A Washington State System?This is a guest post by Krist Novoselic, a board member of the Center for Voting and Democracy and a Washington state resident.
There is a battle in Federal Court regarding our primary elections. The struggle is between two principles. But Washington State need not choose between free association and more choices with our elections.
Ranked Choice Voting is a versatile electoral system with many benefits. It’s an idea worthy of the Pierce County Charter Review Commission’s consideration.
Here is an overview of where things are and where they can go.Cajun Primary
I-872, the Top-Two Primary passed by a 59.84% majority. Voters wanted a primary with more choices that was like the late Blanket Primary. The restrictive Montana Primary, tired out by voters mere weeks before the general election ballot question, was unpopular and voters spoke accordingly in November.
It’s likely the Top Two Primary will be restored – but with ballots featuring candidates lacking any party designation.
The US Supreme Court set the stage for non-partisan primary elections when it struck down California’s Blanket primary (1). In that ruling, Justice Scalia, writing for the majority on the court, said a non-partisan Blanket Primary, “ … has all the characteristics of the partisan blanket primary, save the constitutionally crucial one: Primary voters are not choosing a party’s nominee
The cosmetic remedy of erasing party designation off the ballot comes at a high cost to voters. The valuable information voters get by the little D, R or whatever affiliation next to a candidates’ name is important. A non-partisan ballot deprives voters of this informative tool.Big Sky Liabilities
Let’s face it; while the Montana Primary does protect a political party’s rights, it does little to speak to the valid frustrations of most Washington voters.
Many voters perceive the Montana system as a benefit only to the major political parties at the expense of taxpayers.
Most elections are uncontested or uncompetitive in our state – and primary elections are even more so. The Montana system only aggravates this sad state of affairs. Few or no choices on a partisan ballot can make voting virtually meaningless.
Don’t be fooled by thinking Washington voters will become comfortable with the Montana primary over time. I-872’s formidable near 60% poll showing will embolden its resurrection in non-partisan form.Ranked Choice Voting – A Friendly Alternative
We need not adhere to the false dichotomy between more choices and free association currently slogging through public discourse regarding our elections.
On October 25th 2005, a group of Washington State citizens, myself included, came together with the Center for Voting and Democracy, to file a friend-of-the-court brief (2) in the appeal before the US 9th Circuit Court, that seeks to overturn I-872, the top-two primary.
All of the parties in the case seek to block the Court from considering this valuable information, ostensibly because of a supposed sense of urgency or that, greater voter choice, vote dispersal problems and freedom of association are somehow irrelevant to this lawsuit.
But most Washington voters are not in any hurry to participate in primary elections as evidenced this past September when 63% shrugged off primaries.
By filing this brief, we recognize the deeper challenges regarding our state’s elections. Too many citizens hold our democratic structures in low esteem. Most races are uncontested or uncompetitive. And primary elections only tend to make the situation worse.
Our brief seeks to draw the Court’s attention to a small modification of the top-two system that would;
• alleviate the concerns of all parties involved,
• remove the constitutional problems created by I-872,
• ultimately build a quality democratic system that would invite increased participation
Modifying I-872 with a ranked choice ballot would still narrow the field to two candidates who, regardless of party affiliation, then advance to a general election.
The main difference is that each voter ranks the candidates for office in his or her order of preference, from the first choice down through as many candidates as the voter chooses to rank, or as many as the rules permit. It’s as easy as listing 1 – 2 – 3. Votes are counted in a series of rounds. Each round eliminates the candidate with the fewest votes and redistributes ballots to those voters’ next choices. This process of redistribution and elimination is repeated in subsequent rounds and the top two ranked candidates advance to the general election.
Ranked choice voting accommodates the elimination of the self-identification provision that doomed I-872. Parties could be allowed to nominate their own candidates. However, in order to re-create the wider choice benefits of I-872, parties would be allowed to nominate multiple candidates for office. With ranked choice voting, parties could be assured of their votes converging on their most popular candidates while avoiding dispersion problems. Parties would hence have great incentive to nominate a diverse field of qualified candidates from within their party in order to bring a wider swath of their supporters to the polls.
Partisan voters could rank their candidates faithfully, while at the same time, independent voters who do not wish to vote along any party line may now select candidates from a larger mixed pool thus preserving the wider choices of I-872.Benefits
A Ranked Choice Blanket Primary promises many more benefits. In San Francisco, where Ranked Choice Voting is used, negative campaigning was greatly reduced. In fact, rival candidates actually endorsed each other, vying for their opponent’s supporters second choice.
Ranked Choice Voting fosters positive participation because voters express themselves without feeling like they’re throwing their vote away or wasting their vote – a tragic reality in the lexicon of American democracy.
Washington voters could get better value out of our primary elections. Most races are uncontested thus poorly attended. Why not utilize this smart and efficient system in otherwise mostly redundant elections?
As we mention in our brief, this is a system that can be built on. Down the road, we can choose to fold the primary into one efficient ranked choice general election. This will shorten the election season and save tax dollars. Pierce County can lead the state with this important electoral innovation.
Ultimately, we can consider the Proportional Voting version of ranked ballots that would;
• make our county and legislative races much more competitive,
• give voter’s real choices
• increase the voice in Olympia of candidates and voters around our state who are politically handicapped because of redistricting.Constitutionality
Legal precedents show Ranked Choice systems as fully consistent with the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution (3), and also complying with the Voting Rights Act (4).
No provision of the Washington State Constitution poses any barrier to the ranking of candidates in a primary. Ranked Choice Voting does not interfere with voters’ guaranteed right to free and equal election as it does not frustrate the voters’ will and allows each voter an equal opportunity to rank their choices. In 1908, the Supreme Court of Washington upheld a Ranked Choice system very similar to the one proposed here for our state primary (5).
Foes of ranked ballots in San Francisco tried hard to slow its implementation after it was passed by voters. But they ultimately failed and ranked choice voting stands unchallenged because of its solid case law. Once put into place, voters were wildly enthusiastic about more real choices. All the benefits did come to fruition.Conclusion
Pierce County needs to consider ranked ballots. This innovation speaks to many of the problems currently weighing on our democracy.
When looking at all the uncompetitive or uncontested races, lack of participation and voter cynicism the question begs to be asked – is this the best democracy can get?
The Charter Commission and Pierce County voters must ask themselves this question.
1. California Democratic Party v. Jones 530 U.S. 567 (2000)
2. Amici Curiae Brief Of Fairvote – The Center For Voting And Democracy et al. See http://fixour.us/editorials/11.1.05.html
3. Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 18 (1964). Moore v. Election Comm’rs of Cambridge, 35 N.E.2d 222, 238 (Mass. 1941)
4. Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 47 (1986).
5. State v. Nichols, 50 Wash. 508, 97 P. 728 (1908). See http://wahdems.org/rcv.html