Po­lit­i­cal re­forms could mean bet­ter elec­tions and bet­ter can­di­dates

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JOHN GASTIL John Gastil is a pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ments of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Arts & Sciences and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence, as well as a se­nior scholar in the McCourt­ney In­sti­tute for Democ­racy at Penn State Univer­sity. This was writ­ten for Zócalo Pub­lic Square:

Po­lar­iza­tion di­vides peo­ple and hurts po­lit­i­cal par­ties. As a party’s size and base shrink, so does the di­ver­sity of its mem­ber­ship. Re­cent Gallup fig­ures show that 43 per­cent of U.S. vot­ers now iden­tify as in­de­pen­dent. Mean­while, Pew sur­veys show that ide­o­log­i­cal en­trench­ment within each party is alien­at­ing mod­er­ate vot­ers. In ef­fect, the two par­ties are burn­ing each other’s tents to the ground.

Some crit­ics would cel­e­brate the demise of par­ties, but re­vi­tal­iz­ing mod­ern pol­i­tics re­quires re­ju­ve­nat­ing par­ties, which re­main the best means for or­ga­niz­ing vot­ers with com­mon in­ter­ests. The ques­tion is, how can we re­build par­ties in a way that en­sures bet­ter elec­tions and a bet­ter gov­ern­ment?

Iron­i­cally, one po­ten­tial so­lu­tion to the party prob­lem would be to com­bine two po­lit­i­cal re­forms that are of­ten cham­pi­oned as the surest ways to weaken par­ties: ranked choice vot­ing, and the top two elec­tion sys­tem.

Ranked choice lets vot­ers rank their pre­ferred can­di­dates in or­der. Elec­tion of­fi­cials tally vot­ers’ top picks and then, as needed, elim­i­nate the last-place can­di­dates one by one, re­al­lo­cat­ing their sup­port­ers’ votes to their next-pre­ferred choices un­til a win­ner is de­ter­mined.

In the top two sys­tem, all the can­di­dates for an of­fice ap­pear on the same pri­mary bal­lot, re­gard­less of party. The top two fin­ish­ers ad­vance to the gen­eral elec­tion.

As both re­forms have been put into place, how­ever, each has pro­duced pe­cu­liar re­sults. The top two sys­tem can pro­duce un­win­ners. demo­cratic re­sults when the most pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal party fields many can­di­dates and a mi­nor­ity party runs only two. In Cal­i­for­nia, Demo­cratic can­di­dates in strong Demo­cratic dis­tricts can di­vide up the vote such that only two Repub­li­can can­di­dates ad­vance to the gen­eral elec­tion. Sub­se­quent turnout in the gen­eral elec­tion can plum­met be­cause ma­jor­ity party mem­bers, along with sup­port­ers of smaller par­ties, have no can­di­date on the bal­lot.

Ranked choice can also cause prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly when used in com­bi­na­tion with an in­stant runoff. When the top can­di­date in this sys­tem doesn’t win a ma­jor­ity of first-place votes, a runoff process elim­i­nates the low­est-ranked can­di­date and dis­trib­utes his/her votes to who­ever was listed in sec­ond place on their sup­port­ers’ bal­lots. This can pro­duce wor­ri­some re­sults. In 2010, the win­ner of the Oak­land may­oral race flipped in three of six suc­ces­sive tal­lies, as lower-ranked can­di­dates were dropped. A 2015 Elec­toral Stud­ies anal­y­sis showed that in­stant runoff win­ners rou­tinely fail to win a ma­jor­ity of bal­lots.

Some crit­ics would re­ject th­ese re­forms out­right. But there is an­other way. Pair­ing top two with ranked choice might yield a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion ca­pa­ble of mod­er­at­ing the ex­cesses of the strong­est po­lit­i­cal par­ties and broad­en­ing their bases of sup­port.

This sum­mer, two civic or­ga­ni­za­tions — the In­de­pen­dent Voter Project, which backed top two, and FairVote, which ad­vo­cates broader re­forms — an­nounced plans to merge th­ese re­forms in Cal­i­for­nia. They en­vi­sion a “Top Four” pri­mary in which the four high­est votewin­ners com­pete in a ranked choice gen­eral elec­tion.

