Will American Voters Upend the Election Process? - Open Primaries
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Posted by jesse shayne on October 24, 2016 at 4:34 PM

Will American Voters Upend the Election Process?

This article was written by Phil Keisling for Governing Magazine

Ballot measures in several states would change the rules in dramatic ways. It's a challenge to "politics as usual."

This November's presidential election will go down as the most fiercely fought -- and downright cringe-worthy -- in recent history. Only one-third of Americans think either major-party candidate is "honest and trustworthy," according to a recent Fox News poll, while almost 60 percent say they're dissatisfied with the country's direction.

So it's worth noting, as the national contest's last days perhaps get even weirder and more disheartening, that some notable citizen-initiated efforts across the country are trying to change some of the most basic rules by which candidates run and are elected.

Consider South Dakota's proposed Constitutional Amendment V. If passed by the state's voters on Nov. 8, it would designate all local, state and federal elections (except the presidential race) as nonpartisan. There would be no more party-nomination primaries, which often attract just 20 to 30 percent of the state's registered voters. Instead, all candidates would run in a single primary, with the top two then advancing to a runoff regardless of party (or lack thereof).

Nothing in federal law requires these races to be held on a partisan basis, and almost every state constitution is similarly silent on the question. And while South Dakota's proposed system is similar to the open-primary framework approved by voters in California and Washington state, a broad, bipartisan coalition of supporters likes to point to nonpartisan local-government offices and to Nebraska's nonpartisan, unicameral legislature (the nation's one and only) as their inspiration.

South Dakotans aren't the only Americans looking to upend their election systems. Colorado voters will have two opportunities in November. One of the measures on the ballot, Initiative 107, would replace Colorado's presidential caucuses -- in which just 5 percent of state voters participated in 2016 -- with a presidential primary election, reverting to the system the state used from 1992 to 2000 and then abandoned to save money.

But there a twist. Colorado now uses a "vote at home" system (like Oregon and Washington state) in which all registered voters receive their ballots in the mail. But Colorado's unaffiliated voters -- now 34 percent of all of the state's voters -- could then choose any candidate of either party, though if they selected more than one the ballot would be invalidated.

A companion measure, Initiative 108, deals with non-presidential primary elections. It would eliminate Colorado's closed primary system that now allows only registered Democrats and Republicans to participate in choosing party nominees for congressional, state and local partisan offices. Unaffiliated voters would get an even fatter envelope containing each major party's ballots, though they could choose among just one party's candidates.

A very different approach to opening up the election system and giving more voice to America's growing ranks of "none of the above" voters can be found in Maine, where November's voters will get to weigh in on Question 5, the so-called "ranked choice" initiative.

The last Maine governor to win election with more than 50 percent of the general-election vote was Angus King, in 1998, and he was neither a Democrat nor a Republican but an independent. In 2010, Maine's current governor, Republican Paul LePage, was elected with less than 38 percent of the vote; the other 62 percent was split between the Democratic nominee and two independent candidates. (LePage did better in his 2014 re-election race but still won less than 50 percent of the vote in a similar three-way contest.)

LePage now ranks among the nation's least popular governors, making headlines with his sweeping, racially charged statements. But his particular path to the governor's chair would be a remnant of the electoral past if Maine voters approve Question 5, which for races for governor, the state legislature and Congress would allow general-election voters to rank all of the candidates on the ballot, regardless of their party affiliations, in order of their preference. If no candidate initially receives a majority, the votes would be re-tabulated, with last-place candidates eliminated until one candidate achieves a true majority.

The bottom line: Maine's voters would no longer have to worry about casting a vote for a favorite candidate who might prove to be a "spoiler," resulting in the election of a candidate without at least some support from a majority of the electorate.

To date, the ranked choice system has only been used in a handful of municipal, nonpartisan elections, most notably in San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn. If Question 5 passes - and recent polls show it ahead - Maine would be the first state to adopt the system for partisan elections. (Voters in Oregon's Benton County, one of the state's few where county commissioners and other local officials are still elected on a partisan basis, will also have the chance to adopt this system.)

Another state ballot initiative wouldn't change how candidates hope to cross the finish line, but it could dramatically change how they fund those journeys. Vast rivers of special-interest money for campaigns -- both publically disclosed contributions and "dark money" largely hidden from sight -- have made many Americans deeply suspicious of politicians across the political spectrum.

Under Initiative 1464 on November's Washington state ballot, every registered voter would receive three "democracy credits" of $50, which they could then donate to state legislative candidates who agree to certain conditions, including limiting the size of other contributions they accept.

While I-1464'sproponents have raised far more money to date -- more than $2.5 million vs. less than $50,000 for opponents -- the initiative faces an uphill climb. Few newspapers have endorsed it. Opponents urge voters to wait and see how the approach works in Seattle, where it recently passed, and point to its potentially indeterminate cost to taxpayers. (The measure does propose to help pay for the credits by ending certain sales-tax exemptions for out-of-state shoppers).

As ballot-initiative proponents know, it's a lot harder to get voters to "yes" than to persuade them to vote "no." But even if a few (or even one) of these measures pass, it will show an aversion to "politics as usual" that might signal far bigger changes elsewhere in the years ahead.


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