“What If…?”: A Series on How Election Rules Shape Outcomes
When it comes to social systems, rules shape outcomes. This maxim has wide applicability, from economics to elections.
For many, the impact of rule changes on outcomes is clearest in the world of sports. Take basketball, for instance: When the American Basketball League (ABL) instituted the three-point line in 1961, the game of basketball changed forever.
While the ABL lasted just three years, the three-point line lived on, spreading first to the experimental American Basketball Association and eventually to the more popular National Basketball Association (NBA). The three-point line, which rewarded a team with three points for making shots behind the line rather than the standard two points, created a new incentive for players to shoot the ball from long distance. As offenses began incorporating the new shot into their strategies, the rule change created knock-on effects. Defenses had to spread out and guard players further from the basket, creating more space on the court for taller shooters.
While the three-point line is now a common element in basketball, the impacts of the three-point shot took some time to sort out. Legendary players like Michael Jordan, who did not play with a three-point line in college, famously struggled to adapt to the new shot, and overall scoring in the NBA declined in the decades following its implementation. Recently, however, teams have begun designing their offenses around the long-range shot, resulting in the highest-scoring offenses in decades.
Over time, the rules of a game shape how the game is played.
The same is true when it comes to the rules for other systems, including elections. How we set the rules for selecting our leaders impacts how campaigns operate, the kind of candidates who win and the behavior of elected officials once in office. And, similar to the incorporation of the three-point shot, adaptation to electoral rule changes can take time, as the process of strategic trial-and-error unfolds across myriad jurisdictions each election cycle.
Consequently, if rule changes create new incentives and these incentives impact behavior, it follows that our electoral rules must be designed with the incentives they create in mind.
Fortunately, election reforms of all types have been implemented in recent years—specifically for the incentives they create. From primary reforms to instant-runoff elections and expanded absentee voting, states and localities are seeking to create healthier political incentives while reducing the red tape between voters and their ballots.
Unfortunately, in too many cases these reforms have been met with strong opposition from Republicans.
But the GOP should not be so quick to dismiss efforts to change how voting and elections work within their states. Aside from some of the benefits many of these changes bring for all voters—increased security, reduced costs, full enfranchisement of voters, expedited reporting, and better trust and satisfaction among voters—there are multiple instances where different electoral rules, or better adaptation to new rules, could have benefitted Republican candidates.
Through the lens of “what if…” counterfactuals, this series will explore how the adoption of popular election reforms in Republican-led states could create more representative outcomes for their constituents. Readers will learn more about:
- Early voting by mail
- Instant-runoff elections
- Primary reform
- Combining primary reforms with instant runoffs