Comparative Structural Reform Assessing Strategies for Improving American Elections

// Published August 31, 2015

Comparative Structural Reform presents an extensive assessment of the potential impact of 37 reforms to election laws and legislative structures in collaboration with fourteen prominent political scientists. (Follow the link at left to download the Executive Summary.)

The report is focused on structural reforms – that is, reforms that seek to change candidates and policymakers’ incentives through modifying the mechanics of elections and legislative processes. That means a particular focus on redistricting, primaries and electoral systems, while notable reforms affecting voter access (such as changes to voter registration and election dates) and campaign spending were not evaluated.

Scholars participating in the project are authorities on electoral reform and legislative functionality, with extensive collective expertise and mastery of both quantitative and qualitative approaches to the study of American legislatures, elections and electoral rules. They include: Michael Crespin (University of Oklahoma), Ronald Keith Gaddie, (University of Oklahoma), Nicholas Goedert (Lafayette College), John Hudak, (The Brookings Institution), Jason Kirksey (Oklahoma State University), Thad Kousser (UC San Diego), Seth Masket (University of Denver), Jack Nagel (University of Pennsylvania), Jonathan Rodden (Stanford), Mathew Shuggart (UC Davis), Nicholas Stephanopoulos (University of Chicago), Dan Tokaji (Ohio State University), and Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa).

Scholars were asked to assess each reform’s impact on 16 different criteria fitting within four topline categories: legislative functionality, electoral accountability, voter engagement, and openness of process. Respondents were provided with annotated bibliographies and FairVote's assessment of the impacts of each reform.

Each of the participating scholars completed all eleven surveys and provided a wealth of insightful comments, new sources, and useful information in addition to their well-considered ratings of the reforms.

Key Findings

  • In the scholars’ assessment, the three structural reforms that would have the greatest positive impact on American democracy are each alternatives to winner-take-all elections: ranked choice voting in five-winner districts (RCV-5), ranked choice voting in three-winner districts (RCV-3) and Districts Plus (a mixed-member proportional system).
  • The six reforms with the highest impact were all reforms to the structure of the general election. These six reforms have the potential to transform American politics because they depart from our corrosive and unrepresentative electoral system, particularly when combined with expanding voter choice and representation with multi-winner districts and ranked choice voting.
  • Redistricting reforms were ranked as less impactful by scholars, who generally believed that redistricting reforms would only improve competition at the margins. To have a greater impact on general elections where the electorate is largest and most representative, it is necessary to reform the winner-take-all, single-winner district system that currently dominates the American electoral landscape.
  • Changes to primary rules that had little-to-no impact on general election choice were also rated generally as less impactful than primary changes that affect general election, with two examples being the higher impact given to Louisiana’s primary rules and a “Top Four Primary with Ranked Choice Voting” than the California and Washington models of Top Two that limit general election choice to two candidates.
  • Legislative redistricting with transparency and public input, short ballots and the whole number proportional method of assigning Electoral College votes were assessed by scholars as the three least impactful reforms.

Project Documents

Survey #1 - Electoral College Reforms (3 Reforms)

Survey #2 - Reforms Directly Affecting Independents and Minor Parties (3 Reforms)

Survey #3 - Voter Powers in General Elections (3 Reforms)

Survey # 4 - Open Primaries & Independent Primary (2 Reforms)

Survey #5 - Eliminating Primaries (4 Reforms)

 Survey #6 - Eliminating Majority Party Agenda Control (1 Reform)

Survey #7 - Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in Primaries and General Elections (1 Reform)

Survey #8 - Variations of Top-Two (4 Reforms)

Survey #9 - Redistricting Reforms (6 Reforms)

Survey #10 - Legislative Structure (5 Reforms)

Survey #11 - Multi-Winner District Systems (5 Reforms)