plurality winner even if Cheney would be the majority winner of a one-on-one November match against the Trump loyalist.

Thus, Frank’s proposal exposes the serious defect with Wyoming’s, and most of America’s, existing electoral system: the combination of a party primary followed by a plurality-winner general election can cause the candidate whom a majority of general-election voters most prefer to be knocked out in the party primary and thus no longer an option for the general-election voters to choose. In this way, the basic premise of holding democratic elections, so that a majority of voters can have their preference prevail, is negated.

This serious defect is hardly confined to Wyoming but rather exists throughout the entire United States. I have called it the “Portman problem” because Ohio’s retiring Senator, Rob Portman, is another useful illustration. Portman is not retiring because he’s unpopular with Ohio’s general election voters. If this year’s November midterm were a one-on-one match between Portman and whichever Trump loyalist wins the GOP primary (Josh Mandel is ahead in the polls), Portman most likely would easily triumph; without any third candidate to support, Democrats, independents, and enough non-Trump Republicans would rally behind Portman to defeat the Trump loyalist.

Portman almost certainly would also win a one-on-one November match against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Tim Ryan. Ohio has become a red enough state, and Portman has track record of defeating Democrats (like former governor Ted Strickland, by over 20 points in 2016). The state’s GOP voters may now prefer a Trump loyalist (like Mandel) to Portman, which is why he’d have trouble winning his own party’s primary despite his overall statewide popularity, but if faced with a head-to-head choice between Portman and Ryan, enough GOP voters would continue to support Portman that he’d undoubtedly prevail.

Thus, Portman is the candidate a majority of Ohio’s general election voters would most prefer when compared against all the candidates currently running from either party. Yet the existing structural arrangement of party primaries followed by a plurality-winner general election blocks Portman from being able to run as an independent in November, so that he can demonstrate this majority preference of the state’s general election voters. Like Cheney, Portman may be who his state’s voters most want, but the existing system doesn’t enable him to prove it.

One could contemplate the possibility of applying Barney Frank’s solution to the Portman problem: Tim Ryan could drop out of the race, and Democrats could back Portman’s independent November candidacy against the Trump loyalist who emerges from the GOP primary. But to consider this possibility even for just one second is to dismiss it immediately. While Tim Ryan and the Democrats will have an uphill battle in the fall, they still have something of a fighting chance in Ohio (unlike in Wyoming), especially if the GOP nominates the craziest of its Trump-loyal contenders (as it currently seems most likely to do). Thus, it would be a non-starter to suggest that Ryan and the Democrats abandon the Ohio Senate race as part of an effort to recruit a bid by Portman to win reelection as an independent.

But the upshot of Ohio’s Senate race still might be Josh Mandel beating Tim Ryan. This of course would be a huge defeat for democracy itself, given the anti-democracy nature of Mandel’s especially enthusiastic embrace of Trump’s Big Lie. And it would not mean Ohio’s voters are inherently anti-democratic; rather, as already explained, if given the choice between anti-democracyMandel and pro-democracy Portman, the state’s November voters surely would prefer Portman to Mandel.

So, if you like Barney Frank’s idea for Wyoming and realize it won’t work for Ohio, you still need to come up with a solution for the Portman problem. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. The same structural defect that threatens Cheney even if she’s the majority choice of her state’s voters is what also currently prevents the election of the majority choice in Ohio and elsewhere around the country. We can’t protect democracy from the threat of a Trumpian takeover without solving this problem nationally, not just to keep Liz Cheney in Congress.

Any extra ideas besides Frank’s? Here’s two: (1) Congress require that candidates receive a majority, not just plurality, of November votes to win a seat in Congress; and (2) as part of implementing this majority-winner requirement, states experiment with “round robin voting” as the specific version of Ranked Choice Voting best suited to identifying the candidate most preferred by a majority of voters (because “round robin voting” is structured to identify the candidate who does best against all others one-on-one).

Share this: