Henry Olsen on Alaska’s RCV system

I hope Mitch McConnell and other GOP Senators read Henry Olsen’s new Washington Post column. As regular readers of his columns know, Olsen is no RINO. (See, for example, his GOP-promoting column of August 15.) What’s distinctive and important about Olsen’s latest piece is that he makes the argument that electoral reform along the lines of Alaska’s new RCV system would help McConnell and the GOP become the majority leader and party, respectively, in the Senate. It would do this by avoiding binary choices in November between an MAGA-extreme GOP nominee and a conventional Democrat, where the Democrat is more likely to win; instead, opening up the November competition to a non-extreme Republican (like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski), along with the Trump-endorsed MAGA candidate and the conventional Democrat, increases the chances of a GOP winner in November. This not only gives McConnell a greater chance of the Senate having non-MAGA Republicans more like him, it also means it more likely that the Senate will have Republican members period, appealing to McConnell’s self- and partisan- interest of becoming Majority Leader again.

Here’s how Olsen puts the point, using Arizona as an example–and although he mentions specifically the state’s gubernatorial race, the point applies to the state’s Senate race as well, where MAGA candidate Blake Masters might lose to Democrat Mark Kelly, but a more moderate Republican, who would be among the top 4 finishers under Alaska’s new system might have a better chance:

The forced choice between extremes in other states is the only reason Trump-backed Republicans such as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake have a prayer in the general election. Many Republicans who backed Lake’s erstwhile opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, will hold their noses and vote for the crude demagogue to avoid electing the Democrat. Robson would still be on the ballot under Alaska’s system — and could have defeated Lake when votes for other GOP candidates or independents, who don’t normally vote in primaries, decide whom they like best.”

Even if widespread adoption of Alaska’s new system is in Mitch McConnell’s self-interest, he’s unlikely to support the idea of Congress mandating the system nationwide. That’s because doing so would contravene his sense of federalism; it would be too much congressional intrusion on a state’s choice of how to conduct elections, even congressional elections. But McConnell wouldn’t have to have Congress insist that all states adopt Alaska’s system. He could serve his partisan- and self- interests almost as effectively by having Congress require states to choose among alternative forms of majority-winner electoral systems, of which Alaska would be one among many options. That would be consistent with McConnell’s view of federalism: essentially, he could have his cake and eat it too.

Now, one must ask: if a particular reform proposal is good for Mitch McConnell, why would congressional Democrats want to enact it? Answer: because Democrats profess that they want to protect democracy itself from MAGA extremism. The sincerity of this profession has, unfortunately, come under serious question this summer, with the Democratic Party spending money to help election denialist and other MAGA-extremist candidates beat their non-MAGA Republican opponents in GOP primaries. But the backlash to this hypocritical and dangerous tactic has been swift and severe, including from some leading Democrats. So, if Democrats are true to their professed goal of protecting democracy itself from election denialism and MAGA extremism, then they should join forces with McConnell (once he reads Olsen’s new column and realizes why electoral reform is advantageous from his perspective) and enact a majority-winner requirement with a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, sending it to the House for its pro-democracy adoption by Democrats there.

Democrats can still win elections under Alaska’s new system. They just need for a majority of the electorate to prefer them to either the MAGA or non-MAGA Republicans, depending on which type of Republican does better in the ranked-choice process. That might be more of a challenge than just running against extremists; but it’s worth it to save democracy because of the key point that Olsen emphasizes in his column: the fact that, under the traditional electoral system many Republican and independent voters, who would prefer a non-MAGA candidate, may end up “holding their noses” to vote for the MAGA candidate on the November ballot, rather than the Democrat. For the same reason that spending money to help MAGA candidates win GOP primaries may backfire disastrously, a calculated desire by Democrats to avoid Alaska-style electoral reform because it might make the competition stiffer could also backfire, preventing the adoption of the reform that could best protect democracy itself.

Maybe it’s a pie-in-the-sky dream to hope that McConnell and Democrats can reach a deal for a majority-winner requirement. But given the widespread recognition of the threat that democracy in America currently faces, including what prominent historians have been telling President Biden, one has to hope that the nation will find some solution to the current predicament.

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