August 31, 2004

Electoral Reform in Washington

Alright, the time has come for me to comment. If you live in Washington, you've no doubt heard of the crap that's gone on. The Republicans and Democrats (acting together, to preserve their shared dominance over the American political system) sued the state over its "blanket primary" system, and the system was declared unconstitutional, because it is a "nominating primary" and yet it does not give the parties any control over who is voting to nominate their candidates. Washington never had a presidential primary, due to not having a valid electoral system in place.

Under the original system, Washington voters did not register a party affiliation. They could vote for any candidate in the primary, as long as they only voted for one candidate for each office, and the highest vote-getter from each party went on to the main election. Minor party candidates needed 1% of the vote.

Following the chaos, the legislature hastily adopted a "Montana-style" nominating primary so that an electoral system would be in place for the main primary for state offices in September. Under this system, which will be used in a few weeks, voters will receive three ballots, one Democrat, one Republican, and one Libertarian (the Libertarians are a "major party" in Washington, even though they rarely actually get elected). Each voter must pick only one ballot to vote on in the primary.

There are huge problems with this system, especially among Washington's proudly independent voters. For instance, here in Palouse, our mayor, Michael Echanove is running for the state legislature. He is very popular in town. There is probably more than one staunch Democrat and Kerry supporter in town who will be voting in the Republican primary in order to support Michael. These people will most likely vote for the weakest candidates available for every other office, in the hopes that the Democrats will defeat them, which is of course exactly the sort of 'cross-over' that the major parties were hoping to prevent by their lawsuit. As if this wasn't bad enough: The Libertarian party is always standing on principle to their political detriment, and for this I applaud them. Just as they refuse to receive government campaign funding, although they are often eligible, they also refuse to participate in government funded primary elections. Instead their candidates are elected at conventions. When Washington created it's new electoral system, it didn't eliminate the 1% rule. Because of the nominating convention, there will be only one candidate for each office on the Libertarian ballot in the primary. What this means is that in order for their to be any Libertarians on the ballot for state office in Novermber, 1% of all Washington voters must pick up the Libertarian ballot and vote the straight party ticket. No one in Washington, of any party, votes down the party line. Secretary of State Sam Reed says his office is receiving about 1,000 calls per day from voters who are either confused or angry about the new system. As if this wasn't bad enough, he says that he expects this primary system to be declared unconstitutional as well following the resolution of a lawsuit brought by the Libertarian party, but the lawsuit won't be resolved in time to invalidate the results of this election.

Because we don't trust our legislature with the task of adequately reforming the electoral system for the next election, it looks as though the new system will be brought about by means of initiative. The first contender is Initiative 872, brought by the Grange (which, for you city folk, is a large special interest group representing farmers. Despite the "special interest group" stigma, they tend to actually be a lot closer to what the people want than other special interest groups, such as, say, the major political parties). The Grange designed Washington's original electoral system 70 years ago.

I-872 would establish a "Louisiana-style" blanket primary. This system has already stood up to constitutional challenges. In this system, the government does not officially recognize the existence of political parties at all. Instead, all candidates are listed on the ballot (in Louisiana they don't get to list their party affiliations) and people can choose any candidate they like, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, get on the final ballot.

Despite opposition from groups I like, namely the Libertarian party, 872 is a huge step up from the current system. In an SMDP (Single Member District Plurality) voting system, voters (theoretically) vote for the candidate, not the party. Unless we switch to a Proportional Representation system (which we should for the lower house, on both state and federal levels), there is no reason for the government to officially recognize the parties. If they want to pick only one candidate and choose, voluntarily, not to run Republicans against other Republicans, that is their right, as independent, non-governmental organizations. However, it's none of the government's business.

I-872 still has some problems. For one, there is still a primary, and voter turnout for primaries is low. Furthermore, the primary determines more than it does under the current and previous systems, and so a lower percentage of total registered voters are making decisions. Of course, this is the fault of the people who don't vote, not the system. Primaries are also expensive. Then there is the fact that this system doesn't address the (alleged) problem of "spoilers". People will still feel compelled to vote in the primary for the "lesser evil" among the candidates they view as the real contenders.

