Laboratories and Principles

In the depths of the Great Depression, the Supreme Court heard a case contesting an Oklahoma law requiring companies to have a license to sell ice. It was an unremarkable legal proceeding and would have soon been forgotten by history were it not for Justice Louis Brandeis’s opining on the benefits of federalism in his dissent. He wrote: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory.”1

Through individual states, America can experiment with new rules and processes to see what works best, particularly toward our first priority: electoral innovation. In the early twentieth century, the inventiveness of Thomas Edison’s fabled Menlo Park was rivaled by the Progressive Era’s “laboratories of democracy,” which patented a line of political innovations that included secret ballots, direct democracy, regulations on campaign donations, and many more.

Today, from coast to coast, the states are reinvigorated yet again, churning out twenty-first-century innovations that address the problematic structures of the politics industry—plurality voting and the partisan primaries—that are stifling our democracy, our economy, and our quality of life. On the legislative-machinery front, while the avenue for innovation runs directly through Congress, there are lesser-known, torchbearer examples of legislative innovation from the states worth studying, along with a glimmer of activity in our nation’s capital.

This chapter explores and connects the efforts of these early innovators and draws from their impressive victories—and crucial failures—to inform guiding principles and nonnegotiables for electoral and legislative innovation. As you read, keep in mind that the number of activated American laboratories will only increase over the coming years. Additionally, the guiding principles and nonnegotiables we have created and outlined in this chapter are also embryonic; best practices must evolve and grow with the movement itself.

Electoral Innovation Laboratories:
From Washington to Maine

As we said earlier, the Constitution delegates to the states the authority to make most of the rules governing elections—even congressional elections. Of course, in the case of Final-Five Voting, if Congress were so inclined, it could change the rules for its own elections.2 Not surprisingly, we do not rate this action as highly likely, so we take our movement to the states, tailoring and sequencing our tactics to the conditions on the ground.* (As you’ll see later in this chapter, an important guiding principle is “localize, localize, localize.”) Depending on the unique circumstances of each state, two major approaches—legislative action and ballot measures—can be used to achieve political innovation around elections:

  • Legislative action: In every state, political innovation can be achieved through legislative action. Like any law, legislation to restructure the political rules of the game must be drafted, passed by the state legislature, and then signed by the governor. While state politicians may be reluctant to upend the system that elected them, they ultimately work for us. If enough citizens across powerful constituencies demand change, elected officials will be forced to respond. And because many officials agree that Washington is broken and the prospect of a more doable and enjoyable job is appealing, the action becomes more viable as the volume of support increases.
  • Ballot initiatives or referenda: In twenty-four states, there is an extra tool for political innovation: direct democracy, another Progressive Era accomplishment.3 With direct democracy, citizens can bypass politicians and directly vote on legislation. The process is straightforward. First, a proposal is placed on the ballot in one of two ways. With ballot referenda, a bill is first proposed by a representative in the state legislature. But rather than vote on the bill themselves, legislators can opt to refer the proposal to the ballot box for citizens to decide whether it will become law. With ballot initiatives, citizens themselves draft the proposal and place it on the ballot, most often through a signature collection process.4 Second, once a proposal has been placed on the ballot, voters on Election Day are asked not only to vote for the candidates they favor, but also to vote for or against the proposal. If a proposal receives majority support, it becomes law. Most ballot measures deal with particular policies, like California’s 1978 Proposition 13, which placed a limit on property taxes. Ballot measures are currently the leading tool to pass structural political innovations.

A handful of states have already won major electoral-machinery victories around voting-system reforms.5 As explained earlier, although top-five primaries (half of our recommended package) have yet to be implemented, two states, Washington and California, have taken the first step by moving to top-two nonpartisan, single primaries. Their efforts mirror our proposal but with only the top two candidates advancing to the general election.6

Washington: The First Mover

The State of Washington’s electoral innovation started early on when it created the blanket primary in 1935.7 Just like partisan primaries, under the blanket-primary system, the top vote-getter of each party advanced to the general election as his or her party’s nominee. But unlike closed partisan primaries, voters were not restricted to choosing only Democrats or Republicans. Instead, if they wanted, citizens could vote for a Republican in the gubernatorial primary and a Democrat in the Senate primary, or a Democrat in their state assembly primary and a Republican in the US House primary.

