Katherine Gehl

Making Politics Work Again

Air Date: February 6, 2023

Institute for Political Innovation founder Katherine Gehl discusses the key to fixing a politics industry.


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Katherine Gehl. She’s founder and chairman of Political Innovation. The Institute for Political Innovation is focused on realizing the promise of our political life in America. She is also co-author of the Politics Industry with Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter. Gehl is the former president and c e o of Gehl Foods, a food manufacturing company based in Wisconsin. Katherine, a pleasure to host you today.

Gehl: Alexander. I’m thrilled to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Heffner: Let me ask you to start, um, the mission of correcting the politics industry. What was the initial impetus in your mind? Was it a particular incident of political dysfunction, or just the accumulation of, of years of witnessing political dysfunction?

Gehl: Yeah, it’s, it could easily be both, but let’s go with the cumulative years of witnessing this political dysfunction. And then that was, of course, punctuated by various moments where I thought, oh, please, we can’t really be doing it this way in our extraordinary country. Um, but the real impetus came not from seeing the problem or getting fed up with the problem. It came from seeing the solution, which is to say that I’ve seen the problem for years as have so many people. But in the course of, uh, being super concerned about the problem, I ended up when I was working in my business, uh, making a unique connection between politics as an industry and, you know, this food manufacturing business that I was in, and really understanding the dysfunction of politics as a business and how anti-competitive it is and how little customers are served. And then out of that came up with a specific solution that I thought was really remarkably powerful and I couldn’t unsee it. I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, trying to sell more cheese sauce in my Wisconsin food company when I could see this solution that we weren’t working on. And because I couldn’t unsee it, eventually I sold my company and in part so I could do this work full-time.

Heffner: Expound on what you saw, what crystallized in your mind as the solution or the solutions. We know it’s complicated, so there must be more than one solution.

Gehl: There’s so certainly are many things we could do to improve our democracy, but believe it or not, I’m going to say that if there were a silver bullet, it would be this one that I’m going to talk to you about right now. And that is what I call final five voting. So here is the shortest problem solution I can give now, right now in this country, if we look back in the last year, on September 13th, 2022, we should have had a headline in the country and every newspaper that said something like this, you know, over 85% of House seats chosen over 65% of Senate seats chosen, as in the election had happened in over 80% of, you know, cases in the House by September 13th. September 13th was the date of the last party primaries in this country. And as we know, when we pay attention to it, if a candidate wins a Republican primary in a safe red district, then that candidate is guaranteed to win the general. And if a Democrat wins a Democratic primary in a safe blue district, they’re guaranteed to win the general. We already know who’s won when the primary is over. So even though we keep talking about Election Day in November, Election Day in November, effectively there were many election days for the vast majority of seats that had already passed. And were almost blind to that. This means that most of the people turning out in November, in this leading democracy in the world, that is our extraordinary country, most of the people turning out November are wasting their time. Their votes are a farce when it comes to the House and the Senate because those decisions were made. So the key is with Final Five voting to change the day, the decisions are made to actually be Election Day, to have no winners chosen until November, which is sometimes I say that what we need to do to fix our democracy is to actually try democracy, which is to make sure all those November votes matter. And here’s why that would change it, if I can for a moment, Alexander.

Heffner: Please.

Gehl: So now that we know that it seems kind of crazy that we’re letting all these people waste their time in November and that none of these, so many of these votes aren’t mattering at all. That seems undemocratic and unfair and unrepresentative, and it is indeed all of those things. But what really is a far worse problem is once November votes are meaningless as they are in all these cases, that means that certain votes are very meaningful and those are the votes in the party primaries. And here’s the thing. On September 13th when 85% of the house had been chosen in 65% of the Senate, only 8% of voters in the entire country had participated in those party primaries that chose those winners 8%. And while we think, and that’s 8% on the right and 8% on the left are participating in the party primaries, and while we think, oh my gosh, those voters over here and over here couldn’t be more different from one another, it turns out that these voters are remarkably similar, virtually identical in one wildly consequential way. And that is that this 8%, and this 8% is characterized by how much they hate the other party more than they are motivated by how much they actually like their party’s solutions. Political scientists call this negative partisanship. And because these are the people who elect most of the House and Senate, they are also the bosses of most of the House and Senate. And so when the people elected by these 8% characterized by negative partisanship are trying to do their jobs to solve our problems, they have to, first, they have to have as their first priority that the other side needs to fail. Their first priority cannot be solving the problem in a consensus sustainable way, because that’s not what their bosses want. Once we make November voters everybody’s boss, we can have a lot more opportunity for problem solving.

