In an interview published earlier this month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed her concern that “Democrats can be too big of a tent” going on to observe that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
Those comments raised some eyebrows and Ocasio-Cortez took to twitter to elaborate further, but she raises a point worth considering. In a two-party democracy, voters have just two inputs: Republican or Democrat. This binary system leaves no room for nuance or sophistication. You’ll still find people, for example, who disagree whether Donald Trump was elected in 2016 because more voters supported him or opposed Hillary Clinton.
Multi-party democracies come in lots of different flavors around the world, but the Australian electoral system, which employs ranked choice voting, is perhaps the most sophisticated. For example, a voter who supports right-wing policies but doesn’t approve of the job the current government is doing could preference a minor party first, then the coalition, and ultimately left-wing parties last.
In this scenario, if the minor party won the seat it’s good for the voter, but if they don’t and the coalition government wins the seat, they’re still going to be getting most of the policies they want. In other words, it’s harder for minor parties to play the role of spoiler as we frequently see in the U.S.
In fact, lots of challenges with voting, including gerrymandering, could be more easily addressed in a multi-party Democracy. Indeed, where parties have to form coalitions to work together you see better frameworks for dealing with gridlock and incentives are aligned to work together.
To be sure, there are lots of hurdles to overcome if the U.S. is ever to have a multi-party system, including ballot access and the organization of Congress, but just like we’re seeing ranked choice voting bubble up in the states, we could see similar innovation in party organization.
As promising as multi-party democracy is to these challenges, political parties are still a legacy solution that first emerged in the 17th Century. And while factions uniting around a shared agenda may have been a novel innovation then, in 2020, we have more sophisticated tools and we can do better.
Direct, participatory democracy – where citizens vote electronically on myriad proposals – is a common trope in science fiction. In her Centenal Series, author Malka Older offers a vision of “micro democracy” where the entire globe is divided up into blocks of 100,000 citizens who can vote in any sort of government they want. Even in the novels, the system is far from perfect – as democracies never are – but it illustrates a possibility where technology infuses democracy and transforms it into a more responsive form of governance.