Posted by Al Benninghoff on August 19, 2015 at 12:02 PM
State Legislators Dislike Gridlock Too
We knew attending the National Conference of State Legislators was the right decision the moment Washington State Senator Joe Fain announced his support for Top Two to a room full of legislators. He encouraged them all to learn more about the issue from us, he did it completely unsolicited, and he did it simply because he saw us in the room with our promotional materials. As he spoke, I looked at my watch: we were only three hours into the first day and we had already made a huge impact. And, it only got better.
When we arrived at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, we were skeptical of finding any support at all. Elected officials are, after all, historically adversarial toward election reform issues. In Arizona for example, the state legislature literally made a federal case out of a redistricting reform initiative. Even our own organizing has shown the Nonpartisan Top Two Primary reform movement to be the most successful when appealing directly to voters. And so, as I arranged the tall stacks of our California report on our table in the exhibit hall, I wondered aloud why I’d brought so many.
We spent the next four days speaking to hundreds of legislators from across the country, and they all shared the same concerns: congressional dysfunction is a serious problem, the hyper-partisan rhetoric is causing gridlock at the state level, and voters are becoming so frustrated that they’re leaving the parties and disengaging from the political process. It was refreshing to see so many elected leaders who not only genuinely understood the problem, but were desperately searching for a solution. Every time we showed them how nonpartisan Top Two primaries directly addressed the issue, we created an evangelist.
It helped that the conference itself led right into our issue. Informational sessions like “Increasing Independents: Looking at the Rise of Unaffiliated Voters” or “When Voters Decide: Ballot Initiatives” and speeches given by Michael Dimock, President of Pew Research, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, both of which centered on the problems of partisan gridlock, made natural transitions for discussing Top Two. Even some of the committee meetings were perfect segways: NCSL’s Legislative Effectiveness Committee found that primary challenges were a key contributor of gridlock in state legislatures.
One Southern representative was so moved by the prospects presented by Top Two that he hugged every member of our team.
A Mid-Atlantic representative stood right in front of our booth for 20 minutes as he wrapped up a phone call because he felt the issue was too important to walk away without speaking to us about it. There was a Midwestern legislator who was furious about his party’s attempts to close their primaries.
We met Representative Mike Fortner who introduced the Top Two bill in Illinois earlier this year, a group of Northeastern legislators frustrated by special interests dumping money into state political campaigns, the West Coast representative who bragged about being elected in an open primary, and so many more elected officials, each with a personal stake in the issue. Time and again, we found the state legislators to be just as frustrated with the partisan structure of elections as the American voters are. And, that doesn’t even include the legislative staffers or the national nonprofit leaders who made impassioned commitments to help.
That conference was like doing five years of organizing in four days. The momentum for Top Two primary reform is palpable; but that means we are at a critical moment. These legislators will now return to their states and have conversations with their colleagues, constituents, and congressional delegations.
If we let that happen in a vacuum, we could lose all of the energy and excitement we’ve built around our movement. We need a strong push from supporters all over the country to show broad popular support. You can do your part by supporting the Open Our Democracy Act, federal legislation that would make all congressional primaries Top Two primaries. If you’ve already signed on, please share it with friends. If you’ve already done that, tell them again. Now is a crucial time, and we need everyone to do their part.