But in 2003, after the system was in use for nearly seventy years, the courts used a recent precedent to strike down Washington’s primary system, in Democratic Party of Washington v. Reed.8 Facing a return to closed, partisan primaries, Washington devised a work-around. Rather than have the top finisher from each party advance to the general election, the state created a new system in which the top two finishers would move forward, regardless of party. Top-two primaries were created.9

The first top-two bill passed in the Washington state Senate but stalled in the House, where the Speaker of the state House refused to hold a vote. Then, in 2004, the bill made it through both chambers of the state legislature, only to be vetoed by the Democratic governor on April 1. Hearing news of the veto, supporters of top-two initially thought it must be an April Fools’ joke.10 But it wasn’t funny at all.

Thankfully, citizens took charge, first by passing the reform via a ballot initiative and then by successfully defending it against a lawsuit backed by the duopoly (Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party).11 In 2008, the US Supreme Court cemented Washington’s victory, ruling that top-two primaries did not violate the parties’ asserted right to pick their own nominees. In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas attacked the parties’ argument, writing that to strike down primary reform would be an “extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people.”12 With that decision, the path was paved for top-two primaries to travel down the Pacific Coast Highway to the most populous state in the union: California.

California: Better Electoral Incentives

The State of California was in crisis throughout the 2000s. Government was failing to solve the state’s mounting problems. Unemployment was rampant, infrastructure was crumbling, deficits ballooned, the state’s bonds were rated the worst in the nation, and the state was plagued with power outages. All the while, the legislature regularly failed to perform the basic task of reaching a budget deal to keep the government’s lights on, because of a deadly mix of ideological polarization and hyper-partisanship.

During this period, the California legislature ranked among the most polarized in the country.13 The memory of compromise faded as party-line votes became the norm.14 Partisan rancor reached such an extreme that a small working group of solutions-oriented Democratic and Republican assembly members who wanted to work together to solve the state’s mounting challenges was forced to meet in secret.15 Fearing punishment from party leadership and primary voters, no one wanted to be seen conspiring with the enemy. Citizens suffered as a result. Pew Charitable Trusts’ Governmental Performance Project ranked the California legislature as the worst in the nation.16 By 2010, its approval hit a record low of 14 percent.17 Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called California “ungovernable.”18

It was ungovernable, given the rules of the game. After the 2000 census, the two parties drew electoral maps that protected incumbents and eliminated real competition. Districts had been so packed full of members of one party or the other that the winners in nearly 80 percent of races were completely decided in the low-turnout partisan primaries that were put in place after the US Supreme Court struck down the blanket-primary system.19 Election Day in November was little more than a coronation. Under this system, politicians were pushed to the fringes as the views of extreme primary voters were all that counted. Average citizens had no power. Despite the dismal outcomes and public disgust, just two incumbents across all state legislative and congressional races were defeated between 2002 and 2010.20

So, Californians changed the rules. Following Washington’s lead, the state mobilized an effort to eliminate its new party-primary system. After an initial attempt to enact top-two primaries through a ballot initiative failed in 2004 by a vote of 54 to 46 percent, a Sacramento group that was part of the Independent Voter Project launched a multiyear study of what had gone wrong.21 Determined not to make the same mistakes again, it began the push for a new initiative in 2008.

While getting on the ballot through signatures could be a lengthy and costly process, the group had an ally with political leverage. When budget negotiations broke down yet again in 2009, the Democratic majority courted moderate Republican state senator Abel Maldonado, who promised to support the budget deal only if Democrats in the legislature referred primary reform to the upcoming ballot in exchange, thereby mitigating the need to collect signatures. Desperate, they agreed.22

It seemed a small price to pay. The ballot measure, they thought, was destined to fail. And although the Economist was supportive of Maldonado’s efforts, in early 2009 the publication predicted: “His initiative is probably doomed. Every special interest group that benefits from the current system, of which there are many, [will] fund the campaign against it.”23 The hurdles were no doubt high. Yet this political calculus overlooked the champions of the public interest on the other side of the ledger. As the campaign kicked off, the Independent Voter Project started a voter education effort targeting unaffiliated independents, who had often been overlooked, particularly in California’s closed primary elections, where they could not even vote. Prominent current and former politicians came out in support, including then Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Democratic governor Gray Davis. Major media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle endorsed top-two primaries. Civic groups, including the California branches of the Chamber of Commerce, American Association of Retired Persons, and Common Cause lent a hand. All their support was needed, as the Democratic and Republican Parties united in opposition. Through public pronouncements and backroom maneuvers, the duopoly tried to sabotage reform.