Heffner: So tactically speaking, Katherine, there is work that’s been undertaken to expand Open Primaries that invite a broader constituency of voters to those June, July, September, um, October, but usually June, July, August primaries. There are states that have worked towards opening the primary process so that it doesn’t matter your affiliation, you can select, uh, a Democrat or a Republican, but what you are advocating is having an Open Primary system in effect in the general election or a Ranked Choice voting system in the general election whereby voters have, can make a determination among five candidates?

Gehl: Yes, those are some of the details. If I could for a moment, Alexander, step back and talk first about what do we wanna solve for? So the problem, so some reformers in, in democracy reform are solving for making things more fair or more representative, for example, and I am for things being fair and representative, but the problem that I’m solving for in this work is the ability of our elected officials to do what they need to do to deliver policy solutions, right.

Heffner: Right.

Gehl: That actually will solve our problem in a sustainable, which requires bipartisanship way. So I’m not worried about who gets elected, I’m worried about what those, I’m not worried about the.

Heffner: The behavior of, of those people. And you believe that increasing the competitiveness is gonna increase the capacity for deliberation and is gonna increase the functionality of, of systems.

Gehl: I believe that having winners chosen in November in a highly competitive race is going to make sure that the winners…have a lot of agency, right?

Heffner: That’s first domino. But the theory behind it is that it’s gonna increase competitiveness and interest and, um, the apathy that you, you know, allude to during the primary cycle is going to transform into a consensus of great literacy and participation during the general elections. Now you’re targeting this and you have to target this in terms of changing the rules on a state by state basis because that’s how our elections work. So you’re based in Illinois, right.

Gehl: Right. I’m in Chicago.

Heffner: So how’s, how’s it going? Um, not only in Illinois but around the country, because I know that your innovation lab is undertaking this work in a lot of different states with experiments in different states.

Gehl: Right? So, uh, so our work is to talk about this idea and have people decide they like it, and then if they like it to pass the reform called Final Five voting in their state. And this reform, an early version of it called Final Four Voting because it’s for candidates from the primary going to the general has passed in Alaska that passed by voter referendum in 2020. Not something to, uh, give enormous credit to our institution, and although we were absolutely a part of it, but to give enormous credit to Alaskans, uh, particularly a man named Scott Kendall who started that initiative there and passed it in 2020. So that is set. They’ve had their first elections under this system this year. And then this year we also, uh, had Nevadans have the opportunity to vote yes or no on Final Five Voting in Nevada. And on November 8th, they voted yes for Final Five Voting that will go into effect in Nevada after 2024, assuming they pass it again in Nevada, you have to pass it twice in two consecutive elections, and then they would have Final Five Voting going from there. We also have campaigns for Final Five Voting in Wisconsin, in Georgia for the New York City, uh, races. And there’s a huge pipeline of other states that are looking at final five voting ballot initiatives for 2024.

Heffner: I noticed the lexicon you’re using is this open concept of Final Four or Final Five as opposed to rank choice. Is that deliberate?

