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I want to split the difference between Marcus’ points and yours, Alisha. Let me start by limiting the scope to shifting the actions of the US government to better align with the needs and desires of the people without getting into prospects beyond representative democracy. There are many factors causing the current misalignment, but I believe the two largest in that context are vote splitting in elections and simple majority rules in legislatures.

Vote Splitting in Elections:
The simplest example of vote splitting would be a  an election with three candidates: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Darth Vader. Most voters who support Luke also support Leia and vice versa, but hardly any of them like Vader. When Election Day comes, nearly 60% of voters support both of the Skywalker twins, but since they are only allowed to support a single candidate at a time with their vote, they collectively end up splitting their votes between Luke and Leia. The final results are Luke with 35%, Leia with 25%, and Vader with 40%; Vader is elected even though a clear majority of voters dislike him.

Vote splitting can get deeper and more complex when there are more candidates, but the fundamental result of an electoral system with vote splitting is the trend toward electing polarizing candidates. This is because polarizing candidates gain stronger, more isolated support among their voters and stronger animosity from everyone else. Because voters are only able to support a single candidate at a time anyway and because that support is expressed on their ballot as either full-on or not-at-all with no nuance, polarizing candidates with huge sums of money perform the best under systems with high levels of vote splitting. The downstream effects of having our government filled with polarizing politicians is the misalignment I was referring to at the beginning; the distribution of voters in political space is, like most everything, a (multi-dimensional) bell curve. Of course, having polarizing leaders causes that distribution to shift — it may be double-peaked in the US right now — but it’s always important to consider the people who don’t vote and why they don’t vote when talking about political distribution. Many of the reasons people don’t vote in the US can be indirectly affected by eliminating vote splitting.

Fortunately, vote splitting is caused by a solvable engineering problem that I’ve already bolded twice: only allowing voters to support a single candidate at a time. This broken mechanic — potentially invented because the ancient Greeks voted with pebbles and jars instead of auditable paper trails — feeds the toxic idea that we can only advocate for one group or one set of ideas at a time. In reality, most voters would support multiple candidates if the good ones didn’t have to fear splitting the vote. It’s the math of the method, not a vice of the voters or a crime of the candidates.

So, what’s the solution? There are many, but the simplest, as Marcus highlighted, is to remove the (arbitrary) restriction on our ballots that only allows voters to support a single candidate at a time. This leads to Approval Voting. By allowing voters to support multiple candidates at the same time, polarizing candidates are systemically disempowered and unifying candidates that draw broad support across the entire electorate are boosted in comparison.

Again to Marcus’ point, Approval Voting is a great “budget” reform for jurisdictions that currently use Choose-one Voting, are resistant to change, and have limited legally viable options for voting method reform. For jurisdictions that have more options or are currently on Ranked Choice (Instant Runoff) Voting (which does not eliminate vote splitting because voters can only support one candidate at a time in each distinct runoff round), STAR Voting and Condorcet methods like Ranked Robin are even better upgrades.

Simple Majority Rules in Legislatures:
However, as you pointed out, Alisha, this is only half of the puzzle. Polarization is also amplified by the way our legislatures run. In a similar vein as candidates running under Choose-one Voting, policy is subject to the inherent polarizing effects of simple majority. When  a given proposal only needs support from half of the electorate (the electorate being legislators in this case), those proposals perform best by ignoring the needs and desires of the other half of the electorate. It is simple strategy, and the result of this strategy is the enactment of polarizing (read: fringe) policy, which does not align with the needs and desires of the people.

How do we fix this issue? Once again, it’s mechanical. Instead of having only one proposal at a time be put to an up-or-down vote, legislatures should vote on multiple different proposals simultaneously. Practically, this would look like selecting an issue that needs to be addressed and a timeline leading up to the vote. For example, the goal could be “reducing domestic gun deaths” and the timeline would include two months of drafting proposals followed by a week of “campaigning” for different proposals within the legislature by dedicating 2 hours per day on the floor through that week to the specific issue. Over the course of that week, feedback is taken, adjustments are made, and proposals with more than, say, 15% of the legislature cosponsoring make it into the “ballot”. At the end of the week, legislators use Score Voting or STAR Voting to vote on all of the different proposals at the same time. The winning proposal gets sent. As an extra measure, an additional up-or-down vote on the winning proposal could be made, but it should always require a supermajority to pass. That supermajority threshold could be anywhere from 60% to 90%, but the point is that comprehensive proposals can often easily gain an additional 10 to 20 percentage points of support once they cross a critical threshold of around 70% to 80% support — that is, the graph of effort to gain more support dependent on how much support a proposal already has is wonky and has a dip in it toward the right end.

Now, in the US, I think voting method reform is far more viable right now than changing the rules of US Congress to the concept I’ve described here, but having better representatives and educating the public on the fundamental concept that “Majority is not democracy. Democracy is about building consensus.” could potentially lead to legislatures at different levels adopt this method someday.