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Need More Proof of a Rigged Political Process?

Most Americans believe the US is headed in the wrong direction, trust in the federal government is at dismal levels, and people are consumed by frustration, grief, and/or rage in uncertain and tumultuous times.

As former Gehl Foods CEO and prominent political reform activist Katherine Gehl said recently, “Things are not alright with our country.”

LISTEN NOW: How We End Division, Dysfunction, and Inaction in a Democracy in Crisis

Yet, the public has long felt the US was headed in the wrong direction. Congress is constantly frozen by partisan gridlock, and when things do get passed it typically is the bare minimum of what the Republican and Democratic Parties can compromise on.

The public interest continues to fall by the wayside as public officials make it clear that serving the will of the people is not their top priority. That is not where their incentive truly lies.

This reality isn’t new. It is not something that just surfaced in the last few years. This is the normal in US politics. It has been accepted as such because the political system was designed to get everyone to fall in line with a duopolistic process that does not exist in the US Constitution.

Gehl, along with Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, explain the true nature of our political process in their new book, “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.”

One of the most significant hurdles for pro-voter reformers to overcome is getting people to see that the division, dysfunction, and gridlock in US politics shouldn’t be accepted as normal in a representative democracy:

  • People accept partisan gridlock because nothing ever changes.
  • People accept that nearly all congressional elections are safe for one party or the other because the system denies political competition
  • People accept that there are only two ways of looking at an issue because we don’t have a system that encourages a robust competition of ideas.
  • People accept that third party and independent candidates shouldn’t run for president because the system ensures they will always be spoilers
  • People accept the argument that independent voters are a myth because they will end up choosing a Republican or Democrat in elections that only give them two options.

One of the many important points that Gehl and Porter make in their work is that the political industry is too focused on who wins and who loses. This zero-sum mindset obscures everything that is wrong with the US political system and as a result people just accept things the way they are even though most people agree that Washington is broken.

Well, not broken. Broken would imply that the rules were designed to do one thing and the system is not producing the right results. The US political system was BUILT this way, and is the reason things are getting worse.

Yet, as Gehl and Porter note, it doesn’t have to be this way, and pro-voter reformers across the country are challenging the way people view the political process and are making history with transformative reforms.

Here is what has happened in the past week alone:

Massachusetts Campaign Submits Record Number of Signatures to Get Ranked Choice Voting on the Ballot

Voter Choice for Massachusetts 2020 (Voter Choice MA) announced Wednesday that it has almost cleared the final signature hurdle to get ranked choice voting on the state ballot. Voter Choice MA submitted 25,000 electronic signatures, adding to the record number of signatures it had certified in December.

Massachusetts ballot initiative campaigns go through two rounds of petition gathering. In the first round, over 111,000 signatures were certified for the ranked choice voting campaign -- setting a state record. The campaign then smashed the 13,274 signature threshold the campaign needed to reach by June 17.

“Our campaign, powered by our volunteers and coalition partners, is proud to have submitted a record number of signatures in 2019 and now again in the second round in 2020,” said Brian Bass, Organizing Director for both signature drives. “We are thrilled that Ranked Choice Voting will be included on the 2020 Massachusetts ballot bringing us one giant step closer to giving all voters more choice, more voice and more freedom when we vote.” 

He added:

“The groundswell of support in the Commonwealth tells us that there is a powerful appetite for reforms that put more power in the hands of regular citizens, and we hope to capture that and build momentum for the cause heading into November. Breaking the record sure feels great, but now the real work begins. In our experience, once voters learn more about RCV they tend to get on board.” 

Voter Choice MA was allowed to gather and submit electronic signatures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic after getting the ok from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The campaign, working with Secretary of State Bill Gavin and town clerks, collected the e-signatures using DocuSign.

“This was the first electronic signature drive to get a citizen’s initiative on the ballot in American history,” said Cara Brown McCormick, a senior advisor to the campaign. “Together we gathered signatures at a rate of one every two minutes for 40 days in a row, and were fortunate to be able to do the whole drive while keeping everyone safe.” 

The Voter Choice MA ballot measure would allow state voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference starting in 2022. After the first choice preferences are tabulated, if no candidate has a majority, the last place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are applied in an automatic runoff. This process continues until a candidate wins a majority. However, this ranking option is entirely up to voters.

“Ranked Choice Voting is simple, fair and easy. On your ballot, you can vote for just one candidate like you always have, or you can rank your first choice, your second choice and your third choice, just like you rank things in order in your everyday life,” said Shauna Hamilton, Deputy Campaign Manager for Voter Choice MA. “If your favorite candidate can’t win, your vote is instantly counted for your second choice so your vote matters more.” 

Voter Choice Massachusetts started not long after the success of the 2016 ballot measure that brought ranked choice voting to Maine elections. It quickly built into a broad, grassroots network of ranked choice voting supporters across the state that includes Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Maine is currently the only state that uses ranked choice voting for state elections -- and was the first to adopt its use for presidential elections. However, ranked choice voting is used in over a dozen cities across the country.

Alaskans Officially Have A Chance to Level the Playing Field for All Voters and Candidates in State Elections

A ballot measure that would end dark money and implement nonpartisan primaries with ranked choice voting has been cleared by the Alaska Supreme Court to appear on the November ballot.

The Alaskans for Better Elections measure cleared the petition signature hurdle in January and was slated to appear on the ballot as Ballot Measure 2. However, it received pushback from the state’s attorney general and the Division of Elections, which tried to remove it from the ballot.

