A Geeky Fix From Harvard Business School for Political Gridlock


(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Two little-discussed changes to how elections are conducted in the U.S. would have a “powerful” effect on reducing political dysfunction, says a new report from Harvard Business School.

One of the recommended changes is to replace party primaries with a single nonpartisan primary, in which the top five finishers would move on to the general election, regardless of party. The other is to choose from among those five finalists using a system of ranked-choice voting, which benefits candidates who are acceptable to a broad swath of the electorate.

Those two fixes would be more effective than the reforms that are most often recommended, such as term limits, campaign finance reform, and the elimination of gerrymandering, according to the report (PDF), which is called A Recovery Squandered: The State of U.S. Competitiveness 2019. 

“We believe that there’s a widespread misunderstanding of what’s causing the gridlock and dysfunction,” says Katherine Gehl, a co-author of the report. Gehl, the former chief executive officer of Wisconsin-based Gehl Foods LLC and now CEO of Venn Innovation Inc., describes herself as a “political innovation activist.” She teamed up on the political analysis with Michael Porter, who’s been leading Harvard Business School’s competitiveness studies since the first one in 2011.

A Recovery Squandered argues that fixing politics is a key to fixing U.S. competitiveness. The fault lies not with individual politicians or parties but in the system itself, which robs them of the incentive to cooperate for the common good, the report says.

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank all the candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a majority, the least favored candidate is dropped, and his or her voters are allocated to the candidate they listed second. This continues until someone gets a majority. Candidates thus have an incentive to appeal to a wide range of voters.

Ranked-choice voting exists in several U.S. cities already and was approved by New York City voters in November for citywide primaries and special elections. To be effective it must be coupled with nonpartisan primaries, Gehl says in an interview. Today, she says, “the partisan primary creates an eye of the needle through which no problem-solving politician can pass.”

Although Washington state and California have nonpartisan primaries, no one has combined them with ranked-choice voting, Gehl says. Alaska could be the first to vote for such a system in a 2020 ballot initiative, she says.

Porter, in the same interview, said the “overriding finding” of the study, which included a survey of Harvard Business School alumni, was that “we haven’t gotten anything done in a long time in government, our federal government in particular.” And, he added, “business is actually making the partisanship worse” through lobbying, spending on elections, and involvement in ballot initiatives.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Eric Gelman at egelman3@bloomberg.net

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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