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6 Legislative Efforts to Protect YOUR Right to Vote

The biggest story happening right now nationwide that is not getting any attention from the mainstream media are the campaigns, ballot proposals, signature drives, and legislative efforts going on RIGHT NOW to give voters an election system that protects their right to a meaningful and equal vote in the taxpayer-funded election process -- from the primary to the general election.

I’ve covered 10 of the biggest reform organizations to watch in 2020, whose mission it is to give voters a better election system. In this series, we are listing 6 legislative efforts and the principal lawmakers and organizations who are sponsoring / supporting them to give every voter a chance at a meaningful vote at the ballot box.

1. Independent State Rep Sponsors Open Primary Reform in Maine

Maine has become an ongoing success story for political and election reform activism -- from campaign finance reform to making it easier for voters to register and cast a ballot to ranked choice voting.

But the state still conducts closed primaries that deny access to independent voters, though these elections are paid for by taxpayers. Independent State Rep. Kent Ackley, however,  has introduced LD 211, which would extend the right to vote in primary elections to voters not enrolled with a political party.

[pullout_blockquote quote="Given that 80% of Maine voters support opening Maine's primaries, we are optimistic that unenrolled voters will soon be able to participate in primary elections." author="Kaitlin LaCasse, Campaign Manager for Open Primaries Maine"]

In April, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs held a public hearing on LD 211. Kaitlin LaCasse, campaign manager for Open Primaries Maine, told me nearly 40 citizens submitted testimony in support of the bill. No one testified in opposition.

LeCasse says that after a split report out the committee, the bill is likely to go before the State House floor for a vote soon. This will be followed by a vote in the Senate if the bill passes.

The bill has received the endorsement from the Portland Press Herald, Ellsworth American, and leaders across Maine and across the political spectrum. It is also being supported by the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, which pledged to match contributions given by reformers toward this cause, along with a separate legislative effort to expand the state’s ranked choice voting law.

“We are not surprised to see growing support for LD 211. Unenrolled voters simply want their voices heard in taxpayer-funded elections, and most Mainers agree this just makes sense. Given that 80% of Maine voters support opening Maine's primaries, we are optimistic that unenrolled voters will soon be able to participate in primary elections,” said LeCasse.

Also In Maine….

State lawmakers have not made the implementation of ranked choice voting in Maine easy, even though voters voted not once, but twice in support of its use. Several legislators tried to kill the voter-approved law in 2017, but were rebuked at the ballot box in June 2018.

Maine was the first state to use ranked choice voting for statewide elections. However, its use is still restricted as a result of a non-binding opinion from the Maine Supreme Court. For instance, in the general election, it can only be used for US House and Senate races.

Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson has put forth legislation, LD 1083, to change the current presidential caucus system to a primary system, and includes the use of ranked choice voting for primaries and the general election.

The bill has been tabled by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting 2020 is asking its supporters to help lobby legislators to move the bill forward.

Unfortunately, there is less than a month in the current legislative session.

2. Missouri GOP Lawmakers Tried to End Open Primaries, But Not All Party Members Fell In Line

Reform activists are not just trying to pass legislation, they are also trying to pushback against efforts by party leaders to restrict the rights of voters outside the major parties.

Missouri legislators, for instance, almost succeeded in an effort to close the state’s primary elections. However, mounting pressure from open primary advocates like Open Primaries stopped the bill from getting out of the House.

HB 26, endorsed by the Republican Party, would have restricted access to taxpayer-funded primaries to party members only. The House voted to endorse the bill. However, before it could be voted on again, the leadership dropped it from the calendar a week before the legislative session ended.

"Missouri's attempt to institute partisan registration and closed primaries was a concerted power grab by political insiders within the parties from the voters. It almost worked,” says Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president for Open Primaries.

“Our campaign marshaled thousands of phone calls and emails to elected members, directed significant member outreach, and helped get dozens of letters to the editor and several editorials published in support of keeping the primaries open to everyone. We were able to convince enough members that open primaries are not just good for the voters but good for the parties as well. But make no mistake, every year there are attempts by party leadership in states across the country to keep the voters out of our own elections and that will only continue."

There are some lawmakers who broke from the party line to protect the rights of independent voters -- Peggy McGaugh, a Republican, was chief among them.

“Many, many elections are decided in the primaries,” McGaugh says, “and [closing the primaries] will definitely affect those unaffiliated voters.”

“My fear is that many non-affiliated voters will simply be turned away at the polls when forced to choose a ballot that doesn’t include their friend from church or neighbor in their local primaries,” McGaugh told me. “If passed, I believe that voter turnout will be even less than it is now and will affect the local races negatively.“

This is not to say that state lawmakers won’t keep trying to close the primaries. When the bill was first introduced, legislative analysis found that it would end up costing the state and local governments millions more -- a price tag paid for by taxpayers.

Many county clerks and elections officials opposed the effort.

3. Senate Leader Wants Equal Voting Rights for Independents in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania voters went to the polls for the 2019 primary elections on Tuesday, May 21. Except, for the nearly 800,000 registered independent voters. These voters were denied participation in these taxpayer-funded elections.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, however, has sponsored legislation -- Senate Bill 1234 -- to make sure these voters are never disenfranchised in state elections again. His bill would allow independent voters to pick between a Republican and Democratic ballot on primary election day.

“In our most recent primary election, only 18 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters went to the ballot box to cast a vote,” said Scarnati when he introduced the bill.

“The low turnout can in part be attributed to voters feeling disenfranchised by both major parties, who have taken control of our primary process. Allowing more people the opportunity to have a voice in their representation is an important step toward ensuring democracy.”

One can imagine how low turnout was in an odd-year primary when interest in politics and elections is at its lowest.