In June 2010, when all the votes were counted, the percentages were the same as they had been six years earlier: 54 to 46 percent.24 But this time, the script was flipped. The measure had passed. Since its passage, the duopoly has not warmed to the idea of nonpartisan primaries.

Voters have taken a different view. As discussed in chapter five, support for nonpartisan primaries has only grown as its benefits have become clear.25 After the reform, California elections ranked among the most competitive in the country.26 In previously uncompetitive red and blue districts, numerous incumbents have lost to their own respective party members who placed second in the nonpartisan primary and won in November by reaching beyond their party’s base.27 In the first use of the new primary system, for example, incumbent Democrat Michael Allen was unseated by fellow Democrat Marc Levine, whose moderate platform allowed him to cobble together a winning coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.28

Changing who is elected, however, is less important than changing what politicians get done while in office. Here, the impact has been dramatic. By shifting incentives, top-two primaries―combined with nonpartisan redistricting reform and the emergent fulcrum of solutions-oriented candidates backed by Govern for California―have altered behavior in Sacramento. While states across the country continued to become more polarized, ideological extremism and party-line voting has declined in California.29 New electoral incentives have opened the door for bipartisan deals on emissions standards, gun violence, immigration reform, and more.30 “It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues,” said a Republican legislator reflecting on the difference that primary reform has made. “They were afraid of getting primaried. Now, it’s not just their [partisan] base they have to appeal to.”31

The New York Times reported, “Democrats may also be changing. The state Chamber of Commerce reported last month that thirty-nine of the forty bills it had described as ‘job-killing’—regulatory legislation that typically was supported by Democrats—had been defeated this year. ‘In the freshman class, a lot of the folks had moderate voting records,’ said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat who was elected to the State Assembly last year, evidence of the need for many legislators to appeal beyond the Democratic base.”32

Yet political innovators in California know their work is not finished. A new effort is under way to implement a close version of our Final-Five Voting package; supporters are hoping to get this on the ballot in 2024.33

Maine: Battling Political-Industrial Complex Roadblocks

The State of Maine has a long track record of eschewing partisan politics in favor of iconoclastic moderates such as George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe, and independents such as Angus King. But plurality voting has created problems for Maine, too. Nine out of the last eleven governors failed to win 50 percent support.34 These numbers include the pugnacious Paul LePage, who was first elected governor in 2010 with less than 38 percent of the vote and was reelected in 2014 while again failing to win a majority.35

In response to this affront to the democratic principle of majority rule, reformers regularly proposed ranked-choice voting (RCV) legislation in the state assembly, but to no avail. In 2010, Maine’s Sun Journal lamented that “the ranked-choice system is an interesting alternative that stands virtually no chance of approval in a Legislature dominated by the two traditional parties … [E]xpect our winner-take-all, minority-rule system―with all its warts―to be around for a long time to come.”36

A depressing prediction, but one that overlooked the full democratic tool set available to the citizens of Maine. Before polls had closed on LePage’s reelection bid, Cara Brown McCormick, a political operative turned political innovator, had decided that enough was enough. She convened a team of campaign professionals, local leaders, and average citizens across the ideological spectrum. Together, they collected over sixty thousand signatures to put RCV on the 2016 ballot.37

McCormick’s group, the Chamberlain Project, worked alongside a grassroots organization called the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting to gather endorsements from hundreds of current and former politicians from all sides, as well as business, religious, and academic leaders. Even former Vermont governor and onetime presidential hopeful Howard Dean came out in support, writing in the New York Times, “It is fitting that Maine’s motto is ‘the way life should be.’ I believe ranked-choice voting represents what democracy will be. It’s a solution to the problem of how to uphold majority rule and give more voice to voters by presenting them with more than two options.”38 Backed by this groundswell of popular support, Maine citizens passed the ballot measure in 2016, making Maine the first state to adopt RCV.

The people of Maine had pulled off a democratic coup against the political-industrial complex, but the parties didn’t take defeat lying down. A counterattack soon began. Maine’s secretary of state Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, railed against RCV and predicted that it would lead to “cars burning the streets”—even though he had to know that Maine’s largest city, Portland, had switched to RCV years earlier, and citizens there overwhelmingly support it—while he worked behind the scenes to block its implementation.39 In February 2017, the Republican-controlled state Senate asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to review and provide an advisory opinion on whether RCV violated the state constitution, pointing to a provision that precisely stated that officials were elected with a “plurality.”40 This rule had its roots in Gilded Age mayhem, when partisan militias nearly plunged the state into civil war after the Democrats in charge refused to certify the election of a Republican who had won a plurality of more than 49 percent of the vote in a three-way gubernatorial race.41 Now, in the modern age of partisan turmoil, this rule was called on to protect the duopoly from the Mainers the legislators were supposed to represent.

