Pillsbury is founder and senior adviser for Nonprofit VOTE, which encourages voter registration efforts by nonprofit groups, and author of "America Goes to the Polls,'"a biennial report on voter turnout and election reform.
In contrast to the narrow ballot measure win in Alaska, which will create top-four open primaries followed by ranked-choice general elections across the state, stands the defeat of top-two open primaries in Florida. That proposal garnered the support of 57 percent of Florida's voters in November — but that was short of the 60 percent threshold for amending the state's constitution.
While revealing the strong support for open primaries generally, the campaign added fuel to the growing dispute about whether top-two is the right solution. Organizations that normally support democracy reform — including the League of Women Voters, ACLU and NAACP — all came out against the initiative. Echoing the concerns of other top-two critics, they said the switch would end up limiting the electorate's choices by offering too little opportunity for diverse candidates to make it to the general election ballot.
Florida's Let All Voters Vote campaign addressed a problem worth solving: Most races in the state are decided in primaries that are closed to voters who aren't Democrats or Republicans. As a result, the likely winners of most general elections are determined by a limited number of voters in the base of the two major parties. The top-two campaign sought to give voice to more than 3.8 million of the state's 14 million registered voters who are not affiliated with one of the major parties and so are silenced in the primaries. Every voter should be able to participate equally in the preliminary election that determines who gets on the final ballot.
Top-two's fatal flaw is that it leaves voters with just two choices, locking in an outmoded and dysfunctional two-party system. Contests with just two choices are avoided by most advanced democracies for their inherently polarizing and anti-competitive nature, their unrepresentativeness of the electorate and their unresponsiveness to public opinion.
You don't solve our broken primary system by minimizing choice in the main event, when the most voters participate and when actual representation is decided. There is no gain in the illusion of choice among candidates and parties in Act I and a near empty stage in Act II. In most every aspect, top-two runs counter to the goals and democratic norms of competition and equal opportunity — and the promise, not just to vote, but cast a meaningful vote that counts towards representation.
Proponents say top-two provides more opportunity for independents and minor party candidates to compete. That was not the case this year in two states that use the system for partisan state and federal elections, California and Washington.
Out of 337 congressional and legislative seats up for election in those two, all but one was won by the candidate of a major party — and he was a Republican who ran for re-election as an independent. The few independent and third-party candidates who made the November ballot generally lost in landslides, giving the winners little reason to pay attention to their opponents' views.
It was just Republicans and Democrats in all 63 races for Congress. In eight of the contests, both finalists were Democrats. As for the 224 legislative races in November, only 7 percent (16 of them) featured a non-major-party candidate — while 17 percent (39 of them) gave voters a choice of two people from the same major party.
Alaska's new top-four system holds far more promise. The primary will have a lower threshold for a candidate to advance to the general election. This means a wider door for independents and third party candidates to compete in November. The final field will better reflect the local or statewide electorate they seek to represent. Top-four will also afford voters a broader spectrum of opinion in the campaign. It means more voters will have the opportunity to find a candidate they support — in contrast with zero sum two-party contests- where voters as often as not end up voting against someone rather than in favor of someone.
Under the new Alaska system, the general election will be even better. It will be conducted with ranked-choice voting, necessary to make top-four work. Without it, the risk is splintered results with plurality victors — ideal for a polarizing candidate with a narrow base to win whenever a group of like-minded opponents split the vote.
Ranked elections solve the problems of split votes and spoilers. It also has the benefit of letting voters cast ballots more expressive of their views and more likely to count towards representation. Further, when candidates compete not just against one another but also to become the second choices of those voting first for an opponent, it creates incentives for collaboration and consensus you don't find in a top-two system.
As much as open primaries have broad support, top-two as a remedy doesn't stand up well. How could it, when it only allows a maximum of two candidates and two parties to compete? Of all the reforms meant to improve and expand democracy, top-two is the only one that explicitly enshrines this as policy.
