How to fix U.S. elections

By Todd Connor

Americans aren’t as polarized as we seem, but our system gives politicians no incentive to compromise. Adopting ranked choice voting and the Alaska Model can change that. 

Todd Connor listens on during a Bunker Labs event in Plano, Texas, in 2023 (courtesy of Todd Connor).

In 2014, I founded an organization called Bunker Labs to help other military veterans start and grow businesses, as I myself had once done. In the almost 10 years since then, my work with the organization has brought me into near-daily contact with many Americans who are rolling up their sleeves to help one another reach higher. Such experiences have reaffirmed my belief in the innate goodness, patriotism, and entrepreneurial spirit of my fellow citizens. 

At the same time as that work has highlighted these positives, an escalating torrent of politicians, cable news shows, and political ads have been trumpeting the opposite message: that the United States has become dangerously divided. I know too many good people on all sides – Republicans, Democrats, and independents – to believe it. But the disconnect between what I hear and what I see has made me wonder about the real source of our troubles. If the people aren’t the problem, it must be something else, something in our political system that encourages polarizing behavior. As I’ve sought the source, I’ve also looked for a realistic solution that could dampen the most extreme voices, restore some semblance of reasonableness to the country’s discourse, and encourage Republicans and Democrats to work together. 

Politicians aren’t rewarded for acting in the true national interest.

The deeper I’ve dug, the clearer it’s become that a big cause of the problem lies in the United States’ electoral system and the way it gives members of Congress no incentive to compromise. Because of the way partisan primary elections are currently run, politicians aren’t rewarded for acting in the true national interest. Instead, the system promotes rigid allegiance to party positions. Taking political risks – which in today’s environment means reaching across the aisle – has become virtually impossible, despite the fact that most Americans I meet want to see bipartisan governance. 

 The good news is that a practical solution to this problem exists: what’s known as Final Five Voting, or the Alaska Model, after the state that implemented it in 2020. The Alaska Model has several key features. It eliminates partisan primaries and replaces them with open, unified primaries that everyone can vote in regardless of their party affiliation (or lack thereof). Those primaries are then followed by general elections in which voters get four or five candidates to choose from – and can either vote for one candidate, or rank them in order of preference.  

The logic behind the Alaska Model is simple: It alters the incentive structure for politicians, giving them powerful reasons to cater not to the fringes but to the broad middle of the electorate. It encourages officials to focus on actual state and local concerns. It creates incentives to compromise and discourages negative campaigning. In Alaska, which ran its first elections using this system in 2022, early research shows that the system produced elections that were more competitive and less frequently predetermined by party affiliation alone. Voters elected a moderate Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, a moderate Republican to the Senate, and a conservative Republican for governor. Each of these candidates was qualified and serious, not performative. In addition, more races were competitive, fewer were uncontested, and the new system introduced intra-party competition. It also increased the number of female candidates, as well as voting among people of color and Native Alaskans. 

Two other features make the Alaska Model especially promising as a remedy for the country’s ills. It’s a change that many states could make almost immediately. And best of all, just starting the process – changing the way even a fraction of U.S. legislators are elected – would have a quick and powerful salutary effect on America’s political discourse. 

A copy of Alaska's ballot for the Nov. 8, 2022 election.

Everybody votes

As mentioned above, under the Alaska Model, elections start with a single, all-party primary in which all candidates run and all voters can vote. The top four or five vote-earners (in Alaska, it’s four) then advance to the general election, in which voters can either choose one candidate or rank the candidates by preference. If no one gets 50% of the vote in the first round, then the least-popular candidate is dropped and their votes are allocated to their voters’ second choice. The process then repeats itself instantly until one candidate winds up with more than half of all votes cast. Alaska uses this system for its elections for the House and Senate, statewide offices, and the state legislature, and will use it for the presidential election in 2024. 

To appreciate the power of using to this system, consider the alternative. Under the electoral set-up currently used in most of the country, as a result of gerrymandering and geographic self-sorting, nearly 85% of seats for the House of Representatives and a similar percentage of Senate seats are guaranteed to go to the same party every time. As a result, the one election that really matters in those states or districts is not the general (since it’s a foregone conclusion) but the primary.  

And that’s where things get really concerning. Primary elections in the United States are typically held on a plurality basis, meaning the winner doesn’t need a majority of the votes to win – just the most. To compound matters, very few Americans bother to vote in the primaries in the first place, and the ones who do – about 18% to 27% of the eligible voters in the average district – tend to be the most partisan. As a result, the path to victory for most members of Congress today is to lock up their most ardent base voters, even if they only represent 30% or 40% of all primary voters, and then ensure the remaining field splits the difference. Since partisan primary voters tend to prioritize ideological purity, and since most general elections are effectively predetermined, incumbents’ top concern is satisfying the die-hards in their own party. Those who fail increasingly strict purity tests tend to lose in the next cycle. (This is known as “getting primaried.”)  

Skilled politicians have figured out how to stave off primary competition, which explains the preponderance of elected officials in their 70s and 80s who run effectively unopposed.

Put all these numbers and facts together and you wind up with a serious problem: In 2022, 8% of Americans effectively chose 83% of all members of the House. Skilled politicians have figured out how to stave off primary competition, which explains the preponderance of elected officials in their 70s and 80s who run effectively unopposed. 