The court responded to the request with a nonbinding ruling that state races could not be conducted using RCV. This opinion was a godsend for the duopoly. Rather than amend the state constitution to preserve the citizens’ decision to implement RCV, the advisory opinion was used as political cover to override the people of Maine.

Four months after the legislative session had ended, Maine’s entire state legislature reconvened on October 23 for a sneaky late-night special session. Only one issue was on the docket: delaying the implementation of RCV and mandating that it be repealed entirely if a constitutional amendment were not passed before the end of 2021.42 The bill targeted not just state races, but all races, even though primaries and congressional races posed no constitutional problem. At roll call, these politicians voted to overrule the public and essentially repeal RCV. It was a blatant partisan power grab and an affront to McCormick, who watched from the gallery as years of work and the votes of hundreds of thousands of Maine’s citizens were nullified in a matter of minutes by a few dozen partisans.

But McCormick and her colleagues didn’t admit defeat. They doubled down and launched a People’s Veto campaign―taking advantage of a Progressive innovation that allows Maine citizens to veto a law passed by their legislators.43 McCormick actually drafted the press release announcing the People’s Veto from the gallery only moments after watching the law pass.

The first step was to collect sixty-one thousand signatures over the next ninety days to get RCV back on the ballot. In Maine, petitioners are allowed to collect signatures at polling places, prime venues where citizens show up in droves ready to engage with politics. If a ballot initiative in Maine wasn’t organized in time to begin the collection of signatures on Election Day, it was often dead in the water.

There was just one problem for the People’s Veto. The timing of the state legislature’s special session was not random, but instead had been planned to leave citizens little time to respond. Election Day was just two weeks away and the People’s Veto still needed to be drafted and certified by the secretary of state. After frantic scrambling to launch the effort as soon as possible, Secretary Dunlap dragged his feet, waiting until 4:45 p.m. the night before Election Day to approve the measure. The clock was ticking. The polls opened in just fourteen hours.44

What happened next, in McCormick’s words, “was magic.” That night, her team distributed the petition to copy centers throughout the state, driving hours to pass out signature pages at turnpikes and ferry docks to ensure that the team reached every polling place by morning. By the time polls closed the next day, a remarkable thirty-three thousand signatures had been collected.45

But this was only half of the signatures needed. For the next three months, almost two thousand volunteers braved frigid conditions as they stood outside grocery stores and shopping malls collecting signatures. But by February, these volunteers had collected over eighty thousand, more than enough to put the People’s Veto on the June primary ballot.46

Again, the duopoly fought back with all its power. Secretary Dunlap wrote an impossibly convoluted ballot measure designed to confuse voters. He was even sued for violating the law by stating his intention to refuse to use RCV in the June primary. Meanwhile, the Maine Republican Party filed its own lawsuits in both state and federal court to block implementation. In the final hours of the campaign, just as citizens were set to vote, Governor LePage called RCV “the most horrific thing in the world” and threatened not to certify the result.47 The duopoly’s tactics were so outrageous that a local newspaper that had initially opposed RCV published an editorial in May lambasting the parties: “There’s nothing wicked about opposing ranked choice voting. It’s a complex issue. But enough’s enough. The people … have spoken.”48

Enough was enough. The time had come for RCV. Many Nobel Prize–winning economists endorsed the People’s Veto, as did the New York Times. Social media was flooded with ads featuring popular actor Jennifer Lawrence urging support.49 On June 13, 2018, Maine voters used RCV to vote on candidates for the first time, and passed the RCV measure (again) by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, the same as California’s margin and twice the margin the measure had received in Maine two years earlier.50

The impact was immediate. In the first election using RCV, the initial vote in Maine’s Second Congressional District showed that the incumbent had won a plurality. Under the old rules, the election would have ended and the incumbent would be headed back to Washington despite the fact most voters had backed someone else. Under the new rules, the election proceeded to a second round, where the thirty-six-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jared Golden was elected with a majority of support.51 In one last-ditch effort, opponents unsuccessfully appealed the outcome of the election in federal courts. After they were defeated, Governor LePage was forced to begrudgingly certify the outcome of what he called a “stolen election.”52 Perhaps the election was stolen from the duopoly, but democracy had been restored by Maine’s citizens. Magical.

