Katherine Gehl ’88 likes to joke that everything she needs to know about politics, she learned from cheese. It’s the opening line of her TEDx Talk from a virtual event organized by TEDxMileHigh in Colorado in December 2020.
“For the last decade of my business career, I ran a $250 million food company in Wisconsin, and yes, we made cheese,” she jokes. “If customers liked my cheese, I did well. If they didn’t, they bought cheese from someone else and I did less well. That’s healthy competition.”
There’s plenty of healthy competition in the business world, but according to Gehl, it is sorely lacking in politics. Gehl is a nonpartisan advocate for what she calls “political innovation” to change the incentives in politics to favor results in the public interest instead of the current polarization and stalemate in politics. She is the founder of The Institute for Political Innovation (IPI), a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to catalyze political change in the United States.
IPI’s impact has already been felt in Alaska, where in November 2020, the state adopted ranked-choice voting to combat polarization and increase voter choice. The new process is based on the strategy outlined in Gehl’s 2017 report, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” In 2020, she released a book, “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy,” which she co-authored with Harvard Business School professor and corporate strategy expert Michael E. Porter.
Gehl calls her plan Final Five Voting and says that it will create a healthier discourse of ideas and more competition in the political arena. In her vision, a single primary moves the top five candidates into the general election, regardless of party. There, voters rank the candidates, and these ballots are used to create an automatic runoff that eliminates the “spoiler and wasted votes” problem that currently discourages new competition. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated in each round. Voters who had selected the eliminated candidate would have their vote transferred to their next choice. This process continues until one candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote and is declared the winner.
“While I was in business, I was deeply engaged in traditional politics, supporting candidates and caring deeply about policy. And the more engaged I got, the more frustrated I became,” Gehl says. “Once we had the government shutdown in 2013, I really started to look more deeply at what was going on, because it was clear to me that the idea that we could elect the right candidates and somehow they were going to get things done was not turning out that way. No matter who we elected, we were getting more of the same, which is that we shut down the government sometimes no matter who is in charge. We can’t agree on our debt ceiling no matter who is in charge.”
Currently, because of the party primary system, Gehl says that politicians are forced to move further to the left or the right, depending on their party, to guarantee that they make it to their next general election since more highly ideological voters turn out in primaries than in general elections. So, in turn, they aren’t incentivized to compromise with the other side; in fact, it is the exact opposite.
“If you do a really good job, that is, working across the aisle to negotiate and reach consensus solutions, you’re likely to lose your job in your next party primary,” Gehl says.
Instead, she envisions a system where the incentive is to collaborate and create innovative ideas without fear of repercussions in a primary. And Gehl doesn’t have issues with the two-party system or the parties themselves, but rather, the climate they are operating in.
“Very few people were looking at the system,” Gehl says. “Most people who are engaged in politics are always trying to change who wins. My work is not about that — it is about changing what the winners are incented to do. It is about making sure people in Congress have the freedom to work together to make the different policy tradeoffs that we need to solve some of our biggest issues.”
Gehl says her work is not bipartisan, but nonpartisan. And while she acknowledges it is hard work, she is sustained by a daily prayer practice that was central to her childhood and nurtured in her years at Notre Dame. The goal of her work with the IPI is to see Final Five Voting adopted nationwide, for all federal elections.
Gehl has been part of crafting legislation to implement Final Five Voting at home in Wisconsin and in other states across the country, after the success in Alaska.
“Now, people who represent Alaska know that they will not automatically lose their primary if they engage in some consensus-seeking behavior. They know they will answer to the general electorate and not just a narrow slice of party primary voters,” Gehl says. “New competitors also know they have the opportunity to enter the marketplace and make their case. And they don’t have to win to create change; their ideas could be adopted or considered by the winners, who then enact it. That’s why we need a healthy competition of ideas, competition for innovative policy solutions. This new system is not about making certain ideas win, but about changing the quality of the ideas that we debate in our political marketplace.