Florida's campaign deserves credit for gaining majority support for open primaries in the face of intense opposition from the major parties and in the shadow of a high-profile national election. Still, the defeat allows time to reconsider any future efforts. The top-two solution is the wrong way to achieve either the higher goals of open primaries or broader democracy reform.
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Gray is a Baptist minister, secretary of the Missouri Democratic Party and a former state senator in Kansas. Fields is a New York physician and a board member of Open Primaries, which advocates for nonpartisan nominating elections.
While Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden is, of course, the main event in American democracy this week, there are new conversations taking place in Black politics looking beyond this year toward important changes in the relationship between Black empowerment, electoral reform and the Democratic Party.
Since the Gary Convention, the historic 1972 gathering of 8,000 Black leaders in Indiana, the dominant electoral strategy for Black empowerment has been to elect African Americans through the Democratic Party. This strategy has been successful at increasing the number of African American office holders, including the first Black president. But it has been less successful at impacting living conditions and political power for the Black community as a whole.
Diverse African American leaders are opening up conversations about this. It is not yet a full blown debate. The "elect more Black Democrats" approach still dominates. But there is a conversation emerging, fueled by an ascendant Black Lives Matter movement that refuses to be subsumed into partisan politics as usual.
Jessica Byrd, a founder of the Electoral Justice Project at the Movement for Black Lives, put it this way in a New York Times op-ed two months ago: "Parties want our votes while promising little and delivering less. That is because the electoral system was designed as binary; the entry points are two doors expected to fit the voices and policy needs of hundreds of millions of multiracial constituents. Instead, for a new generation of Black activists, success lies in the process of making change — in politics, policies and social practices."
Byrd raises two vitally important points — the failure of the parties to deliver on promises while taking the Black community for granted, and the binary structure of the electoral system that affords our community little choice in the matter. And she hinted at how the Black community is often asked to defend and protect the partisan status quo.
For example, in 2014, when anti-gerrymandering reformers tried to create a citizens commission to draw electoral maps in Illinois, the Democratic legislative leadership in Springfield asked African American and Latino elected officials to be the "first line of defense" against the effort. They were told to assert that reforming gerrymandering would be harmful to black and brown people. But are the interests of our communities best served by protecting the Democratic Party against competition?
In Florida, Democratic Party activists are using a similar playbook. Despite polls showing that 70 percent of Black voters in Florida support open primaries, and that hundreds of thousands of Black independent voters would be enfranchised by ending closed primaries, Democratic Party activists have been campaigning actively against the measure on Tuesday's ballot that would open most of the state's primary elections to all voters — with the top two finishers advancing to November, regardless of their party ID.
Their sole — and quite false — talking point is that if you let everyone participate in primaries, Black candidates will suffer. Even worse, they're using the Black community to persuade white liberals that enfranchising independent voters is anti-Black. That's troublesome.
Many Black Democrats reject this premise. Cori Bush, the Democrat overwhelmingly favored to win election as the new congresswoman for St. Louis, and state Rep. Rasheen Aldredge of St. Louis have fused their community activism with outspoken support for structural reform. Both are advocating for Prop D for Democracy, a referendum that would create a new election system for municipal offices in their city: In the primary, voters would have the ability to approve of as many candidates as they choose — whether Democrat, Republican or independent — and the the top two vote getters would meet again in November. The proposal emerged out of conversations among citizens unhappy with an electoral system that produced politicians, Black and white, without strong majorities behind them.
In Baltimore, nonprofit founder Kim Klacik has raised more than $6 million for her Republican campaign in an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district. While much of the national press she has garnered is a function of President Trump's involvement in the race — and while neither of us is advocating that African-Americans become Republicans — it would be foolish to dismiss the traction that Klacik is gaining in the city's Black neighborhoods as purely a function of national dynamics.