Enter I-318, Instant Runoff Voting. Under IRV, voters may vote for as many candidates as they like, provided that they rank these candidates in order of preference (try it out here). All of the first-choice votes are counted. If no candidate has a strict majority (>50%), the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and his votes are redistributed to the voters' second choices. This continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote. This eliminates the (alleged) "wasted vote" problem, and also the need for a primary. All candidates who get enough signatures would be on the final ballot. I-318 is the real solution. Unfortunately, it won't be on the ballot until next year.

This presents me with a dilemma. I-872 would really be a huge improvement over our current system. However, I am afraid that if we successfully reform the electoral system this election, voters will not want to change it again next year. Voting against 872 would be a gamble. If it gets voted down, 318 may or may not get voted in in the next election, and who knows what we could end up with for next year if the current system is declared unconstitutional. In the end, I think I'll probably have to vote for it, and just hope I'm not the only one who still votes for 318 next year. What a mess.

Posted by Kenny at August 31, 2004 3:17 PM
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Status of Washington's Primary System
Excerpt: In September, I blogged on the present state of Washington's "top two" primary system. In brief, after being sued by the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties to invalidate the "blanket primary," which allowed voters to vote for any one candi...
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: February 2, 2006 4:39 PM

Comments

Kenny,

You have a very good blog.
Thank you for the kind words.

Michael

Posted by: Michael Echanove at September 13, 2004 9:17 PM

I know I'm a little late catching up here, but I'd like to encourage you to vote against I-872. I think you called it right that people will feel like the whole thing is finished if this initiative passes. And, as you say, it really isn't a very good answer. I'd stick to your guns for the Instant Runoff Voting plan, which I also like a lot better. Vote against I-872, and give IRV a chance next year.

Thanks,

-- Bob Koerner

Posted by: Bob Koerner at September 18, 2004 1:57 PM

I understand the sentiment, but I really do think that I-872 would be a huge step forward. The Louisiana style primary is probably the best currently operating in this country. Of course, IRV would be better, and we know it works, because they're doing it in Australia, but will it pass? People are upset enough with the current system that most will probably vote for anything that changes it. Realistically, I-872 will probably pass, but if it doesn't, I suppose the IRV initiative would be almost a sure thing. The worst part, of course, is that we won't have confirmation as to whether it will even be on the ballot next year by the time we have to decide whether to vote for or against 872. I'm still torn.

Posted by: Kenny at September 18, 2004 4:31 PM

No, the Louisiana system is horrible. Just look at the politicians it produces, and all the corruption. You really want a system that nominated David Duke to be used in Washington?

I-872 will restrict voter choice even more than the Montana primary has, because it restricts voter choice in the election most people vote in: the November general election. Say goodbye to voting for third parties ever again if this passes.

Posted by: Jacqueline Passey at October 1, 2004 2:07 AM

If people don't vote in the primary it's their own fault. You, as a Libertarian, have to acknowledge that the government cannot - and must not try to - protect people from themselves. If they choose to be stupid, that's their choice. I-318 has the merit that it would save money and be easier logistically than any other system (if it was implemented properly. We'll see how things turn out in San Francisco to find out if this is true). But I-872 still does give a choice, and it acknowledges a very basic fact: in an SMDP electoral system, there is no reason why the government should officially recognize the existence of political parties. Washington voters hate political parties. I-872 would encourage people to vote for a person rather than a party, which is what Washington voters, myself included, want. Under this measure, the primary election would become far more important and I think there would be higher voter turnout. Additionally, I think most of the Libertarian arguments on the subject (and I do consider myself a Libertarian) leave out a simple fact: In some districts, the primaries DO choose the candidates. In Whitman County, where I vote, Republicans win, every time. In King County, Democrats win, every time. The Republican primary for our state representative had no less than FIVE CANDIDATES. Now, since the Republican vote was split almost evenly between three candidates, and the Democratic vote was all consolidated for one, I-872 would have the same effect as the current system, this time, and IRV would correct the situation. But 872 would be better than what we have now, because it would make the primary meaningful, and not merely a partisan exercise. I am a strong supporter of IRV, and I plan to vote for you in November, Ms. Passey, but I think the dangers of 872 are overrated. A ballot without a Libertarian on it does not gaurantee that there was some "undemocratic" process taking place. It could be that the people simply didn't want to vote Libertarian. 872 would encourage people to vote in primaries. 317 would eliminate the need for a primary. 872 is a step in the right direction. 317 is the real solution.

Posted by: Kenny at October 1, 2004 10:00 AM

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