REFORMING MASSACHUSETTS’s PARTY PRIMARY SYSTEM: IF SO, HOW ?

RANKED CHOICE

^ ranked choice voting — the above is what a ranked choice vote ballot would look like

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On twitter this morning I entered a discussion, with two election activists, Ed Lyons and Jim Aloisi, about our State’s Party Primary voting system. We were exchanging suggestions as to why the system doesn’t work, if it doesn’t, and if so, how to improve it ? Answers don’t seem simple. I can think of many ill consequences that this or that change might give rise to. But first, let’s look at how did we get here ?

The late, September primary was enacted by a Democratic legislature, back when the state was still two-party competitive, to make it difficult for the Republicans, fast becoming outnumbered, to focus on the Democratic candidate. This scheme worked. A Republican candidate state-wide is hemmed in campaigning to 10.5 percent of voters until very late in the game. Curiously, however, the late primary did advantage one Republican candidate : for Governor. Because the Republican electorate is so small, a strong GOP candidate for Governor, with all the prospective power that a Governor holds, can dominate the primary process while the various Democratic candidates are still focusing on each other. Thus the late primary seems perhaps the single most important factor leading to what we now have : an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature and a Republican Governor (since 1990, only 8 out of 28 years has a Democrat held the office.)

The legislature is not married to late primaries on principle, however., When a vacancy in one of our US Senate seats has occurred, it used to be that the Governor appointed a successor to hold office until the next general election. Not so after Scott Brown. The legislature enacted a very early primary and election in such case, giving the appointee on;ly a few months in office.

Thus we see that the present primary systems exist to maximize Democratic control of every office except Governor, which leaves the governor at the mercy of what sort of relationship the House Speaker wants to have with him or her. Fortunately for reform achievement in Massachusetts, Speaker DeLeo and Governor baker work very closely together, each for his own reasons, and the result has been consensus reform across the board. But what if it were otherwise ? It’s risky to have effective governance depend on the personal chemistry between two officials.

In any case, many activists want to change our primary system. Let’s take a look :

( 1 ) move the primary to June.

Doing so would definitely focus the campaign on the general election in which 60 to 70 percent of voters vote — a definitely democratic (small d) move, and much to be applauded. Yet an early primary would probably mean an even smaller turnout and would sharply increase the amount of donor money needed for that long general election.

( 2 ) make the primary open to all voters, where today only party members and unenrolleds can vote — and unenrolleds must choose which primary to vote in

The theory behind the current system is t.hat political parties are private entities (albeit  with procedures regulated by statute) and therefore elections within the party ought to be available only to party members and those who choose to join it. I understand tghe validity of this theory. Yet in a state where a majority of voters is not enrolled in any party, and chooses not to be, is it fair to all the voters to have only party nominees on the ballot to vote for ? The obstacles placed in the way of non-arty candidates, by way of increased nomination signature requirements, or in the way of write-in candidacies, whose votes will only be counted if the candidates use legal process to get there, all appear designed to leave general election voters with only two feasible choices. Thus the call to let all voters vote in every primary.

Despite this argument, even an open primary doesn’t work. Only a fusion primary, in which ALL candidates are on THE SAME ballot, achieves the aim of an open primary.

( 3 ) establish an all-candidate primary with a runoff to choose two for final election.

Sounds fair, yet t.he recent California primary shows the fault of this option : you get dozens of candidates, which can leave the voter with two fringe choices at the runoff. No thank you.

( 4 ) make state elections non-partisan.

Would probably have the same result as in the runoff option, only worse. Whatever option we decide upon, it should promote, not hinder, coalition candidates who can amass a clear majority of the 60 to 70- percent of voters who vote in our general election.

( 5 ) ranked choice voting in an all-candidate election, no primary.

Cambridge uses this system for its city elections. It works there. The idea is that the voter ranks ALL the candidates on his or her ballot by choice : first choice, second choice, and so on. The bottom candidate is eliminated, and his or her second choice, third, and remaining choice votes are then assigned to those candidates. When one candidate reaches a majority of allocated first choice votes, he or she is elected. Then repeat the allocation and elimination.

Advocates of ranked choice voting say that it would force candidates to be collegial, since all would ant second choice votes from each other. I’m not sure that will usually happen. The ranked choice system does not prevent voters from voting for only one candidate, thus making it potentially impossible for a candidate to win a  majority. Nonetheless, I like this idea. It’s worth a public conversation. At the very least, the late primary cries out for reform. And has cried out ever since the legislature enacted it.

The other important factor in how our election laws operate (MGL c. 55, for those who care to read all the rules) is the state committee that c. 55 requires recognized political parties to have. State committee members are either elected at each party’s Presidential primary every four years (two per district, elected by State Senate district, one man and one woman) or are appointed by the elected state committee members to auxiliary membership. State committee members are bound by party rules that prevent them, under pain of loss of office, from supporting candidates other than that party’s official nominees. Though the rigidity of these rules is not often enforced, in practice state committee members approach elections “party first, public interest second,m if at all.” This is true of both major parties’ state committee members. I know not very many who operate differently. (Which is not to say they aren’t great people to know. I know hundreds, and can’t say that I dislike more than a handful.)

Ranked choice won’t eliminate the narrow outlook of party officials, especially of party state committee members. Parties will still have a lot to say about who gets plenty of first choice votes. State committee members will still operate “party first, public second.” But the ordinary voter will loom much, much larger in a ranked choice general, election than in a small-turnout primary, held late Or held early.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

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