Gehl: Yeah. Final Five Voting is, is the umbrella term for a system which includes two changes to the existing way we run our elections. The first is we get rid of the party primary, and instead we have one single ballot primary and every, and other people call it an open primary, but it’s better referred to as single ballot primary, where everybody runs regardless of party on the same ballot. And everybody votes regardless of party with the same choices in front of them. You pick your favorite polls, close, top five finishers from that single ballot, primary advanced to the general election. And then in the general election, we use instant runoffs to narrow that five, those five candidates to the final two candidates. At which point, of course, the candidate with the majority wins. That process of instant runoffs is facilitated by voters using a ranked ballot. So they ranked their choices, they’re like, oh my gosh, Alexander, I want him to be my senator. He is my first choice. I would be so thrilled, but if I can’t have Alexander, you know, I’ll take Amy cuz she’s pretty darn good all the way down to my fifth choice, you know that Katherine Gehl, over my dead body, do I want her to be my senator. So she’s my fifth choice. So you just rank them in order of preference. We do that all the time. And then you use those, that information to conduct the instant runoffs, I don’t like to call right? Instant runoffs ranked choice voting because it basically makes no sense to most people. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, whereas everybody knows what runoffs are and having them be instant is just what’s logical. So we can know the results ASAP.

Heffner: And, and the extent to which rank choice or runoffs are used in a final four or final five that can vary from system to system. There may be a system where you actually want to have a top five, but you don’t have as much of an algorithm dictating the, the runoffs. In other words, you could have more candidates in, in effect, like an open election where you have five candidates, but the, the highest vote getter is, is the, is the outright winner…

Gehl: So let me break in there for a moment. So that is, that is how it’s traditionally been talked about, which is for the instant runoff portion that if out of the five someone’s on the first choice votes has 50% right away you just say they’ve won and we’re done. That’s not what we propose or recommend. Right? Going forward, we recommend running the runoffs all the way down until the final two, and then, you know, once it’s down to the final two, how much that person won by. So you might know immediately that Alexander, you are gonna win, but the question is, how much will you win by when it’s down to two candidates?

Heffner: Now here’s some variables and and I know you’re proposing this as a potential solution, it may or may not, we all accept be a silver bullet or magic bullet, whatever you wanna call it. We know that the variables in that system that you’re describing have to do with money in, in politics, have to do with, um, whether candidates can run fact-based campaigns, uh, whether social media and the airwaves are going to boost, uh, disinformation and conspiracy theory. You can have a system that you described and there theoretically can be as much disinformation, uh, acrimony, um, and, uh, and dysfunction theoretically. I’m not saying it, it is, but, but what are some of those variables? You’re, you’re concerned about yourself because you, you want this system, but then you want it to operate in a certain manner.

Gehl: Yeah. So this, let, let me answer this. When I come from business, I came into this realm of political change with a real bottom line. I don’t mean money, but real sort of action oriented bottom line approach, which is I don’t want to waste anybody’s time talking about things that matter, but a but over which we have no power. Okay? So in this dysfunctional doom loop, that’s what my colleague Lee Drutman, the political scientist calls our political system. It’s just this, all the bad things leading to the next bad thing, right? Disinformation to money to X, Y, and Z. The question is not that we should spend all our time figuring out which of these things is the worst, but it’s figuring out where in this dysfunctional system can we intervene and stop the doom loop from happening? Where do we have power? And where we have power is to intervene in the dysfunctional loop where right now our system lets 8% of people choose 85% of our representatives, we can intervene and ensure that November elections always choose the winners when everybody turns, turns out, and that we can intervene. So we have five good choices and not just lesser of two evils elections. So I don’t spend time bemoaning other things that also are suboptimal because what good would that do? I spend time on the thing that is powerful, that if we change it, it will really alter the incentives for the people elected. And that also is achievable, which is we can do it. I never understand why people wanna spend all their time talking about things that matter, but that we don’t have any power to change.

Heffner: Well, I I appreciate that. Um, and, and I think that in general, the anti-competitiveness, and the function it performs of, of anti deliberation, um, tilting us to the extremes that you described well is deeply problematic and we’re capable of confronting it systemically and rhetorically too. That all being said, Katherine, my my primary concern here is that politics shouldn’t be an industry, it should be a utility.

Gehl: there are things we want but we can’t have. Okay? So when I talk about politics as an industry, it’s just getting clear with what the facts are, which is to say it’s a huge business and a lot of people make a lot of money in the business of politics, and we don’t have the ability to make that not so.