The magnitude of the nonpartisan victory was captured by Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond: “Rarely in recent American history has a political struggle so clearly exposed the gulf between a two-party duopoly that does not want more electoral choice and a public that craves it … Many reforms are needed, but ranked choice voting can be the Archimedean lever of change, enabling a small force to move a great weight.”53

As goes Maine, so goes the nation? Early returns are encouraging. Momentum is building. And as we have seen, momentum is a powerful force in political innovation. Efforts to expand RCV are already under way across the country.54 Six states plan to use RCV to select the Democratic presidential nominee in the 2020 primaries.55 Maine was the first, but it won’t be the last.

By examining the successes and setbacks in the states of Maine, California, and Washington, we can start to understand the bucking bronco of political innovation—and how to wrangle it. Ideally, early innovators in the states would provide a checklist that an aspiring innovator could follow. But as many of the players in the political-change space know well, what works in Minnesota won’t necessarily work in Oklahoma, let alone California. The individual personalities and histories of America’s states are great strengths, but if each state’s unique situation isn’t considered and appreciated, nothing lasting can be accomplished. Some states already have strong track records of political reform. Others are just getting started. In some states, Democrats and Republicans are locked in a never-ending battle. In others, one side of the duopoly has complete control.

In spite of these state-to-state nuances, a set of overarching principles for how to execute Final-Five Voting is worth proposing. These principles do not dictate what to do in every case but rather frame the order of things—from big decisions to key tactics with the best odds of moving the ball downfield. We aren’t dropping these principles down from a 30,000-foot view, either. We’ve got boots of our own on the ground: Katherine is cofounder and cochair of the cross-partisan Democracy Found, a Wisconsin-based initiative committed to achieving Final-Five Voting. We’re not just recommending these principles; we’re fighting to implement them, on a daily basis.

Guiding Principles for Electoral Innovation

We define the efficient frontier of political innovation as the maximum amount of power you can deliver without sacrificing achievability. That’s where you’ll want to be, on every decision, and the specifics of the efficient frontier are different from state to state. As we’ve learned, having the right innovation agenda—the right ideas—isn’t enough; you need to know what to do with them and attract a critical mass of support. To that end, we recommend three guiding principles for electoral innovation.

Keep It Cross-Partisan

The death knell for political innovation is partisanship anywhere, be it in the leadership teams, staff members, boards of directors, or funders, not to mention your innovation agenda itself. Do the work to engage Republicans, Democrats, and independents—don’t count anybody out. And don’t add partisan agenda items to the nonpartisan Final-Five Voting package.

In May 2018, Katherine and a group of prominent Milwaukee-area leaders from across the political spectrum hosted an event. After the presentation on the need to change the rules of the game in politics, Lynde Uihlein and Andy Nunemaker took the stage. A lifelong Democrat, Uihlein is one of Wisconsin’s most prominent supporters of liberal causes and candidates. A diehard Republican, Nunemaker hosted the only fundraiser for Donald Trump in Wisconsin during the 2016 election. “We have differing opinions on ballots, on policy, on elections,” Uihlein acknowledged that night, “and Andy and I haven’t changed our minds about what is of value to us, and what’s important, and how we’re going to vote.”

Nunemaker added, “But we do agree on this: our current system does not do justice to the United States and our great country. It doesn’t deliver long-term solutions to our greatest political challenges, and it divides us.”

Uihlein and Nunemaker declared to the almost four hundred people in attendance that they were working together to change these election rules in Wisconsin. And they’re still at it—as is every member of the original (and now much larger) group.

An early Colorado innovator and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Kent Thiry credits his success to his Noah’s Ark approach.56 When Thiry began his campaign to create an independent redistricting commission in Colorado, not only did he bring in both right-leaning and left-leaning organizations, but he also followed a simple rule: for every Republican who joined the campaign, he recruited a Democrat. This balance helped him navigate the choppy political waters and ensure that voters viewed redistricting reform not as one party’s attempt to gain an edge over the other, but as the people’s wresting back control from the political-industrial complex. Political innovation is designed to support a political system that is a stronger force for uniting than dividing, and the process of delivering those innovations should do that as well—right from the start.

Localize, Localize, Localize

Changes to the many rules of our democracy belong to the states—and to the people in that state. At the heart of any successful state effort is a nucleus of dedicated citizens living in, and committed to, the state they’re working to change. These can be both seasoned political operatives, like Cara McCormick in Maine, and new grassroots leaders, like Katie Fahey in Michigan. The leadership group must understand the local terrain and have ties to the communities across the state, engaging and motivating diverse constituencies.

