SAN DIEGO, CALIF. - The biggest story in the 2018 election cycle was not what color of wave we saw. It was not President Donald Trump using the Ecuadorian immigrant caravan as a campaign issue. It was not the Democrats’ focus on the president’s behavior while holding the Oval Office.
The biggest story in 2018 was the voter revolt against the political status quo. Political and election reform had its most groundbreaking year in half a century, and most media outlets didn’t pay attention.
From California to Maine, millions of people voted in favor of empowering voters at the ballot box, ending partisan gerrymandering, banning political bribes and other forms of political corruption, restoring voting rights to felons, and many used historic new voting methods to enhance competition in the process and strengthen the individual's vote.
And these reforms passed amidst record breaking turnout in several states.
The nonpartisan reform movement is not only growing as voters become increasing frustrated with a political process that doesn’t put their interests first, but is making historic gains at the ballot box.
Here is where reform won big in 2018:
Ranked Choice Voting
It is one of the biggest reform stories of the year. Maine voters made history in 2018 by being the first to vote in statewide, legislative, and non-presidential federal primary elections using ranked choice voting. Voters also used it in the general election for US House and US Senate.
Maine voters approved the use of ranked choice voting for the second time at the ballot box in June, after lawmakers passed a bill that set the reform up for repeal. Nearly 50,000 more people voted on the ranked choice voting ballot measure question than for the top-ticket governor’s race in the Republican and Democratic primaries COMBINED.
It was also the first time in US history that ranked choice voting decided the outcome of a US House race. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District wasn’t decided on election night as neither the incumbent, US Rep. Bruce Poliquin, or Democrat Jared Golden were able to garner a majority of the first round picks.
A second round of choice tabulation was conducted, the last place candidate was eliminated, and their voters’ second choices were dispersed among the remaining candidates. Though Poliquin lead by less than a percentage point after Election Day, Jared Golden overtook this lead and ended up with the majority vote — taking 50.53% in a closely contested race.
In the end, it was the candidate who had the broadest appeal who won.
Ranked choice voting will also likely survive a constitutional challenge in federal court, which Poliquin filed after an exit poll showed him losing.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe also used ranked choice voting for the first time in 2018 for city elections, a decade after city voters approved its use.
New Mexico election officials said the voting machine technology in place could support ranked choice voting, yet city officials pushed back and tried to delay it even further. A Santa Fe district court judge ruled in November 2017 that the city had to implement it in the next municipal elections.
The elections, held in March, saw increased turnout. Notably, ranked choice voting was used to decide the mayor’s race. Mayor Alan Webber would have won re-election with a plurality of 39% on election day without ranked choice voting. He won re-election with 66% of the vote after the fourth round of ranked choice tabulation.
Local governments also approved the use of ranked choice voting in 3 cities in 2018: Las Cruces, New Mexico; Amherst, Massachusetts; and St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
This win for reform came not by the approval of referendums, but the rejection of them. Memphis voters voted overwhelmingly against an attempt to repeal ranked choice voting ahead of its scheduled implementation in 2019.
Advocates of ranked choice voting and opponents of 3 city charter amendments say the measures were written intentionally to confuse people. But voters didn't fall for the tricks on Election Day.
The proposal to repeal ranked choice voting, specifically, was shot down with nearly 63% of the vote. Voters also rejected a proposal that would extend term limits for city council members.
Other Alternative Voting Methods
Fargo, North Dakota
Fargo voters voted in favor of using Approval Voting for city elections on November 6. Reform Fargo brought the proposal to the November ballot, which allows voters to select as many candidates as they want in an election and the candidate with the highest vote count wins.
Fargo is the first jurisdiction in the US to adopt Approval Voting.
Lane County, Oregon
The Equal.Vote Coalition wasn't able to celebrate a win on election night for its brand new voting method, STAR Voting. However, they did celebrate the first STAR Voting campaign in history to make it on the ballot, and have vowed to resubmit the proposal in 2020 as the loss was by a narrow margin.
STAR Voting allows voters to rate candidates on the ballot on a scale of 0-5 stars. The top two candidates with the highest aggregate score move on to an automatic runoff, where the candidate with the highest score among all voters is declared the winner. It is a modified version of Score Voting, with the addition of the automatic runoff to ensure everyone has an equal say in the outcome.
Comprehensive Good Government Reform
Missouri voters passed the most comprehensive reform proposal on the 2018 ballot. Clean Missouri submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures and survived a legal challenge by special interests to get Amendment 1 on the ballot.
Amendment 1 isn’t just about one issue though. It takes on the influence of lobbyists, campaign finance, and gerrymandering reform. Specifically, it:
- Bans nearly all gifts from lobbyists (placing a limit of $5);
- Requires lawmakers to wait two years before becoming lobbyists;
- Requires legislative records to be open to the public;
- Establishes contribution limits for legislative candidates — $2,500 for state senate candidates and $2,000 for state house candidates;
- Puts in measures to prevent groups from working around contribution caps and bars fundraising on state capitol grounds; and
- Establishes a nonpartisan redistricting process with a nonpartisan expert to draw the legislative map and a citizens’ commission to review it. The amendment puts in specific guidelines to ensure the person hired by the state auditor meets the qualifications and criteria for the role.
