Conference Report: Electoral Systems Reform in the U.S. [Mar. 2014]

The Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective hosted a workshop on electoral systems on March 14-15, 2014. The workshop brought together leading scholars of electoral institutions and electoral reforms in the United States and other advanced industrial democracies. The first in a series of meetings to assess the causes and consequences of political polarization and poor institutional performance of American democracy, the electoral systems workshop focused in particular on how the method of election shapes the political incentives of public officeholders, especially members of Congress and other representative bodies. Over the course of the two days of presentations and discussions, participants debated the costs and benefits of different electoral systems, proposed various strategies and goals for reforms, and learned from the experiences of reform initiatives both in American cities and in other countries.

This report summarizes the key debates and findings from the workshop. Although there is no single solution to the many problems in American politics, is it clear that electoral institutions are failing to produce political leaders who negotiate, compromise, and govern effectively. Instead, elected representatives perceive strong incentives to stake out incompatible and uncompromising positions. Changing the rules that determine how candidates are elected can encourage moderation and correct disproportional outcomes produced by the current winner-take-all system in the United States. Thus, they have the potential to make the system fairer and more governable, though there is some tension between these two different goals.