The initiative was challenged on the basis of the state’s single subject rule for initiative campaigns. However, Alaskans for Better Elections says this “ignored decades of establishment precedent regarding ballot initiatives.”

Two courts, including the state Supreme Court, sided with the campaign..

Justice Daniel Winfree wrote that the “State asks us to put our judicial thumb on the scale to limit the people’s constitutional check against legislative inaction,” which the court refused to do. Instead, it ruled all proposals in the measure fall under the broad subject of election reform.

"These two substantive changes are interrelated because they together ensure that voting does not revert to a two-candidate system," wrote Winfree on combining open primaries with ranked choice voting. 

He added that since the proposal would move away from elections dominated by the two major parties, voters should "have adequate and accurate information about who is paying for campaign communications to influence their vote." 

“We are very pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling,” said Alaskans for Better Elections counsel Scott Kendall.

“The initiative process is fundamental to upholding the people’s power in our democratic process, and [the] ruling is a victory for all Alaskans.”

“With today’s ruling, voters will have the opportunity to reform the system so that Alaskans’ interests are always put first,” said campaign manager Shea Siegert. “Our team is working toward the November election and making our elections open, transparent, and fair.”

DC Court of Appeals Rejects Case to Bring Fairness to Presidential Debates

There are plenty of examples that nonpartisan reformers can point to on how the US political process is ‘fixed.’ The parties control the primaries, the rules and regulations, ballot access, how people vote, the largest flow of money in politics, the political narrative, and the list continues from there.

One organization that shows just how deep this control goes is the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which not only controls the narrative during presidential elections, but is a primary reason why independents and third party candidates are so reluctant to run for president.

The debate commission is supposed to establish rules that apply nonpartisan and objective standards for debate access. Yet, the commission has stacked the deck so high that it is practically impossible for candidates outside the major parties to qualify for the debate stage.

The DC Court of Appeals recently rejected a lawsuit brought by Level the Playing Field that challenges these rules and the bias CPD board members have toward the two major parties.

Here are some important facts:

  • The debate commission was formed in1987 as a partnership between the Republican and Democratic Parties to seize control over presidential debates
  • The League of Women Voters was the principal sponsor of the presidential debates -- dating back to 1976 -- up until that point. However, major party candidates often refused to participate because they lacked any control over the process.. 
  • The CPD was started by Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, both chairmen of the major parties at the time.
  • In 1988, the League of Women Voters dropped its sponsorship of the presidential debates in response to the bipartisan takeover, claiming the CPD was perpetuating “a fraud on the American voter.”
  • The last time a third candidate was on the debate stage was Ross Perot in 1992
  • The CPD established a 15% rule in 2000 that requires all candidates to poll at least at 15% in 5 polls hand-picked by the debate commission.
  • It’s worth noting that many of these polls are conducted by consultants who give money to and are hired by the major parties.
  • Many on the CPD board have a significant financial and/or political investment in the success of the major parties and their candidates.

This doesn’t dig near as deep as the plaintiffs dug to show how deep the ties are between the debate commission and the major parties. Yet, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that the evidence was not good enough to show two-party bias, and that the CPD was in compliance with FEC regulations.

Here’s another important thing to remember: The rules that govern American elections were not set up by a neutral government board or agency. They were set up by the Republican and Democratic Parties — not to promote fair competition or advance choice, but to ensure a political advantage.

The FEC is composed of partisan appointees -- 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats. And, like Congress, the agency is often accused of acting too slowly or not at all to serious campaign violations. But in the hyper-partisan environment in Washington, how could they?

Imagine bringing a complaint that challenges rules that explicitly benefit both major parties to members of those parties and expect anything to come out of it.

That’s like the health inspector giving a McDonald’s restaurant an A+ but that same health inspector also works for McDonald’s. Obviously, this type of industry practice would not be tolerated. Yet this is exactly the type of thing we accept in US politics.

The two parties that control the rules and regulations of our entire political industry also control the enforcement of these rules and expect people to buy that no conflicts of interest exist -- and federal courts won’t do anything about it.

There is nothing normal about what is going on in the US political system, and it is time we stopped treating it that way.

Also In Reform News…

  • The San Diego City Council’s Rules Committee voted to advance More Choice SD’s nonpartisan top-four primary with ranked choice voting in the general election proposal to the full City Council for consideration. This milestone means the initiative, supported by a strong coalition of nonpartisan organizations, is one step closer to appearing on the city’s November ballot.
  • Fargo, ND, just wrapped up its first elections using approval voting. It is the first city to adopt and use the alternative voting method. The Center for Election Science has compiled the results with polling data that shows the successful use of the reform.
  • The Unite America Institute published a new white paper, "Ranked Choice Voting: The Solution to the Presidential Primary Predicament." The report makes the case that ranked choice voting can solve three problems with the presidential primary process: millions of wasted votes, large discrepancies between voter preferences and delegate allocation, and a caucus system that discourages voter participation. 
  • The Election Reformers Network is hosting an exclusive webinar on how the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, was adopted in a contentious period in American political history and the lessons reformers can learn from the accomplishment. Patricia Keefer, who co-chaired the amendment campaign, will lead the discussion, which will feature footage from an upcoming documentary on the ratification of the amendment. Register for the webinar here.
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About the Author

Shawn Griffiths

Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.

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