Baltimore residents have been profoundly neglected by a local machine that faces no competition and little accountability. Too many American cities like theirs have been left to rot, and the excuse given all too often is that it is Republicans alone who are to blame for substandard schools, high unemployment and violent crime.
A new generation of leaders and activists are raising eyebrows at this timeworn excuse. They want progress, not finger pointing.
In this chaotic and challenging moment, let's not lose sight of two important opportunities. The country is responding positively to Black Lives Matter. And emerging Black leaders and activists are demanding new political strategies and new political rules. They're tired of that glass ceiling of structural racism and partisan corruption imposed by the status quo and want to break right through it.
These are significant developments that open new possibilities for qualitative transformation in the lives of Black Americans and the country as a whole. To take full advantage, we must insist that unscrupulous politicians stop pitting the Black agenda against the reform agenda and embrace what our younger generation is building. Let's break right through that glass ceiling together.
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NBA legend Magic Johnson, who just watched his Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Miami Heat in the league finals, has thrown his considerable star power behind the campaign to open most primaries in Florida to all voters, regardless of party.
The referendum on this fall's ballot in the nation's biggest purple state is being watched by many good-government groups as closely as any contest for office, because they view open primaries as one of the best ways to depolarize the nation's politics.
Although he ended his playing career 24 years ago, Johnson has remained one of basketball's most visible and charismatic ambassadors. And his endorsement follows on the heels of increased player activism that has led to dozens of sports arenas and stadiums being used as voting locations this fall.
"Amendment 3 will ensure that politicians listen to everyone. Join me in supporting Amendment 3 and let all voters vote," Johnson says in a 30-second endorsement video unveiled Tuesday. "It's simple, it's common sense and it's, well, it's magic."
Under the proposal, starting in 2024 the state would have "top two" open primaries in elections for governor, lieutenant governor, the Legislature and other state-level positions. All voters, regardless of party affiliation, would be able to vote in the primary, and the two candidates with the most votes — again, regardless of party — would advance to the general election. (Johnson lives in California, which uses a similar system for congressional and state primaries.)
The switch would allow almost 3.7 million unaffiliated Floridians — nearly 30 percent of the state's electorate — to participate at a crucial juncture in the electoral process.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties are fighting the amendment, which requires 60 percent support to pass. While proponents believe it would lead to more moderate candidates advancing to general elections, opponents argue it would create chaos and shut out minority viewpoints.
In fact, Republican Chris Sprowls, the next state House speaker, and Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz held a joint press conference Tuesday to support a lawsuit filed Tuesday that asks the Florida Supreme Court to toss the amendment — even though nearly 2 million ballots have already been cast.
"This can do irreparable damage to our political process. This is the political equivalent to a battle royal. Nobody understands who's going to be left out, nobody understands the damage that is going to be done to the process and who's going to be disenfranchised, which is why it shouldn't go into the constitution," Sprowls said at the press conference, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Open Primaries, a national nonprofit that is supporting similar campaigns for open primaries in Alaska and St. Louis — welcomed Johnson's endorsement.
"Open primaries is pretty basic — we believe every voter should be able to vote in every publicly funded election. The partisan opponents of Amendment 3 in Florida make all kinds of false claims that if you let everyone vote, all hell breaks loose," said the group's president, John Opdycke. "Magic Johnson's endorsement is significant not simply because of who he is, but because of what he says. 'It's simple. It's fair. It's magic.' Democracy is indeed magic. When you create the space for everyone to participate, new conversations, new coalitions, new outcomes become possible."
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Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, has been a member of the city council in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland since 2012 and was previously ranking Republican on the state House committee that oversees election law. Miller, a physician who advises health care startups, is on the board of FairVote Washington. That group's executive director, Lisa Ayrault, contributed.
"This is really turning into a clown race," one of our Republican candidates for governor told the Seattle Times in advance of this month's primary election. There were three dozen options on the ballot. Sixteen were independent or minority-party candidates, 15 were Republicans and five were Democrats.