Heffner: Yeah

Gehl: And instead what we need to do is ensure that, so right now in the business of politics, people that are making money and getting power off of that business are doing super well, right? We all have this sense that there’s more business and money in politics than ever, and we sort of don’t like it. As you say, you’d like it to be a utility, but let’s assume we can’t change it because that’s true. We can’t. What if instead we just said, how about we make the best way to get money and power in the politics business be to solve problems for the broad general that make the November voters happy, make money by solving problems for November voters? I bet people don’t…I bet people don’t have a problem with it.

Heffner: Well, that’s, thats what I love about your work. That’s what I absolutely a, uh, think is essential. It’s ingenious changing the incentive structure, um, and that has made inroads in business, socially conscious business endeavors. Uh, at least corporations are talking a good game, if not acting a good game. Um, so I hear you. I think about some of our democratic counterparts. Over the span of American political life, never has there been a tr you know, a multi-trillion dollar, uh, campaign. There probably will be one in these next years, but we’re talking about, you know, that kind of wealth, um, that is being deployed in the span of, of one year to two years to three years. So my primary contention about what, what needs to be the, the companion piece to your proposition is we can’t have these trillion dollar or billion dollar campaigns every year. We just can’t do it. We, it, the functionality of the system. It’s not gonna survive besides the fact that we are exporting all this wealth that actually could be create solving problems. If you want to actually campaign and solve problems in the process of campaigning, there’s an idea like let’s actually see how many bridges and tunnels and school buildings you can put up with some of those campaign funds. But we know that’s not happening. So my question to you is, am I wrong that the necessary companion or extension of your argument is that we can’t keep funding these billion dollar campaigns every four years or senatorial campaigns that are, that are operating and you know, we know that the, the next election starts the day after Election Day, and that’s been the case for several decades now…

Gehl: Uh, yes, you’re wrong. Here’s why. So if right now we were able to artificially reduce the absolute amount of money going into politics through some law or constitutional amendment by a factor of 10, but we leave everything else in the existing system the same, what it takes to get elected and all the other things in the doom loop the same. What we would do is simply make it 10 times cheaper for money and politics to get the result they currently get. Okay? Because the money interacts with the system. And the problem that we have is that right now the only way to win is to appeal to these 8% of primary voters. And so the money has to go in to support those wins once we make it clear that the wins happen in November, if money goes in to support winning and answering to a majority of November voters, then the money can, you know, sort of stay the same in a sense. Because the point is that it’s what it takes to win effectively in our, in our politics system. Right now, we don’t have a problem with the absolute amount of money in politics, although I agree it’s obscene, I mean it and it’s horrible, but it’s not that there is so much money, it’s almost like there’s two currencies in politics and some customers of the political establishment pay with money and some customers pay with votes, and really it’s votes that should be the currency in politics for the elected representatives. And we have an exchange rate problem, which is to say that all those November votes are worth nothing relative to the money. So instead of trying to artificially bring down money, which is another thing we can’t do because we need constitutional amendments to do it and you can’t make them happen, what we have to do is just raise the relative value of votes over money, and that’s what Final Five voting does.

Heffner: Yeah, that’s a good…

Gehl: It makes November votes more important than money, and that’s the answer.

Heffner: Katherine, it’s a persuasive answer. Um, and I appreciate it. We’re just about out of time for those viewers. I was alluding to democracies in Europe and elsewhere where the elections are more frugal, um, but they also don’t take place quite as frequently. Then my suggestion to you may not be that we have to end the endless campaign or have more truncated campaign seasons, although I think that would help deal with the problem. But we, we as voters need to have that currency and need to be able to assess the problems and the deliverables and make sure that our reps are getting those deliverables accomplished for our communities. Because that criteria, that metric of assessing whether, it’s not a good old boy or gal, we’re gonna vote them in regardless of whether, you know, a, a bridge collapse on their watch that they didn’t renovate that they should have, right? That the criteria, um, for assessing public servants, um, as makers of that space of utility and common good that that must change. You agree there, right? We have 60 seconds.

Heffner: Katherine Gehl, thank you so much for the work you’re doing at the Political Innovation Center, the Institute You Run. Thank you.

Gehl: Thank you, Alexander.

Heffner: Please visit The Open MInd website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.