Again, the unique personalities and histories of our fifty states are some of America’s greatest strengths, but this individuality can and will bite back if not respected. Additionally, the broader localism movement is taking root in communities and neighborhoods across the country, a bottom-up movement that’s also the by-product of the self-interested and dysfunctional politics industry. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Localism is also thriving these days because many cities have more coherent identities than the nation as a whole. It is thriving because while national politics takes place through the filter of the media circus, local politics by and large does not. It is thriving because we’re in an era of low social trust. People really have faith only in the relationships right around them, the change agents who are right on the ground.”57

How should local leaders organize? While we don’t recommend a wholesale outsourcing of state-based innovation efforts to national reform groups, some national groups have state chapters that can offer established, reputable platforms that local leaders can utilize, especially for startup operations, guidance, and fundraising. For example, Common Cause California was an important force behind the state’s redistricting reform. That said, other local leaders have opted to create new organizations that may then collaborate with national experts and organizers.

Build a Four-Constituency Coalition

Winning coalitions must include four key constituencies:

Grassroots members: organized local volunteers on the ground

Grass-tops supporters: donors, business and civic leaders, and national organizations that provide financial capital, infrastructure, expert advice, and connections

Political leaders: people who can provide credibility and help navigate legislative and legal hurdles

Prominent opinion leaders: groups (e.g., editorial boards) or individuals who can raise a campaign’s profile and endorse it

Breaking through the inertia and political noise can be a challenge but it is possible if each of the four constituencies plays their part. While ballot initiatives and legislative campaigns appear radically different on the ground, they share common threads. Successful campaigns manage to stitch together broad coalitions either to persuade and motivate voters, in the case of ballot initiatives, or to lobby elected officials, in the case of legislative action.

Finally, and this observation is less a guiding principle of electoral innovation than it is a certainty of life, expect pushback from the powerful. Political innovations disrupt unhealthy competition and the partisan profit machines the political-industrial complex has created. Not surprisingly, then, many in the duopoly will do everything in their power to block this work. Nevertheless, there is also a benefit from the compelling leadership of some current and former elected officials who know how dysfunctional the system is and who courageously choose to say, in effect, that the emperor has no clothes.

Expecting pushback means, more often than not, committing to building and running an A-campaign. To achieve our goals, we have to work harder and smarter, because the opposition has so many advantages, they can’t even be documented fully in this book. And if we succeed, passage of an electoral innovation is just the first step. The case of Maine shows that implementation is a completely different story—and Maine was no anomaly. In state after state, the duopoly has taken legal and legislative action to repeal innovations and suppress the will of the people. Every campaign must be prepared for this protracted battle that can continue for years after the initial campaign has ended. And yet, it’s not entirely inevitable. Thiry’s Colorado-successful referenda were not challenged by the duopoly after the fact. The work he and his collaborators did proactively to include elected officials from all sides right from the start prevented that kind of opposition from developing. So, while we should plan for pushback, the best plan includes first trying to avoid it by building buy-in within the political system.

Legislative Machinery: Under Construction

Millions of citizens have taken action to restructure elections, with increasing success. Our priority is to accelerate this movement, focus it on Final-Five Voting, and open an enormous bottleneck on the gridlocked interstate of democracy. Then what? As we’ve described, political innovation feeds on itself, pushing more ideas into the powerful and achievable sweet spot. Although we have earmarked legislative machinery as the next chapter of political innovation, few citizens know much about how Congress conducts its business, partly because the process is opaque (and assumed boring) compared with the public spectacle of campaigns.

But a once-in-a-generation window to changing the rules of the legislative game is opening. And once we’ve got a new legion of officials elected via Final-Five Voting, our energy will shift to motivating and supporting a new crop of “procedural entrepreneurs” to ride the next wave of congressional innovation.

As political scientist Roger Davidson observes, “In every era, at least a few members of Congress cultivate a lively interest in the institution itself: how Congress works, how its virtues can be nurtured, how its effectiveness can be improved. Such members might be called ‘procedural entrepreneurs.’”58 Whereas most legislators find themselves trapped within an institution’s ways of working and accept the status quo for what it is—learning to play the game as best they can by the constraints of the current rules—others become intent on changing them. Most of the time, these internal change agents fail. Congress is littered with the remains of well-intentioned efforts that failed to translate good ideas into action: committees and commissions that elevated big problems but found themselves stuck in gridlock or saw their reports shelved and gathering dust.

