Nonpartisan Reforms Require Voter Education, Not Political Talking Points

On Tuesday, November 4, registered Oregon voters who participated in the midterm elections were able to weigh in on 7 ballot measures, one of which, Measure 90, would reform the current primary system in the state from a closed partisan primary to a nonpartisan, top-two open primary. The measure failed in a vote that was not even close, 68.3 percent voting “No” and 31.7 percent voting “Yes.”

In the last 4 years, 3 top-two ballot measures have appeared on statewide ballots in 3 different states. In 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14 to implement the top-two primary system. In 2012, Arizona voters had an opportunity to reform their state’s electoral system, but a majority of voters voted against the top-two primary, and a top-two measure failed to pass in Oregon in 2014.

Despite top-two only passing in one of these states, all three states share a common trend: the number of voters who choose not to register with either major party is growing.

Yet, in Oregon, independent voters are completely locked out of the primary, an integral stage of the election process, unless they register with a party. In Arizona, independent voters must choose between the Republican or Democratic ballot in order to have full participation in elections.

Partisan primary systems put the focus on political organizations — private entities — enhancing their power over elections while the purpose of nonpartisan election reform is to enhance the voting power of citizens by protecting the fundamental right all voters have to equal and meaningful participation in all integral stages of the election process.

So, why was top-two successful in California, but didn’t do so well in Arizona or Oregon? While there are a number of variables that go into a successful campaign for a ballot measure, one of the most important things is voter education: when voters are educated, how they are educated, and the fundamental message that is presented to them.

The Independent Voter Project
(IVP), the authors of the top-two measure in California, spent $3 million on a voter education program before campaigning to get the measure passed under Proposition 14. Through mailers and using effective online tools, IVP reached out to independent and independent-minded voters before entering a campaign that could be reduced to talking points.

This is one thing that the campaigns to pass top-two in Arizona and Oregon lacked. Relying on partisan consultants to organize the campaigns, there were no voter education programs. There were only campaigns that relied heavily on talking points that often missed the point of nonpartisan election reform.

“The real push should be around educating the electorate about our current system and about whatever reform is on the table,” said Mark Frohnmayer, “Not in the campaign sense, but as an educational nonprofit.”

Frohnmayer is a technologists and entrepreneur from Oregon. In 2014, he pushed for his own version of nonpartisan election reform, combining the top-two primary with approval voting. The “Unified Primary” would allow all voters and candidates, regardless of political affiliation, to participate on a single ballot in the primary and voters could choose as many candidates as they want, eliminating the spoiler effect.

The Unified Primary did not make it to the November ballot, but Measure 90 did. Frohnmayer believes in order to enact nonpartisan election reform, voter education must be conducted outside a campaign because a campaign run by partisan consultants can’t possibly tell voters what they need to hear to act.

Frohnmayer uses the example of a standard talking point with top-two: that independents are “locked out” of the current system.

“I don’t care unless I’m in the locked out no matter what the polling says, and 700,000 isn’t a majority,” he said. “People will be magnanimous as long as they aren’t hearing strong opposition messages.”

“If we’re going to keep pushing on the ‘locked out,’ we need to convince more voters that they are in the group of disenfranchised. Something along the lines of, ‘More than half of us are locked out. Whether we’re urban Republicans, rural Democrats, or not in either major party, we have no real choice on who represents us, and that’s grossly unfair.’ The ‘we’ needs to be 50% plus one who self-identify with the disenfranchised.”

The simple truth is voters need an incentive to vote — a reason to show up to the polls. If voters are properly educated, more Democrats would realize they have no interest in paying for the primaries of Republicans and vice versa. In districts that are heavily gerrymandered to favor the Democratic Party, Republicans will want to know about a system that enhances their voting power instead of keeping them disenfranchised.

If elections are going to be funded by taxpayers, then their purpose should be to elect candidates for the public, not for political parties.
Partisan consultants ignore the true purpose of nonpartisan election reform. The fundamental purpose is not about opening primaries up to independents, it is not about electing moderates, and it is not about encouraging more voter participation. If elections are going to be funded by taxpayers, then their purpose should be to elect candidates for the public, not for political parties. Elections with a public purpose should treat all voters, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof), equally.

Everything else would be the inevitable consequences of enacting nonpartisan election reform, and understanding this will bring voters out to the polls. Everyone wants to know there are systems out there that will give them a true, equal voice in elections. People want real power in elections, because that is where the power should be — with the people.

“Campaigns like those in Arizona and Oregon, that fail to recognize that this is a voting rights issue have failed, and will continue to fail,” IVP co-founder Steve Peace said. “The difference in California was more than 400,000 ‘new’ voters who showed up armed with the knowledge that their fundamental right to vote was at stake.”

Top-two in California would never have been successful without IVP’s voter education plan. The organization gave people a reason to vote and as a result of the organization’s outreach, 400,000 independent voters came out to vote in the 2010 primary — something that had never happened before and it made up the margin of victory.

The lack of a voter education program is a big reason why nonpartisan election reform failed in Oregon and Arizona. Education cannot happen during the campaign; it must happen before the campaign, and organizations must use all utilities at their disposal — especially the Internet — to reach out to the voters they need to turn out to vote.

Photo Credit: Peeradach Rattanakoses / shutterstock.com