Daily Press (Sunday)

The states are leading American democracy out of complacenc­y

- By Rachel Leven Rachel Leven is a public policy profession­al and author of the report “Alaska’s Election Model: How the top-four nonpartisa­n primary system improves participat­ion, competitio­n, and representa­tion.” He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

This has been a rough year.

The waves of violence, natural disasters and conflict over the last several months are enough to make an optimist lose hope. To make matters worse, our political system seems totally incapable of solving these crises. Six in 10 Americans have little to no confidence in the future of our political system, a recently published Pew Research Center study found. It feels like problems are everywhere, and thanks to a stale, uncompetit­ive electoral system, leadership is nowhere.

At the root of this dysfunctio­n is a political system that exists to sustain the status quo, not build toward the future. The Democratic and Republican parties play the political game so well that only a handful of places in the U.S. experience truly competitiv­e elections. Everywhere else, there’s essentiall­y no way to hold party power in check. Last year, a shocking 41% of state legislativ­e races nationwide featured only one major party, according to Ballotpedi­a.

Because most elections lack healthy competitio­n, the voices that can challenge party power are selling extremism and controvers­y, not progress and governance. If we want accountabi­lity from our elected officials and the ability to respond to the violence, disasters and many more challenges that we’ll continue to face, we need to shake the great institutio­n of American democracy out of its self-perpetuati­ng complacenc­y.

A study I co-wrote for the Unite America Institute, a nonpartisa­n research group, suggests that Alaska’s new top-four nonpartisa­n primary may be the shake-up we need. In Alaska’s election last year, all state and federal primary candidates were listed on one nonpartisa­n ballot. Voters chose one candidate per office. The top four vote-getters advanced to the general election, in which voters ranked their preferred candidates. If no one received a majority of the first-place votes, an instant runoff decided the winner.

As a result, general elections were significan­tly more competitiv­e. Unconteste­d elections for the state legislatur­e fell from 24% in 2020 to 12% in 2022, according to our study, making last year’s the most competitiv­e election for at least a decade prior. Our research makes clear that this fresh competitio­n, shown across many metrics, is directly because of Alaska’s new voting system.

Alaska voters also had the freedom to express a diversity of ideologica­l opinions, which was not possible under the old system. In the primary election, across multiple races, they could choose a combinatio­n of Democrats, independen­ts and Republican­s. In the general election, they could rank two or more candidates from the same party. Candidates in Alaska had to do more than wear a red or blue pin; they had to make the case to all voters from all parties why they personally were better for the job. More so, our work shows, than in any other state.

Although there is still much to learn, Alaska’s reform is the kind of change that — if adopted by other states — could prevent the U.S. House from falling into an endless cycle of speaker votes and keep elected officials focused on working for their districts.

The Alaska Statehouse and state Senate establishe­d crossparti­san governing coalitions so they can pass critical legislatio­n, such as the state’s budget. Freshman Statehouse members from across the aisle formed an informal caucus to support each other as they learned to navigate the chamber.

Thankfully, a reform movement is growing across the country. California, Washington, Nebraska and Louisiana also have done away with partisan primaries. Maine voters have used instant runoffs, also known as rankedchoi­ce voting, to elect their federal representa­tives since 2018. Last year, Nevada voters approved an

Alaska-style reform and must pass it once more in 2024 for it to become effective in 2026.

More and more cities like Evanston, Illinois, are adopting instant runoffs, and still others like Portland, Oregon, are implementi­ng proportion­al election systems. Though they come in different flavors, all these reforms seek to increase competitio­n and reframe the incentives for leaders.

Now and then, the rules have to change. With each passing year, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the status quo isn’t working. If 2023 has felt to you like one long fire alarm without a red truck in sight, then you know, that time is now.

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