Robert Sarvis pens exclusive op ed

Ending the poisonous two-party system begins with more and more people being open to third-party candidates. But to have lasting change that creates a truly open and competitive political system, we should pursue a broad set of electoral reforms.

Instant-runoff voting (IRV). Also called ranked-choice voting, IRV enables voters to rank candidates in order of preference. There’s no gaming of the vote, no strategic voting, no need for defensive voting to keep a gay-basher or a rampant cronyist out of office. Voters can vote for their favorite candidate, then continue down their list of preferred candidates in case their higher choice candidates were not top vote-getters. If instant-runoff voting had been in place in 2013, it’s quite possible I could have won.

Easier ballot access and equal treatment for ballot order. As noted previously, there is simply no excuse for such high barriers to entry. Voters aren’t so easily confused, and we benefit when more people are participating as candidates in the electoral process.

Nonpartisan redistricting reform. Gerrymandering creates uncompetitive districts and de facto one-party rule. Creating more competitive districts by ending partisan gerrymandering is good for democracy. It also helps establish an ethic that the rules of the game ought not to be structured for the benefit of incumbents.

Term limits. The first incumbent I ran against has been in office for 39 years now. We know from experience that incumbents cling to power for as long as they can. They have a huge self-interest in stacking the deck against competitors. Term limits create more open seats, meaning more competitive elections, and may help ease the incentive to adopt protectionist rules of the game.

Larger representative bodies. The U.S. Constitution originally required a representative for every 36,000 people. Now, a Congressman represents close to one million.

To reach that many people, campaigns must raise large sums and are therefore more reliant on large donations. At the state level, delegates represent 80,000 people and state senators 200,000.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t double or triple the number of members of the lower houses of Congress and the General Assembly. That would make representatives closer to constituents, which might lessen the influence of outside money and undermine the importance of party allegiance.

Initiative/referendum process. A well-designed initiative/referendum process can empower the people without causing mischief. A democratic process designed specifically to circumvent legislators on issues pertaining to the legislators themselves — corruption, term limits, election reform, etc — would be appropriate and beneficial.

A tradition of inclusive debates. There were only three gubernatorial debates in 2013, one of them hosted at Virginia Tech. All three were vacuous and unworthy of Virginia voters’ attention because major-party candidates use threats of withdrawal to ensure the debate is a low-risk event. But an open and competitive political system needs quality debates that serve the public interest, not the self-interest of rival campaigns.

Perhaps we can achieve this by leveraging the one-term limit on Governors to develop a unique, ongoing tradition aimed at fostering open and competitive debates. The sitting governor should be hosting debates for statewide offices that include all ballot-qualified candidates.

In order to maintain neutrality, the Governor would not ask questions or influence the debate, but as the host, he would add the imprimatur and weight of the office to induce participation of those who might otherwise balk at the inclusion of third-party and independent candidates or at the choice of more interesting formats.

Other ideas, like proportional representation, that would more directly achieve a multi-party electoral system may be too great a change but are worthy of consideration.

For now, though, I encourage all voters to take the very first step of recognizing how the two-party system undermines the public interest and locks us into a dangerous us-versus-them mentality.

Recognize how legislators have used law to protect themselves and their parties from competition, just as corporations seek to do through lobbying.

Recognize how similar the two major parties actually are when measured by actual policies implemented rather than by rhetoric and posturing. And recognize how much independent and third-party candidates have to offer.

You only throw your vote away when you vote against your conscience and against your judgment of who best deserves your vote. The parties pay attention to the votes they lose.

Not everyone wants to be, or has time to be, an activist for beneficial change, but every movement needs non-activists to help, and you can do that simply by changing the way you listen, the way you think and the way you vote.