And then there were the quintet of Republicans, the quartet of Democrats and the pair of Libertarians running for lieutenant governor.
We're talking about vitally important elections in a decently sized state with several, but not all, of the electoral reform boxes ticked off. Though critics point out ways to increase transparency, a bipartisan commission has drawn Washington's political district lines since 1991. A top-two runoff primary system has been used since 2008. The Legislature instituted statewide vote-by-mail starting in 2011.
Despite these advancements, the primary that was supposed to climax Aug. 4 revealed several of our system's shortcomings and challenges — not even mentioning the fact that it took until Tuesday, two weeks later, for essentially all the votes to be counted.
In the lieutenant governor's race, for example, the top finisher with 25 percent of the vote is Democrat Denny Heck, who's giving up his seat in Congress in hopes of winning the No. 2 job in Olympia. In second place, at 19 percent, is Democratic state Sen. Marko Liias. Not only does neither of the front-runners command the support of even three of every 10 voters, but also the next three highest finishers are all Republicans and have 33 percent of the vote between them. In total, 43 percent of voters in that race preferred a Republican. But with two Democrats in the two available spots for the general election, the voices of conservative voters in this race will be effectively locked out.
Let's focus on the race for governor and its 36 candidates. The two-term incumbent, Democrat Jay Inslee, looks to have secured just a hair more than a majority of the 2.5 million votes cast. The second-place finisher, who also advances to the general election in November, will be Republican Loren Culp — with just 17 percent support. The police chief of a town of 1,100 in the state's remote northeast corner, he first gained headlines for refusing to enforce a voter-approved initiative tightening restrictions on firearms — and hundreds of supporters at his election night party ignored the public health rules set by the pandemic.
In other words, 15 Republicans managed to divide the conservative vote into ineffective little slivers. (The one who made the "clown car" complaint, state Sen. Phil Fortunado, got out of the car in sixth place, with a 4 percent showing.)
So how to turn a clown race into a process where each vote matters — even with so many candidates? More importantly, in such a crowded field, how do we avoid electing a clown whom a majority of voters really don't want? The state's current election system can't prevent it.
A proven enhancement can help. The key is to use a format that results in the winner actually having majority support — rather than just a plurality.
The best way to assure that is to use ranked-choice voting, something you've probably been hearing about lately. Better technology and voter education are leading to smooth rollouts and satisfied voters in the many places that now use it.
In RCV contests, voters rank as many candidates as they like, in order of preference. A candidate with a majority of first-choice votes wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes gets eliminated and their voters' second choices get counted. The process continues until a candidate has majority support. (For a nice visual overview, search YouTube for "Is ranked choice voting a better way to pick a president?")
RCV and our "top two" system have common roots. RCV is simply the logical extension of the same idea behind top two: Candidates should be required to get a majority of votes to win an election.
When there are three candidates for a job, the two systems generally function the same: The people with the highest and second-highest numbers of votes advance to the next round while the other one goes home — although that last-place candidate's supporters have a say in choosing between the finalists, either in November (using top two) or in an instant runoff (under RCV).
Top two fails the cause of functioning democracy when there are more than three in a race. In crowded fields, like our races this summer for Washington's top executive posts, candidates with similar views can split up the support of the majority of voters — the result being that the two candidates who advance may not be the pair a majority would actually prefer.
RCV solves this problem of "vote-splitting" by effectively conducting a series of "instant runoff" elections where losing candidates are eliminated sequentially until a majority winner is elected.
Ranked-choice elections are constitutionally sound. Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii used the system in their Democratic presidential primaries this year. Maine uses it for all state and federal elections, including president for the first time this fall. Twenty localities across the country have RCV in place.
It's time for Washington state and other jurisdictions to stop putting up with vote splitting and make sure every vote matters. It doesn't have to be a clown race, nor do we have to accept a clown, when we can do so much better.
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