One such effort to make inroads began in 2019. Established in January of that year, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was established to investigate why the institution had been failing Americans so badly and what to do about it. As a Washington Post article reported, “It’s one of the most important committees in Congress, yet it has only temporary office space. It has just two full-time legislative staff members. And it borrows other committees’ rooms to hold hearings.” And yet, the piece continued, “against those odds, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is pushing ahead with a bipartisan approach that could produce some of the most important work of the 116th Congress.”59

A bipartisan-backed mandate has given this temporary committee broad latitude to spotlight the rules and processes handicapping the legislature’s ability to deliver real results for the country. So far the committee has produced nearly four dozen unanimous recommendations, including basic organizational best practices on issues like payroll, staff training, and administrative efficiencies, along with more ambitious proposals like investing in new capacities at the Congressional Research Service and reestablishing the Office of Technology Assessment—legislative support bodies that suffered under Speaker Newt Gingrich’s dismantling of Congress’s nonpartisan infrastructure. Taken together, the recommendations represent an effort to find common ground on issues that affect the ability of all members, regardless of party, to do their jobs well.

The Select Committee is laudable in that it proves, if nothing else, that legislative-machinery innovation is theoretically possible, and we support most of its recommendations—although none of them have yet been adopted as of this writing. But we should not expect the committee to reengineer the legislative machinery in any transformative way. It represents a modest effort driven by a cadre of reform-oriented lawmakers, not the culmination of an institution-wide movement to rewrite Congress’s playbook. The committee’s very existence was the result of internal bargaining, not a recognition from party leaders—today’s ultimate power holders in Congress—that our partisan legislative machinery needs to fundamentally change. While the modern movement to streamline legislative machinery is still in its infancy, we can learn from, and be encouraged by, the very existence of these contemporary procedural entrepreneurs. We can also learn and take inspiration from torch-bearing mavericks, like Nebraska’s George Norris, who long ago demanded something better—at both federal and state levels—than the corrupt legislative machinery he experienced.

Nearing the end of his decade of service in the House in 1910, Progressive insurgent Senator Norris led the so-called Cannon Revolt that dismantled the partisan legislative machinery of his time (see chapter 4). The effort was later memorialized in the pages of John F. Kennedy’s best-selling Profiles in Courage.60 In its place, Norris built the foundations of a new legislative machinery designed around bipartisan committees insulated from party pressure through a seniority system. This structure was refined over the next several decades to create the textbook Congress (which is perhaps better understood as the Schoolhouse Rock Congress discussed earlier in the book).

During his three decades in the Senate, from 1913 to 1943, Norris continued his push for good-government reform, not just in Washington, D.C., but also in his home state of Nebraska.61 For decades, Cornhuskers had tried and failed to reorganize their legislature to peel partisanship from the governing process.62 When public dissatisfaction hit new heights during the Great Depression in the 1930s, however, Norris returned home to lead the campaign.63 Working with a group of prominent citizens from across the state who had banded together to create the Model Legislature Committee, Norris drafted the blueprint for a new legislative body for the state.64 Despite widespread opposition from prominent groups like the American Bar Association and American Bankers Association, past and present legislatures, and most of the mainstream press, the measure passed in a ballot initiative in November 1934.65 The revolutionary but sensible design remains in place to this day.

Most of us know little about Nebraska state politics. Why would we? (Unless, of course, we live in Nebraska.) The Nebraska state legislature has just one chamber, the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature. Norris saw this single-house system as essential, believing that closed-door conference committees to reconcile differences between the two chambers had become hotbeds for special interests.

But for us its unicameral structure is not the most interesting thing about the Nebraska legislature. The real innovation is that it features nonpartisan legislative machinery.66 Rather than divide elected officials into majority and minority parties, all officials serve as one body of equals. Just as in the US Congress, there are Republicans and Democrats in the Unicameral.67 But unlike Congress, the legislative machinery is not designed around these divisions. There are no recognized party leaders or whips.68 Committee positions and chairs are determined not by partisan steering committees but by a nonpartisan Committee on Committees.69 And the Speaker is not a partisan official carrying out the majority party’s agenda but is an agent of all members.70 Charles Warner, the first Speaker of the Unicameral, said, “We owe no allegiance to any party or to any group. Our responsibility is to the whole people of Nebraska.”71 This is a far cry from what we see in Washington today.