Fair Maps Colorado campaigned to get Amendments Y and Z on the November ballot. The amendments each establish a 12-member independent redistricting commission to redraw congressional and legislative maps, respectively, after the decennial census.
A new Colorado law required the amendments to get at least 55% of the vote to pass. That wasn’t a problem as both were approved by approximately 71% of voters. There was no registered opposition, the amendments were endorsed by the state Republican and Democratic parties, and a host of nonpartisan groups.
The amendments set strict guidelines for super-majority approval of new maps, including requiring the approval of at least two of the independents on the commissions, and a public and transparent process for final approval. They also require the commissions to make districts as competitive as possible.
Voters Not Politicians (VNP) garnered over 400,000 signatures and, like Clean Missouri, survived a legal challenge from special interests to get Proposal 2 on the November ballot.
Proposal 2 establishes a 13-member citizens’ redistricting commission to draw electoral maps. The commission is comprised of 4 Republicans, 4 Democrats, and 5 citizens registered outside the political parties. It is the first proposal to give independents more seats at the table.
The road to get Proposal 2 on the ballot is a remarkable story of how a single Facebook post from VNP founder Katie Fahey turned into a movement that turned into a campaign. It is testament to the strength of grassroots activism when those involved have the will and determination to see change happen.
Proposition 4, brought to the ballot by Better Boundaries Utah, passed in a tight race. The final votes were tallied this week to show a tight margin of victory for the proposal.
Proposition 4 creates a 7-member citizens’ redistricting commission, comprised of 2 Republicans, 2 Democrats, two independents, and a chair that is appointed by the governor. The proposal requires 5 members to approve new maps.
Stay tuned for the outcome of this race.
Voters approved Issue 1 in Ohio’s May primary elections. The proposal allows the legislature to continue to draw redistricting maps, but it requires three-fourths approval from legislators to ensure that the maps are fairer.
However, there is a catch.
If the legislature cannot agree on new maps, the matter will go before a redistricting commission made up of 7 people: the governor, the auditor of state, the secretary of state, one person each appointed by the majority and minority party leaders in the State House (2 total), and one appointed by the party leaders in the State Senate (2 total).
At least 2 members of the minority party have to agree to any proposed redistricting changes.
If the redistricting commission cannot agree on proposed changes, the matter goes back to the legislature, where again it must pass by a three-fifths majority. This time, however, it only needs at least one-third support from each major party to enact redistricting changes for 10 years.
In the event this happens, some additional rules kick in that prohibit maps from being drawn with the explicit purpose of favoring one party or the other.
Ending Elections When the Most Voters Participate
San Diego County, California
San Diego County voters approved Measure D on Election Day, which requires county elections to be decided in the November general election, as opposed to possibly ending in the June primary if a candidate gets over 50% of the vote. This ensures that these races are decided when the most voters participate.
Even if a candidate gets over 50% of the vote in a county primary race, he or she will advance to the general with the candidate with the second most votes on primary election day.
The City of San Diego passed a similar provision (Measure L) in 2016.
“Currently, unlike state, federal, and San Diego City elections (because of the passage of Measure L in 2016) the County 50%+1 election loophole allows special interests to elect their candidates when fewer voters are involved in the decision-making process," said Jeff Marston, co-chair of the Independent Voter Project.
Measure D was approved with a little over 63% of the vote.
Making Voter Registration Easier
Same-day voter registration, which allows voters to register to vote when they go to the polls on Election Day, was approved by voters in Maryland. Sixty-seven percent of voters voted in favor of the proposal.
Voters approved automatic voter registration, which allows eligible US citizens to be automatically registered to vote when they apply for, update, or renew their driver’s license or state identification card. It was approved with 66% of the vote.
Nevada voters also approved automatic voter registration with nearly 60% of the vote.
Other Reforms Approved by Voters:
- In Florida, voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, which restores the right to vote to approximately 1.7 million convicted felons in Florida -- the exception being felons convicted of murder or rape.
- Florida voters also approved Amendment 12, which bans elected officials from lobbying local and federal government while they are in office, and six years after they leave office. The League of Women Voters of Florida have a good overview of the amendment here.
- Ethics commissions were established in New Mexico and North Dakota. North Dakota's ballot measure -- Measure 1 -- also has provisions that ban foreign political contributions, requires transparency in funding sources, and includes provisions related to lobbyists and conflicts of interest.
- The Alaska legislature approved a similar bill in July as North Dakota's Measure 1, minus the ethics commission, after voters submitted enough signatures to put the good government reforms on the ballot.
- Question 2 in Massachusetts creates a citizens' commission to advance a US constitutional amendment to limit the influence of money in politics.
- Public financing of elections and campaign finance city charters were approved in Baltimore, Denver, and New York City.