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Ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan primaries could improve elections

Could adding competition to elections break the gridlock in Wisconsin, and beyond?

If you’re a fan of the Simpsons, you remember the classic Halloween episode from 1996 in which aliens take over the bodies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in the middle of the presidential campaign.

After Homer unmasks them on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in front of a large crowd, one man in the throng announces he will vote for a third party candidate rather than aid and abet a hostile alien invasion.

Kang, the alien who took over Dole’s body, taunts the crowd.

“Go ahead!” he bellows. “Throw your vote away!”

Back in the crowd, Ross Perot, the independent candidate that year, removes his straw hat and punches through it.

It’s no secret the two-party system in the U.S. squeezes out competition. And, most agree that American government, at federal and state levels, is gridlocked.

Consider the paradox that elections for Congress heavily favor incumbents, while Congress consistently has abysmal approval ratings.

Adding some competition could be the answer.

With a pair of symbiotic electoral innovations, a national movement is attempting to blast an icebreaker through our frozen governments. And one group in Wisconsin, Democracy Found, is hoping to introduce these two ideas in the state legislature next year.

“There are levers that we can pull to change the system,” said Sara Eskrich, the group’s executive director, “and therefore change the results that the system is delivering.”

Nonpartisan primaries

Many elections for office are decided in a primary system dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties – and often just one of the two – well before the candidates face general election voters.

That can incentivize political extremism. While candidates in a safe red or blue seat don’t have to fear dying by the sword of the other party, they may have to ward off a friendly-fire challenge, where a candidate from their own party runs against them in the primary election. The threat can push politicians further to the extremes, because in a primary, a candidate generally must appeal to the more partisan voters who participate in it before pivoting to the middle ground for the general election. And extremist politicians – especially in split government – can make legislating harder.

The partisan primary system can also result in uncompetitive elections. Even in Wisconsin, the swingingest of swing states, none of the eight races for Congress in 2018 were settled by less than 11 percentage points in the general election. That’s the equivalent of electoral blowouts in every Congressional race in the Dairy State.

Gerrymandering, which creates safe seats for one party, is at least partially to blame for those results. But a choice of only two candidates also contributes. More candidates on the general election ballot would give voters a choice within the same party, or possibly even from a third party, even if the districts were gerrymandered.

The same uncompetitive elections can play out in states that lean to either side politically – like New York on the left and Alabama on the right.

In addition, states that require voters to register with a specific party before casting a ballot in the primary automatically marginalize voters who do not identify with the party that dominates in those voters’ districts. If a Republican shows up to vote in his or her Congressional primary in a district that is Democratic-dominated, he or she has virtually no way to make their vote count.

A classic example is Democrat-dominant Milwaukee, where Democratic primary winners waltz to victory in the general election. Republicans virtually never win.

Nonpartisan primaries could change all that, proponents say. Instead of having a Republican primary and a Democrat primary in a race for, say U.S. Senate, every candidate runs on one primary ballot. Republican, Democrat, Green, Whig, whatever. The top vote-getters move on to the general.

Washington and California already use a nonpartisan, Top Two Primary, in which the two candidates with the highest vote totals move on to the general election, regardless of party. Wisconsin does too, but only for elections considered “nonpartisan.” For example, to win a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, all candidates must first run in a single ballot, nonpartisan primary election. Then the top two vote-winners meet in the general election. That’s what happened in the current race for state Supreme Court that has sitting Justice Daniel Kelly facing off against Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky in the April 7 general election.

But the Top Two system “doesn’t create enough of that healthy competition,” Eskrich said. Experts debate whether that structure actually does elect more moderates or bring new ideas to government.

In an attempt to improve upon the idea, Democracy Found is pushing for Top Five primaries, in which the five-highest vote winners move on to the general.

“In many ways, that changes the debate and the dialogue in elections,” Eskrich said.

Ranked-choice voting

Another idea, one that’s already established in Maine and more recently in New York City, among other places, is ranked-choice voting.

In this system, a candidate must earn a majority of votes – not just the most votes – to win the race. Rather than choosing one candidate, voters rank all the candidates for one seat. If no one wins a majority, the last place candidate is wiped off the ballot and votes cast for that candidate are given to their voters’ second choice. Rinse and repeat until one candidate breaks the 50% plus one threshold to win a majority.

“It’s essentially a series of runoff elections,” Eskrich said. “But instead of having to come back and cast your votes a second or third vote, you cast all your votes at once.”

Imagine the 2000 presidential election in which Democrats blamed the liberal, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for costing Al Gore the White House. In a ranked-choice system, liberal voters could have ranked Nader first, Gore second and George W. Bush third. Neither Gore nor Bush got a majority of votes in the country nor in Florida – the state that decided the election – so Nader’s votes would have gone to the second choice – most likely Gore.

In theory, ranked-choice frees up voters to select who they want without fearing they will, to re-quote Kang, throw their vote away, or worse, help the candidate they oppose to win.

The system flipped a Maine Congressional election in 2018, the first year of ranked-choice voting in that state. After the general election, Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden each won about 46% of the vote, with the Republican leading by about 2,000 votes. But after state counters eliminated the lower vote-getters and redistributed their votes to the second choice, Golden moved ahead of Poliquin and broke the 50% threshold first.

Advocates of ranked-choice voting believe it will produce campaigns that are less adversarial and more collegial, Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, said in an email.

“In a winner-take-all situation, candidates have incentives to generate high turnout among their base voters and criticize their opponents,” he wrote. “Under ranked-choice voting candidates should try to avoid alienating supporters of their opponents because those voters might rank them next.”

Some concerns with the ranked-choice system include the fact that vote-counting is slower, Burden said, and it is more complicated than a binary choice. Voters will need time to adjust, and the ballot must be clear, he added.

In Wisconsin

The ranked-choice wave is growing and gaining momentum. In the November election, voters in Alaska and Massachusetts will decide if they want it. In addition, Alaskans will vote on enacting a nonpartisan, Top Four Primary.

But these electoral options would be imposed only via ballot initiative, where a petition with a certain number of signatures can force bills onto a ballot.

Wisconsin does not allow ballot initiatives, which leaves the effort to legislators. That’s not entirely promising for incumbent legislators to want to change a system which put them there. Maggie Turnbull, an independent candidate for governor in 2018 who got about 19,000 votes – less than 1% of the total cast – declared she would enact ranked-choice voting by executive order were she to win.

Looking ahead, state Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) said he plans to introduce a bill that would enact both ranked choice voting and nonpartisan Top Five primaries in the 2021 session, assuming he wins reelection in November.

The assemblyman said he has talked with state Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who also has shown interest in the electoral ideas, about co-sponsoring the bills. A Kooyenga spokesman said the senator was unavailable to comment for this story.

Republicans are likely to maintain control of both chambers of the Wisconsin State Legislature, and their leadership has been reluctant to change an electoral system that has delivered them majorities for the past decade.

Still, Democracy Found continues its push. The group has a charitable arm and a lobbying arm, Eskrich said, and is funded by a group of private donors, some which are disclosed on its website, and some which are not.

Riemer is hoping voters across the state will see the benefits of changing the two-party dominance of elections. The dual election changes would encourage candidates of one party to converse with voters from the other party, he said, conversations that aren’t happening now.

“There’s just a wall,” he continued. “If you could change that, you could probably go some way towards changing the relationships we have to each other in bodies of government.”

Peter Cameron is the managing editor for “The Badger Project,” a nonpartisan, reader-supported, investigative journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin. Cameron can be reached at pcameron@thebadgerproject. org.