Such facts are bad for our politics – they contribute to the polarization and extremism that are doing so much damage to our country and our culture. But they’re also easy to address through a few key procedural changes.  

The first is to eliminate partisan primaries. Doing so removes the threat that politicians will be primaried for offending the sensibilities of a small, extremist constituency. Second, replace partisan primaries with open, single-ballot primaries, followed by general elections featuring four or five candidates in which the winner is determined using an instant runoff. Doing so ensures that the ultimate winner gets majority support.  

The Alaska Model delivers on a number of important principles. The first is that all voters, including independents and the members of small parties, should have full access to all public elections. (At present, they’re excluded from partisan primaries, even though those contests are funded with taxpayer dollars.)  

The second principle is that voters should have a number of viable candidates to choose from in November, not just two. A two-person contest in a reliably red or blue district is an election in name only, since the winner has already been predetermined in the primary. And even if they weren’t, two-person elections are problematic for other reasons. They deprive voters of more nuanced choices and create a lesser-of-two-evils paradigm in which candidates don’t really need to be liked – they just need to be hated less than the other guy. And that paradigm leads to the negative campaigning that has done so much damage to American politics. But negative campaigning doesn’t work when there are four or five candidates vying to be voters’ first or second choice, since disparaging other candidates lowers the chances that those candidates’ supporters will rank you high up.  

The third principle undergirding the Alaska Model is that winners should represent the interests of a majority of their constituents, not just the fraction of the fraction who currently vote in primaries. Perhaps most important, however, the Alaska Model also changes the incentives for politicians once they take office. As discussed earlier, the best way to win under the current system is not to govern in the interests of your entire district, state, or country, but to do whatever’s necessary to solidify your loyal partisan base, even if it represents a small slice of the total voting public. In a ranked choice system, by contrast, the opposite approach – appealing to the largest number of constituents – is what wins elections. Politicians must appeal not just to their base but to all their constituents. 

A voter makes their way to their polling station in Anchorage, Alaska on Nov. 2, 2010. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A fairly easy fix

The Alaska Model will not solve all of the United States’ political problems, though if elected officials return to acting in the broad public interest, as this system would push them to do, that would begin to alleviate the bad behavior, distrust in government, and public disengagement (especially among young people) that plague the country today. Alaska is already producing results along these lines, as when Senator Dan Sullivan recently ended Senator Tommy Tuberville’s block on military appointments – a move that was celebrated by many reasonable Americans, but one those of Sullivan’s Republicans colleagues still facing closed primaries wouldn’t make.  

Of course, the United States would also benefit from other well-intended efforts now underway to bulwark the country’s democracy, such as efforts to foster civility and bridge divides, address the noxious effects of money in politics, retool the Electoral College, impose term limits, and more. But the beauty of the Alaska Model is that it’s relatively easy to implement – unlike some of these other reforms, which would require Supreme Court action or a constitutional amendment. Every state can change its own election laws, and in about half the states, voters can force a change through a ballot initiative. 

If even five states adopted some version of the Alaska Model, it would free up 10 U.S. senators to stop worrying about getting primaried and to start acting in the majority interest.

One other aspect of this reform deserves highlighting: If even five states adopted some version of the Alaska Model, it would free up 10 U.S. senators to stop worrying about getting primaried and to start acting in the majority interest. That change could create a fulcrum effect in the Senate, since those senators could help secure the 60 votes necessary to end the filibuster on reasonable legislation and ensure its passage. The 10 senators could also act as a mediating force in the approval of treaties, rule changes, appropriations, executive branch appointments such as senior judges and military officers, and all sorts of other matters that are gridlocked in the current Senate, which is evenly split and highly partisan. Debt ceiling talks would start to look more like a substantive and responsible debate and less like a hostage negotiation. Support for U.S. allies around the world would be assured through stand-alone votes. And the president and Congressional leadership would no longer need to execute complicated end-runs around a gridlocked Congress.  

Freeing a so-called axis of adults in the Senate and the House would create other downstream effects. Much of the U.S. media has learned to profit by broadcasting narrow, partisan, us-versus-them narratives. But a political environment in which a small core of Republicans, Democrats, and independents governed from the middle could force the media to change how it covers national events; partisan coverage wouldn’t work very well if important members of each side’s party started calling out their own. 

The Alaska Model could also begin to shift politics in states still using the old system, if incumbents there started to envy the freedom to move beyond party talking points and pushed for election reform in their own constituencies. Already two other states (Maine and Nevada) have adopted some version of ranked choice voting, and citizens in a number of others have launched efforts to adopt the Alaska Model. It is reasonable to hope that with enough resources and activated citizens, the system could soon be established in enough places to scramble our current, dysfunctional politics. 

At the end of the day, we must all remember that Americans are good, decent, thoughtful people capable of thinking with nuance. We are not the problem, and we are not as polarized as pundits and politicians tell us. Veterans and young people know better: 59% of veterans ages 18-49 and 61% of Americans ages 18-24 say that they do not identify with either major political party. These folks have been effectively excluded from participating in primary elections. Restoring American democracy requires bringing them, and others, into the entire political process. And election reform can make that happen. 

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