The Approval Voting Primary Act in Oregon has cleared a major hurdle which could allow Unified Primaries to be put before Oregon voters later this year. With the May 8 approval of the ballot title by the Oregon Supreme Court, the secretary of state will begin giving out the petition forms within the week. A total of 87,213 signatures from registered voters by July 3 will be necessary in order to get the measure on the ballot.
The Approval Voting Primary Act would replace the current Oregonian primary system with that of a Unified Primary, an electoral system that replaces multiple primaries for each party with one primary where all voters and candidates participate on a single ballot.
This might sound similar to the primary systems of California and Washington state, but is different in one key area. While current top-two systems require that a voter only vote for one candidate, the Unified Primary would have approval voting, allowing voters to vote for as many candidates as they want. The top two candidates with the most votes move on to the general election.
The initiative was created by Mark Frohnmayer, a tech developer and entrepreneur, who is also the son of David Frohnmayer, a former state legislature and failed gubernatorial candidate.
"I've spent many years of my life as a game programmer and one of the things I noticed when I was making games is that when you make small tweaks to the rules of the game, it can have a dramatic impact on how people play the game and how much fun they have when they are playing it," Frohnmayer said during a phone interview for IVN.
"So that's one story arc of my life. The juxtaposition is that I have grown up in the shadow of politics from the day I was born. I was born into my dad's first campaign for the state legislature and I was a junior in high school when he ran for governor. I think it's that juxtaposition that led to the discovery of two critical bugs in the process of how we vote."
These two "critical bugs" are exclusion and vote-splitting.
Frohnmayer noted that the current system excludes a huge percentage of voters. He said that this does not just mean independent voters, but urban Republicans and rural Democrats as well. All of these people, according to him, are denied an equal voice in their representation."This is because if you live in a place where your party is dominated by the other party, it's not that you have a diminished voice, it's that you have no voice in your representation," Frohnmayer said. "The outcome of your representative election is determined in the primary where you have no voice at all. When you run the numbers in Oregon, for example, we just tipped over so that more than 50 percent of the state's voters have no real representative voice."
The second bug, he says, is a little sneakier and has to do with similar candidates splitting votes in a race. Vote-splitting divides the vote between the candidates who are closest together in any election where there are more than two candidates. This can often result in a "non-majoritarian outcome."
"We call this the spoiler effect. We call this vote splitting," Frohnmayer said. "It's the reason why people say, 'Don't waste your vote on the third party candidate and instead vote for the lesser of two evils.'"
Approval voting, according to Frohnmayer, would rectify this as it would eliminate the spoiler effect.
The initiative has not been immune to criticism, however. Fairvote.org published an article in October which charged that having only the top two candidates from the primary would result in a lack of diverse viewpoints in the general election and would likely result in greater negativity during elections:
"When candidates are too similar in terms of policy positions, they may just resort to mean-spirited personal attacks to win, hardly a result promoting moderation."
The article instead advocates for a similar primary that allows four candidates, instead of two, to be chosen by Instant Runoff Voting in the general election. The article claims that it would "generate real competition and real choices while paving the way for real representation."
Frohnmayer responded to the criticisms by pointing out that Instant Runoff Voting simply hides the spoiler effect and doesn't get rid of it, citing an analysis by mathematician Warren Smith which shows that more voters didn't agree with the choice of candidate when utilizing Instant Runoff Voting when compared to Approval Voting.
Additionally, he said that the claim of having only two candidates resulting in a lack of ideological diversity was false, claiming in a comment to the article that:
"Under an approval primary, a Ralph Nader gets 15% of the vote and can build a platform over time, instead of tossing the election to his ideological opposite and pissing off everyone even moderately inclined to support him. If Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were actually the two top approved candidates across the country, then why would it not have been far better for ALL voters to have the choice between the two than just the third that checked the box "Democrat??" How is that democracy?"
Frohnmayer admitted that there have been some major obstacles to getting the initiative on the ballot, including just getting the signatures needed to submit it for consideration."It took a thousand signatures that we collected entirely with volunteers," he said. "This was standing out in the rain and cold back in November and asking people who, by and large, are really not optimistic that anything can be done to fix the political system that we have today -- that has created just a huge amount of apathy and distrust of potential reform."
Frohnmayer also attributed initial setbacks to the fact that they had a "very technical fix and a very technical way of describing it." Part of the challenge, he says, is "learning to talk about it in a way that people can very quickly understand it."
A recent press release from the Unified Primary Initiative announced the official launch of a crowd funding campaign on Tuesday, May 13, which will attempt to raise $300,000 for the purpose of educating Oregon voters on the advantages of the Unified Primary system.
"We are asking the people in this country who know our election system is fundamentally broken to invest in a better process," said Frohnmayer in the press release. "We cannot afford to wait on this critical reform. So many pressing issues of the day go unaddressed, and much of this inaction can be traced back to the inequality of our votes."