“Allowing more people the opportunity to have a voice in their representation is an important step toward ensuring democracy. In June, I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on this important legislation,” says Scarnati.

The bill has not moved out of the State Senate Government Committee. However, he plans to advance the bill when the legislature returns to session in June.

Scarnati, a Republican, has bipartisan support for the bill. Half of the co-sponsors on his bill are Democrats, including the Senate minority leader, Jay Costa.

Even former party bosses in the state, who once opposed open primaries, now acknowledge that the Republican and Democratic Parties cannot continue to shut out independents.

“[T]his [closed system] is not working. These initiatives to bring more people in and include them are clearly the right way to go,” said T.J. Rooney, a former chair of the state Democratic Party

“I think candidates and parties will be better the sooner they have to focus their message and their outreach to a general election audience,” said Alan Novak, former chair of the state Republican Party. “It’ll make [candidates] better and it’ll make the process better.”

Open Primaries Pennsylvania is the largest coalition of civic and business organizations pushing for open primary reform in the state, and has been heavily encouraging lawmakers to support Scarnati’s bill.

4. Will A Critical Battleground State Adopt Nonpartisan Open Primaries?

Getting nonpartisan election reform through legislatures controlled by one of the two major parties isn’t easy. Why would the parties weaken their hold over the elections process?

Take, for instance, SB 556 in Florida, sponsored by State Senator Kevin Rader. The bill would have implemented a nonpartisan, top-two open primary similar to the systems in place in California and Washington state.

However, it died in the Ethics and Elections Committee.

This does not, however, mean that hopes for primary reform in Florida are dead. The group All Voters Vote (AVV) launched an initiative back in March to get nonpartisan open primary reform on the ballot in 2020.

AVV has proposed two measures for the ballot. One would implement nonpartisan open primaries in congressional and US Senate primaries. The other would reform statewide and legislative primaries.

The campaign is being spearheaded by health care executive Mike Fernandez, prominent businessman Carlos M. de la Cruz, Sr. and attorney Eugene Stearns.

“Florida’s current system of excluding the vast majority of voters from participating in most important elections is just wrong. The All Voters Vote initiative will change how we conduct elections ensuring that everyone who is properly registered can cast a ballot in elections that matter,” said Stearns.

The nonpartisan open primaries would allow all voters and candidates to participate on a single ballot, regardless of party affiliation. This includes the 3.6 million voters registered with no party affiliation that currently do not get a vote in the most critical stage of the election process.

Once AVV’s efforts gets past the review stage, AVV will need to get 766,200 signatures for each measure for them to appear on the ballot, and at least 60% of Florida voters must vote yes for the measure to pass.

It’s a tall hurdle to clear. Yet if AVV gets its measures on the ballot, it will be during a major presidential election cycle in one of the nation’s biggest battleground states -- meaning a higher voter turnout.

5. In California, A Public Ballot for Presidential Primaries

California’s constitution calls for an open presidential primary. Yet the state uses a semi-closed system. Why?

In 2016, millions were left confused and disenfranchised by a presidential primary that failed to protect their rights. Every taxpayer pays for these elections. Every voter deserves a meaningful vote.

This is why the Independent Voter Project (IVP) has proposed a solution that would benefit everyone: a public ballot option.

Put simply, IVP’s solution allows nearly 6 million independent voters (registered No Party Preference) to pick the presidential candidate they believe is the best choice in the race, regardless of party.

It does not eliminate existing party primaries. Parties still decide whether or not to allow independent voters to participate in their primaries. It allows the parties to decide whether or not to use the public ballot results in their nomination process.

And, if a registered party member would rather vote on the public ballot, they can.

It’s a solution that protects the rights of all voters to have a meaningful say in taxpayer-funded presidential primaries, while protecting the rights of private political parties. And, it resolves a confusing and unconstitutional primary process that places an unnecessary burden on millions of voters.

Not bad, right?

IVP originally pitched the solution to the secretary of state and state lawmakers ahead of the 2016 presidential primary. A resolution was sponsored by then-Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) and then-State Senator Anthony Cannella to add the public ballot to the June presidential primary.

Unfortunately, after a recommended “no” vote from the elections committee chair, the resolution failed to get out of committee by a single vote.

Read more about the history of this proposal and the impending crisis in California’s 2020 presidential primary here.

The Independent Voter Project has made this its top reform priority headed into the 2020 elections.

As of now, no legislator has introduced IVP’s solution for the current legislative session in either chamber of the California Legislature. However, this means there is an opening for a legislator to be a champion for voters’ rights.

6. Nonpartisan Group Pushes New Nonpartisan Election System in Wisconsin

Former Gehl Foods CEO Katherine Gehl and other Wisconsin business executives are pushing a new nonpartisan election system -- a top-four primary with ranked choice voting in the general election.

Gehl is the co-founder and co-chair of the group Democracy Found, which plans to begin talking with Wisconsin legislators by the first half of 2020, meaning voters could see a bill introduced soon after.

Katherine Gehl co-authored the groundbreaking Harvard Business School report, Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America, with Harvard professor Michael E. Porter. It examines the destructive impact the two-party duopoly has had on competition in the US political industry.

Gehl and Porter believe the nonpartisan, top-four primary system with ranked choice voting in November is one way to create an equal playing field for all voters, boost competition, and create better elections.

“Our work (the Gehl Porter Politics Industry Theory) illustrates the systemic problem of unhealthy competition in politics. The highest priority to change the nature of competition is electoral innovation. The combination of Top Four Primaries and Ranked Choice Voting General Elections realigns incentives for elected officials to work in the public interest,” says Gehl.

The idea has been supported by other nonpartisan reform organizations like the Independent Voter Project (IVP) and FairVote. Gehl is an honorary co-chair of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, in which both organizations are a member, and is on the advisory board of IVP.

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