The 2018 midterms ended up being the biggest year in political and election reform in half a century, yet these efforts to unrig the elections and political process got mostly overlooked by traditional and mainstream media outlets.
New voting methods were put to use and approved for the first time in US history, gerrymandering reform passed in a handful of states, anti-corruption measures were adopted throughout the country, and the momentum for this movement reached new heights.
Though 2019 is considered an off year in elections, that doesn't mean this momentum is going to slow. In fact, people can expect more major developments in 2019. Here are 6 of the biggest things to watch for in nonpartisan reform:
1. Are New Presidential Debate Rules Coming?
A lawsuit challenging the Commission on Presidential Debate's exclusionary rules that keep third party and independent candidates from participating is in federal court, and a decision is likely to come in 2019.
The lawsuit was filed by Peter Ackerman and his nonprofit group Level the Playing Field, along with Green Party of the United States and the Libertarian National Committee against the Federal Elections Commission, who are tasked with making sure groups like the Commission on Presidential Debates abides by federal regulations and laws.
Plaintiffs in this case argue that the CPD is currently violating federal election laws requiring the it to remain nonpartisan and to apply “objective criteria” in determining who may participate in the presidential debates.
In February 2017, US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that the FEC had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously and contrary to law” in its assessment of the CPD’s nonpartisanship. It was the first time challengers to the rules of presidential debates were successful in court.
It's important to note that the CPD is comprised of several established names in the Republican and Democratic Party, who have a political and financial investment in the success of their party.
A second complaint was filed in the case after the FEC was ordered to provide a thorough review of the CPD's practices, and it didn't go anywhere. Judge Chutkan's ruling on the second complaint is what we are keeping an eye on in 2019.
2. Independent Voter Project Moving Forward with Ways to Open CA's Presidential Primaries
The Independent Voter Project (a co-sponsor of IVN.us) will continue to explore ways to open California's presidential primaries for all voters, and bring the state into compliance with the state constitution, which explicitly states that these primaries need to be open.
California uses a semi-closed system for its presidential primaries. The parties get to choose whether or not to allow "No Party Preference" voters to vote in their party's primary. Some parties (like the Democratic Party) allow it, others (like the Republican Party) don't, which can cause confusion among voters. Additionally, voters registered with the American Independent Party by mistake may not know it means they can't vote in primaries open to NPP voters.
In 2016, the Independent Voter Project sponsored a resolution that would have instructed the California secretary of state to use his authority as the state's top elections official to add an additional nonpartisan, public ballot option for voters not affiliated with a party or who do not want to participate in a party's primary.
The Independent Voter Project provided legal research to both legislators and the legislative analyst and had previously discussed its legal analysis with the secretary of state and his lawyers, including the issue of spending taxpayer dollars on an important stage of the public election process that is controlled exclusively by the private political parties.
The "public ballot" option did not advance past committee, but the Independent Voter Project continues to fight for presidential primaries that level the playing field for all voters, and will move forward with ways to make it happen.
3. Open Primaries Sues to End Taxpayer-Funding of Closed N.M. Primaries
The Open Primaries Education Fund filed a lawsuit in November, challenging the taxpayer-funding of closed primary elections in New Mexico. OPEF argues that, among other things, this violates a state constitutional provision that prohibits public funds from being used to subsidize the activities of private organizations.
“New Mexico’s closed primary elections are exclusionary and held for the benefit of major political parties, which are purely private entities. Even though the primary election is closed and exclusionary, primary elections are paid for by public funds and New Mexico taxpayers, while the major political parties reap the benefits,” the lawsuit says.
John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries Education Fund, stated:
“The New Mexico Constitution says: ‘neither the state nor any county, school district, or municipality, except as otherwise provided in this constitution, shall directly or indirectly lend or pledge its credit or make any donation to or in aid of any person, association, or public or private corporation.’ There is a clear case to be made that funding exclusionary elections violates this clause. The political parties have had it both ways; private organizations when it comes to determining the rules for participation, but public when it comes to taxpayer subsidies. Our goal is to change that.”
4. The Next State to Pass Ranked Choice Voting?
There is little dispute that the biggest reform winner in 2018 was ranked choice voting.
It was approved for the second time by Maine voters, while it was used for all statewide, legislative, and US House and Senate primary elections. It was also used in US House and Senate general elections, another historic milestone for the reform.
RCV was also implemented in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was approved in Las Cruces, New Mexico; Amherst, Massachusetts, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and was protected by voters in Memphis, Tennessee.
The alternative voting method is growing in popularity in the reform community and among voters who want to see change, so the question is: Which state will be next to follow in Maine's footsteps?
The answer may come sooner than people think. There are grassroots efforts in a number of states attempting to get ranked choice voting on the 2020 ballot, but RCV advocates in Massachusetts believe they can get it passed in the legislature, as soon as 2019.
Voter Choice Massachusetts is an expansive grassroots movement in the state to educate voters and lobby state lawmakers to implement ranked choice voting statewide. The group believes it has enough support from Democrats AND Republicans to get a bill passed.
If successful, Massachusetts would be the first state to adopt ranked choice voting through legislative action.
5. Ranked Choice Voting to be Used for First Time in Memphis, Two Other Cities
Voters in Memphis, Tennessee rejected proposals on the 2018 midterm ballot that would overturn the ranked choice voting system that they approved in 2008, but had yet to be implemented. Ranked choice voting will be implemented in local elections in 2019.
Two other cities will also use ranked choice voting for the first time: Las Cruces, New Mexico, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
6. Advocates of Approval Voting and Other Alternative Voting Methods Also to Expand Reform Efforts
I spoke with the people at The Center for Election Science, who plan to expand efforts to get approval voting passed in more cities around Fargo, North Dakota.
Fargo citizens were the first to vote for approval voting's adoption in the 2018 midterms. Advocates of approval voting and other alternative voting methods are trying to capitalize on increased momentum to see their preferred reforms passed in more places.
7. Second Unrig the System Summit to be Held in Nashville
RepresentUs is hosting the second Unrig the System Summit in Nashville, Tennessee from March 29-31, 2019. The 2018 Unrig the System Summit was the largest gathering of nonpartisan reformers and concerned citizens of the year. Over 1,500 people attended the event in New Orleans.
Experts and grassroots leaders discussed the myriad of problems that face our elections and the overall political process, and the need for broad systemic reform. Speakers in New Orleans included Jennifer Lawrence, Our Revolution President Nina Turner, former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, Harvard professor Larry Lessig, and many others.
Confirmed speakers for 2019 include: Nina Turner, No Labels Co-Founder Mark McKinnon, Larry Lessig, former FEC Chair Trevor Potter, and more.
People interested in attending the 2019 Unrig the System Summit can get more information here. RepresentUs is offering early bird ticket deals -- $100 off until January 4. Check out IVN's full coverage of the 2018 summit here.