Ranked choice could curb the de­fects of an open pri­mary, es­pe­cially one that selects only two When vot­ers must choose a sin­gle can­di­date, those with nar­row sup­port can sneak through to the runoff elec­tion over pre­ferred op­po­nents who split each other’s vote. Let­ting vot­ers name sec­ond-, third- and fourth -choice can­di­dates who have sim­i­lar plat­forms will pro­duce win­ners with broader sup­port.

Mean­while, a top two — or bet­ter, a top four — open pri­mary could curb the ex­cesses of ranked choice with in­stant runoff. In­stead of elect­ing peo­ple in one sit­ting, vot­ers would get two rounds of elec­tion. That would al­low for fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion of the top can­di­dates, in­stead of let­ting the ini­tial rank­ings of a small pri­mary elec­torate de­ter­mine the win­ner.

The top four con­cept is par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing. A FairVote anal­y­sis shows that top two sys­tems ex­clude third party and in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates more than 90 per­cent of the time. In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, the top two sim­ply ad­vances one can­di­date from each ma­jor party. With four win­ners, ma­jor par­ties would al­most al­ways have a can­di­date ad­vance — pro­tect­ing them against lock­outs — while mi­nor party can­di­dates would have a greater chance of ad­vanc­ing.

Sim­pli­fy­ing life for vot­ers helps, but a higher pur­pose is mak­ing elec­tions more de­lib­er­a­tive. The best elec­tions are ones in which vot­ers learn key pieces of in­for­ma­tion, weigh al­ter­na­tives, then make in­formed choices.

To help busy vot­ers make in­formed choices, elec­tion of­fi­cials should ex­per­i­ment with new forms of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. In do­ing so, how­ever, they face a dilemma. Univer­sity of Arkansas com­mu­ni­ca­tion scholar Robert Richards has found that con­sci­en­tious elec­tion of­fi­cials of­ten strug­gle to tell vot­ers what they need to know be­cause they fear look­ing par­ti­san.

Emerg­ing on­line tools can help ad­dress the in­for­ma­tion deficit. Around the globe, tools such as Vote Com­pass ask vot­ers to com­plete sur­veys, then show which par­ties (or can­di­dates) best align with vot­ers’ val­ues. So­cial net­work­ing sites, in spite of their haz­ards, can also help vot­ers get ad­vice from like-minded friends who have taken the time to sort through crowded fields of can­di­dates.

Other ed­u­ca­tional re­forms may be less fa­mil­iar but have the po­ten­tial to be tremen­dously help­ful. The state of Ore­gon, for ex­am­ple, aimed to im­prove voter ed­u­ca­tion by launch­ing the Cit­i­zens’ Ini­tia­tive Re­view in 2010. This process con­venes a panel of two dozen ran­domly se­lected cit­i­zens to hear from both sides of a bal­lot is­sue, talk with ex­perts, then write a one-page anal­y­sis that goes into the state’s voter pam­phlet.

Putting th­ese re­forms to­gether, such a sys­tem could re­sult in bet­ter can­di­date pools — but also bet­ter long-term re­sults for the ma­jor par­ties. This sys­tem en­sures that the par­ties have am­ple op­por­tu­nity to re­mind vot­ers of can­di­dates’ party af­fil­i­a­tions and en­dorse­ments. Thus, win­ning the fi­nal tally in a ranked choice top four elec­tion will usu­ally re­quire be­long­ing to one of the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

But, at the same time, suc­cess­ful can­di­dates will need to court in­de­pen­dents, or even moder­ates from the op­pos­ing party. Reach­ing across party lines wins a can­di­date what might prove to be de­ci­sive sec­ond-choice or third-choice pref­er­ence rank­ings.

JOHN WALKER Fresno Bee file

In­fant Co­lette Ham­mond pa­tiently waits as her mother Tracy Ham­mond votes in the June pri­mary in 2016 at the Chan­dler Field precinct in Fresno.

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