This unique structure has bred better results. Party-line votes are far less common in Nebraska than in other states.72 Instead, cross-party coalitions tend to form on an issue-by-issue basis.73 It is not unusual for legislators to break from their party on bills.74 In 2014, for example, despite the fact that a majority of members of the Unicameral were registered Republicans, they overrode the Republican governor’s veto of a budget deal.75 In 2015, they overrode his veto on a bill repealing the death penalty.76 And in 2016, they overrode a veto of a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to receive professional licenses.77 Fed up with the lack of partisan fealty, the governor called on voters to elect more partisan “platform Republicans.” Legislators from both parties responded in a joint statement in which they affirmed that they “support the Nebraska Constitution and not any particular political party.”78

Our job now as citizens is to bring this ethos and structure back to Washington, D.C., similarly reengineering the federal legislative machinery to eliminate partisan control and create processes that promote solutions that serve the public interest. And we shouldn’t stop there. After following Nebraska’s lead and eliminating partisan control of governing, we need to go further, redesigning Congress to put in place the best practices of problem solving. As we proposed in chapter 5, this redesign will require a new commission―similar to Nebraska’s Model Legislature Committee―to draw a fresh blueprint for Capitol Hill.79

Beginning America Over Again

In a slim pamphlet titled Common Sense and published in Philadelphia in 1776, Thomas Paine captured the spirit of his era: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Were it not for the chord his proposals struck with the people of the colonies and the action that followed, Paine’s bold ideas might have been remembered as little else but aspirational—if they were to be remembered at all.

Almost 250 years later, the spirit of American revolution still reverberates for many of us, and the successes of initiatives in states such as Maine and California reinvigorate the democratic renegade in our marrow. But skepticism is bound to creep in. You might be asking, If Final-Five Voting were really so powerful, wouldn’t we have long ago figured that out and accomplished it? Or wouldn’t I have at least heard of it? But that’s not how innovation works, in politics or in any industry. There is a moment when the idea germinates, but often a great deal of time passes before something takes root. At some point early on, the startup that becomes Apple or Google first consisted of a few people in a garage or dorm. And in the case of political innovation, there is an entrenched political-industrial complex engineered to quash any new ideas before they spread.

Think back to the Progressive Era. Innovations eventually spread quickly, but only after achieving some momentum. Success was built on the sustained efforts of dedicated citizens who formed groups, disseminated information, pushed through initiatives, and lobbied politicians.

Ideas alone aren’t enough. We need to get to work.

We must now spread the ideas of Final-Five Voting, scaling a few early innovators into a coast-to-coast campaign of universal adoption and action. Thanks to the upstart laboratories of democracy that have shown us the way (in victory and defeat), we know that action is getting results. And it will continue to be difficult, especially in the face of an entrenched duopoly. The transformation requires smart decisions and sustained effort from multiple actors across multiple states, each with its own unique history, political climate, party loyalties, and democratic rules. But transformational political innovation can be achieved―whether a state is big or small, red or blue. There are fifty states in this union, and many are still waiting for the political innovation spark to be lit.

Will you do it?

Lighting that spark requires shaking away learned helplessness about politics, and trading skepticism for leadership. We are not powerless in our democracy. We are not bystanders. We are the makers. Former Wisconsin Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette put it best: “America is not made but is in the making. There is an unending struggle to make and keep government representative. Mere passive citizenship is not enough. Men must be aggressive for what is right if government is to be saved from those who are aggressive for what is wrong.”80

We the people had the audacity to reject taxation without representation from across the pond and to create a new nation founded on the radical idea that all are created equal. Whether they were a single voice in a town hall or a chanting chorus on the National Mall, citizens have rallied to make America anew, time and again. The product of our making is—in the stirring words of John McCain—this “big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country.”81

Today, we are called on to remake American democracy once more. The energy for the movement is out there, vibrating in a citizenry fed up with the status quo. Today, we often see scattered, impulsive reactions to problems rather than a unified movement with a targeted strategy. This approach must change. We must direct this energy toward addressing the root cause of the problem—a political system festering with unhealthy competition. The first priority is Final-Five Voting—to change how we vote and thus alter the nature of competition.

It’s often said that we do not have an American government by the majority but have government by the majority who participate. Traditionally, most of us have thought we should participate by voting. Some of us have gone a step further by contributing to candidates. And a still smaller fraction became vocal advocates of particular candidates or policies. But it turns out that none of that is enough. We must also participate in the design of the rules of the game itself.

Today, our shared challenge is to reform our political system to restore healthy competition in the public interest. We cannot retreat into our partisan corners or exit the political arena altogether. We must fight for our democracy. As we have seen, this fight requires concerted effort across multiple constituencies.

Time to invest.

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