Solving D.C. Gridlock Without Sacrificing the Voice of the Minority

Storable votes offer a potential new direction for solving gridlock in polarized environments.

The Senate has become less efficient in passing significant legislation. Political commentators and researchers believe that significant responsibility for such malfunctioning rests with the Senate filibuster. Combined with the current polarization in the US legislative chambers, the filibuster has effectively increased the required share of votes to pass legislation in the Senate to 60 percent, blocking nominations and delaying or preventing legislative action.

It seems to us that the problem arising from the filibuster points to a more general debate about the appropriate forms of protections of the minority voice. The filibuster exists to protect the minority party, but does so in an inefficient way: it amounts to a super-majority rule, with its built-in bias toward non-action. Protecting the minority, not only in its rights but in its most strongly held preferences, is crucial to the legitimacy of a democracy. This does not mean, however, that the minority should be able to block any bill: the minority should win occasionally, when its preferences are strong and the majority’s preferences are weak.

The problem is that sanctioning simple majority rule, treating all votes and voters identically, and protecting the minority seem mutually incompatible goals. The book Storable Votes: Protecting the Minority Voice argues that this need not be the case. Suppose that a group of voters were asked to pass or fail a number of independent proposals. Each proposal is decided by majority vote, and each voter is granted the same number of votes. However, subject to the overall budget of votes, each voter is allowed to decide how many votes to cast on any individual proposal. Imagine for example that ten proposals are submitted to the committee; each voter has a total of ten votes. If a voter is quite indifferent to proposals 1, 2 and 3, he can choose to abstain on those votes and will then still have ten votes to cast on the remaining seven proposals; if proposal 4 is important to the voter, he can cast four votes on it, while still keeping one vote for each of the succeeding proposal; if proposal 4 is really important to him he cast more than four votes, all the way up to ten votes, and increase the probability that he may win. Storable votes 1) equip every voter with the same number of votes; 2) allow voters to cast more votes on decisions that matter to them most; and 3) empower the minority to prevail occasionally.

The central idea is the possibility of shifting one’s own votes from one contest to another, of storing votes not spent on decisions that are low priorities for use on decisions that matter to the voter more. Voters’ behavior thus reflects truthfully the relative intensities of their preferences over issues. By cumulating votes on one or few of the proposals, a cohesive minority can win at times, and in particular can win when its preferences are most intense. And because the majority generally holds more votes, it is in a position to overrule the minority if it cares to do so: the minority can win only on those issues over which its strength of preferences is high and the majority's preference intensity is weak. These are the issues the minority “should” win: the equity gains resulting from the increased representation of the minority’s preferences come at little cost to the majority. Note again that all voters are treated equally: all individuals are granted the same number of votes and all votes are equal.

Storable votes resemble cumulative voting, a semi-proportional electoral system used to facilitate the election of minority candidates. However, storable votes are a voting system for decision-making, as opposed to an electoral system, and in this they differ not only from cumulative voting but also from most other well-known voting rules: for example, Borda rule, Approval Voting, Range Voting, or Single Transferable Vote. In an electoral system, all candidates are compared, and a fixed number of winners is elected. With storable votes, each proposal is compared only to its own rejection, and all could in theory pass, or all could fail. Neither do storable votes resemble vote trading: voters can shift their individual votes across different proposals but are not allowed to trade votes interpersonally. In fact, the system discourages informal exchanges of favors: if not cast, a vote can be used over a different decision, and because it preserves its value, spending it to satisfy others’ requests is costly, even in exchange for promises of future favors. 

In principle, storable votes could be implemented easily: they can have large effects, but are a reasonably minor deviation from simple majority voting. In the case of the filibuster, it is tempting to think that storable votes could address the increasing delay in approving nominations. At fixed intervals of time, the Senate is presented with a list of nominees, each nominated for a specific position, and each senator is granted a number of votes equal to the number of names on the list. A vote is then called on each nominee. A senator can cast as many of his total votes as he wishes in his preferred direction (for or against the nominee), distributing the number of votes at the senator’s disposal only over the specified set of nominees. The nominee is approved if a simple majority of votes cast on his name are in favor. New votes are assigned whenever a new list is voted upon.

Much of the scheme’s possible success would depend on the details of its rules: How frequently will the lists be presented? Should all nominations be treated equally? We do not want to argue here that storable votes are ready for immediate implementation. Rather, we want to suggest a potential new direction for solving gridlock in polarized environments.

This is a guest post from Alessandra Casella and Sébastien Turban. Alessandra Casella's book Storable Votes is here. Sébastien Turban joined the project when the manuscript was already written but contributed substantially to its final shape.

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