What Would Multiparty Democracy in RI Look Like?

One of the things I hope was clear in my post examining the state of RI’s political parties from candidate filings was that our political parties are incredibly mismatched. Democrats dominate across the state, and Republicans struggle to compete even in favorable districts.

This creates two incentives for politicians or would-be politicians: on one side of things, a vicious cycle of “Republicans can’t win, so I won’t run as a Republican” takes hold, leading candidates to try their luck as independents. Second, many politicians with ambition in the state seek office as Democrats, regardless of whether they’re aligned with the national party’s platform or policy positions (this applies to both right- and left-wing politicians).

Thus, fights over control of the RI Democratic Party, and its party apparatuses, become major arenas each election cycle. We see this with the endorsement battles, but this also happened with the drafting of the party platform, the Women’s Caucus, and even the Young Democrats.

To me, it’s become increasingly clear that the only way to end the battles over the Democratic Party, and perhaps create a functioning, competitive democracy, is to move towards a multiparty system.

To achieve a rough simulation of what this would look like, I relied on a few sources. First, I grabbed the June 2020 registration numbers for voters from the Secretary of State’s datahub. Then, I used a 2018 study by Pew Research to create a rough estimate of the partisan breakdown of the unaffiliated voters; and the turnout rates for Democrats, Democratic-leaning independents, true independents, Republican-leaning independents, and Republicans. This gave me the voting power of Democrats, Republicans, and independents (if you want to know what this looks like, it looks like the 2018 races for Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Treasurer: 2:1 in favor of Democrats, give or take a few percentage points).

Finally, I then split the party voters by the percentages earned for the candidates in the 2014 Democratic Gubernatorial Primary and the 2018 Republican Gubernatorial Primary. I chose these primaries as I felt they best represented the lines of division I see in each party. With these and the true independents added back in, I got fractions I could then apply to the seats in the General Assembly… and thus we get this:

Parties are: Social Democratic Party of RI, RI Liberal Democratic Party, RI Christian Democratic Party, Centrist Republican Party of RI, and Conservative Republican Party of RI

Let’s talk about what might happen in a Rhode Island like this, and why it might be valuable to think about what would (or would not) change in our politics.

A note on party names: they’re purely notional, and mainly used to denote which of the two existing parties these parties would hail from.

House seats from left to right: Social Democrats (13), Liberal Democrats (15), Christian Democrats (21), Centrist Republicans (13), Conservative Republicans (9), Independents (4)
Senate seats from left to right: Social Democrats (7), Liberal Democrats (7), Christian Democrats (11), Centrist Republicans (7), Conservative Republicans (5), Independents (1)

The first thing to notice is that the Republicans do quite a bit better. Under our current system, the Republicans only do as well as the Conservative Republican Party does here in both chambers. But with a PR system, both Republican Parties are in a much better position.

There are three thresholds to governance in the General Assembly. First, half+1 (38 reps, 20 senators) of each chamber must elect a presiding officer to run the chamber. Second, three-fifths (45 reps, 23 senators) are required to override a gubernatorial veto. Third, two-thirds (50 reps, 24 senators) are required to pass a budget.

Under the current system, Democrats generally reach all of these thresholds. After the 2018 elections, there were enough representatives who theoretically could’ve blocked a budget. However, they were not unified, and by budget time, the Democratic dissenters largely were on board.

Under PR, no party reaches any threshold on its own. They must cooperate with others to achieve a budget. In fact, RI’s two-thirds requirement for budgets means coalitions must be extremely broad. If you look at the House, for instance, even a coalition of the Democratic parties only achieves 49 votes; adding an independent gives them the slimmest of margins with which to pass a budget. Adding another party gives them surplus votes to ensure that a budget can pass, but increases the difficulty of negotiating a coalition.

The Senate has a slightly easier time (the Democratic coalition is 25 seats), but it would only take one or two defections for a budget to collapse.

Why is a situation like this preferable to what’s in place currently? For one thing, parties organize collective action. Rather than fight battles in the General Assembly individually, and then fight primaries individually, genuine party organizations would allow reps and senators to campaign on a platform of explicit policies, and then demand those be included in legislation or the budget at coalition formation. It would allow the maximum number of voters to determine what sort of policies they’d prefer; rather than a few hundred voters in a primary.

It also forces consensus. While under our current state constitution, coalitions in a PR system would have to be incredibly large, under a constitution that only required a majority plus one, coalitions could be a bit more flexible. Thus, you could see a right-wing coalition, or a centrist coalition, or even some odd-fellow coalitions like a SocDem-LibDem-CenRep group. All of this leads to policy outcomes that should more broadly reflect the desires of the voters.

Finally, it should promote competition in elections. Explicit political parties would give general election voters more choices. Furthermore, they’d be able to punish or promote parties for policies passed during the legislative session; rather than having to discern which Democratic candidate in the primary stood for what (assuming they even have a primary in their district). These parties would then rise and fall on their own merits; not because of who had control over what parts of the party.

Why don’t these parties exist already? Well dissenting factions within the parties simply don’t have an alternative. This was made clear by Rep. Arthur Corvese during the Democratic Party’s platform drafting in 2018:

“What I say to my extreme left friends, I say, ‘If you don’t like it, peel away and create the Social Democratic Party.’ To my extreme right friends I say, ‘You don’t like it? Peel it off and start a Christian Democratic Party. See how far you get.’”

Via UpriseRI: “Democratic platform committee meeting highlights divisions amid calls for unity”

There are a few of reasons neither a Christian Democratic Party nor a Social Democratic Party would get far. First, state law bans the use of even a portion of an existing party’s name for a political party. I cannot call my party the “Conservative Republican Party” nor the “Social Democratic Party” – and “Democratic Republican Party” is definitely out. Second, state law also requires that to qualify as a political party, a party either win 5% of the gubernatorial or presidential vote or collect petition signatures equal to that 5% of the vote. You cannot just go and create yourself a political party; and this is by design. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want competition.

Third, Rhode Island operates on single-seat, plurality elections (whoever has the most votes in a district wins the one and only seat), which favors binary choices in elections. In any multi-candidate race, someone is going to be a spoiler. In fact, under Rhode Island’s current electoral system, it’s entirely possible to create a scenario where a party wins anywhere from 30-50% of the vote across all General Assembly races, and wins 0 seats.

To actually have a multiple parties, we need to change some laws.


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