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Mark Frohnmayer: Money in Politics Needs to be Primary Focus of Election Reform

OREGON — Oregon native and entrepreneur Mark Frohnmayer no longer believes that the top-two primary system is a viable solution to the problems facing America’s political system. While top-two aims to solve the lingering issues surrounding a hyper-partisan political environment by opening the voting process to all voters, Frohnmayer does not believe that it solves the most contentious and unappealing aspect of political campaigns: the overabundance and influence of money.

“There is certainly a segment of the electorate concerned about partisanship, but in my experience…the issue of money in politics is what people really care about,” he said. “Top-two does not really have a good story there; in fact, it’s got a bad story there.”

Even though the top-two primary system has enfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters in California and Washington state by allowing them to vote in nonpartisan, open primaries, it has actually led to an increase in campaign spending in those states. Total campaign contributions in California increased from $194 million to $322 million between 2010 and 2014 after the top-two system was implemented in 2012.

In 2014, Oregonian electoral reform advocates spearheaded a valiant effort to overhaul the state’s primary system, which culminated in Ballot Measure 90, also known as the Oregon Open Primary Initiative. Measure 90 provided Oregonians with a referendum on whether or not to enact a top-two primary system similar to the systems in California and Washington state, but ultimately an overwhelming majority (68.3%) of participating voters voted against the measure.

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Image credit: Ballotpedia.org

Frohnmayer believes that Measure 90’s failure to address the presence of money in politics was a highly influential factor in its downfall. He also thinks that Oregonians were displeased to see that it did nothing to solve the problems inherent in any two-stage election system.

“Even having two elections at all dramatically increases the need for money in politics,” he said. “If you have one [election] that narrows the field to just two candidates, and then another one six months later, you give six months for the money to figure out who it wants to oppose and just dump a bunch of negative advertisements on the electorate against that one candidate.”

As one of Oregon’s most outspoken electoral reform advocates, Frohnmayer still supported Measure 90, even after failing to secure enough signatures to get his own measure on the ballot. He proposed a system similar to top-two called the “unified primary.” The key difference is that a unified primary would allow voters to choose multiple candidates using approval voting.

“The whole point of it was to introduce the idea of a voting system where you are not forced to choose only one candidate, because it’s the limitation of that one choice that heavily pollutes the outcome,” Frohnmayer said. “It’s a horrible multiple person decision making process, and the failure in that mathematics — when you’re limited to one choice — creates an opportunity for both money and partisanship to have outsized influence on the outcome.”

But now, Frohnmayer believes that the unified primary system would also fail to address the biggest issues in politics. Therefore, he is working on a new system that aims to limit the influence of campaign spending and combine the primary with the general election.

Last October, Frohnmayer organized and participated in an event called the Equal Vote Conference, where prominent electoral reform advocates from around the country gathered in Portland to discuss new ideas for viable primary models. Keynote speakers included Rob Ritchie, the founder of FairVote, and scholars from the Center for Election Studies.

“We had a bunch of luminaries from all over the country come out and talk about election reform against the context of Measure 90,” Frohnmayer said. “And one of the things that came out of that discussion — and it was really a series of discussions — is that it allowed an evolution of the thought behind the reform.”

One of the primary reform ideas that was most prominent during the conference was a system, developed by Frohnmayer, called rated instant-runoff voting. It essentially combines instant-runoff voting with approval and score voting, and asks voters to rate all candidates in order of their preference, utilizing a numerical scale.

In my experience...the issue of money in politics is what people really care about.
Mark Frohnmayer
The winner is determined in an instantaneous runoff between the two candidates with the highest scores. In the runoff, each ballot simply counts as a vote toward the candidate that the voter marked higher of the two remaining candidates. It would do away with primaries altogether, thereby combining primary elections and general elections into one simple election.

Frohnmayer believes that this system would save both parties millions of dollars just by combining the general election with the primary. He also believes that it would make campaigns more positive by eliminating the six-month campaign trail between two candidates that would normally ensue after the primary.

By keeping the field wide open until Election Day, the rated instant-runoff system would force candidates to focus on proving themselves rather than on attacking their opponents.

Frohnmayer hopes that the momentum built at the Equal Vote Conference will allow for an ongoing discussion on electoral reform, and might even elevate the issue in the eyes of the media. Oregon legislators promised to pass substantial electoral reform in 2015 — one of the few upsides of Measure 90. Frohnmayer is waiting to see whether or not they keep their promise before he makes his next move.

For now, he is taking some time to focus on his day job, but is still left wondering how to engage American voters in what most see as a broken system. One of his biggest takeaways from the 2014 reform movement is that reform cannot pass without the full support of a sizable population of Americans, something that Measure 90 failed to garner.

“What was really disheartening in the process was just the number of people that are so disillusioned on politics — that think it can’t be fixed,” Frohnmayer said. “Some of those people are going Independent, but a big chunk of them are checking out.”

“What you’re not getting is this incredibly fired-up group of people going: ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to vote in the primary,’ You’ve got a bunch of people just saying: ‘Well this whole thing is rigged beyond measure and nothing you do is going to fix it, so why should I support your movement?”