From Enthusiastic, to Jaded, and Back Again, Rinse and Repeat
The 2020 book The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save our Democracy, by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter, hits close to home. It says a lot of what I’ve been trying to say for some time now, but it’s much more effective.
Let me explain how I went from being a die-hard Republican insider in 2001; to in 2012, becoming an independent activist trying to change the system to break-up the dynamics that heavily favor parties and their insiders, so that all voters can have a real and meaningful voice. My change in perspective started when I began to grasp the injustice of parties being able to conduct themselves like private clubs, even though they hold a very crucial gatekeeper role in our public elections.
As Chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party (2003-2005), I ran up against members of my executive committee voting to remove “county and state delegates” from their elected delegate position. At that time, Utah had primarily a caucus/convention system of nominating candidates for the general election ballot. Delegates to both the county and state conventions, elected at their county precinct caucus, were free agents, not bound to vote for any candidate, but instead were elected as “representatives” with sole power to cast nominating votes at their respective conventions on any candidate for each state and federal public office (except president, where they only elected national delegates and electors). Any candidate receiving at least 60% of the delegate vote became the party nominee for the general election ballot without facing a public primary at all. Not only did all executive committee members and public officeholders (incumbents) already have automatic superdelegate status, but add to that, the power of the executive committee to remove elected delegates and replace them with appointed delegates. That was a lot of power in the hands of just a few people! These issues were further compounded by the fact that most general elections were not competitive; Republicans typically won most races overwhelmingly. Hence, the voice of “the people” in our elections was heavily outweighed by the power of “the party.” This could result in either the tyranny of the majority, or the tyranny of the minority, depending upon who held controlling power within the party.
In 2010, with that stewing in my mind, I managed the campaign of a college mentor who was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress in one of the most conservative districts in the country. In that race, qualifications, substance behind the issues and the character of the candidates made virtually no difference. It was a lopsided district, and all that mattered was her opponent getting the partisan Republican base at caucus and convention — then the general election was in the bag. (And it wasn’t just Republicans; Democrats benefitted from a similar super-majority in the city capital.)
In 2012, I officially unaffiliated with any party, and began advocating for a change to the caucus/convention system. I knew we had to come up with something better than party primaries, though, because of the broader dynamics of not having competitive general elections. Unrepresentative election results especially ensued, given that most voters weren’t affiliated with a party, and thus had no say in closed primaries. Then their choices in the general election were limited and predetermined. My most profound realization came when I considered, for the first time, that there was no reason we HAD to keep parties as gatekeepers for our public elections. That’s not in the Constitution. In fact, the Framers were anti party-system.
California had just passed a top-two primary system, wherein all candidates from all party preferences to no party preference were on the same primary ballot, and the top-two vote getters, regardless of party, moved on to the general election. That was a neat idea! (But, a little limiting). In some of our Republican conventions, we had utilized ranked choice voting, a type of instant run-off election where voters can rank their candidates in order of preference; and if no candidate gets a majority on the first ballot, an automatic series of run-offs ensues until someone wins with a majority. What if we fused the idea of a combined primary, like California had, with the idea of ranked choice voting, to allow for more than two candidates to advance to the general election, or at least to ensure that those who did advance hadn’t simply squeaked by with a low plurality win due to vote-splitting? That was the answer!
I was so excited about this new proposal for a combined primary utilizing ranked choice voting. I began sharing it with knowledgeable and capable people. I found a few good people who were supportive of the idea, and in early 2013, we set up a website to start drumming up support for a citizen ballot initiative. However, ours was a big change that would not inherently favor the powers that be, and it would require a lot of supporters and a lot of resources to be successful. As we were just getting off the ground, some big money interests got involved and “took over” the electoral reform space in Utah. Their endeavor managed to succeed at adding a signature route to the primary ballot, such that party conventions were no longer the sole route. Theirs was a step, but not a complete solution, since it retained party primaries, with the Republican primary remaining closed to non-party members.
A little while after my family moved to New Hampshire seven years ago, I got involved in re-instituting New Hampshire Independent Voters. Our primary purpose is to decrease the power of special interests, including parties, and increase the power of “we the people,” with a special focus on expanding ballot access for all candidates, and voting access for all voters, including independent voters, to cast a real and meaningful vote. We aren’t a party, and we aren’t directly about trying to help elect independent candidates; we’re about systemic reforms needed to give everyone an equal playing field.
We’ve had a lot of people agree with our issues and “sign up,” but few have been actively engaged enough to donate significant amounts of time or resources. We’ve also assisted already established organizational allies on things like money in politics, redistricting, and voting rights. Since New Hampshire doesn’t allow for citizen initiatives, any electoral reforms have to pass the legislature. In 2017, finding someone to sponsor a bill for a combined primary was met with resistance, but the idea of a bill to implement ranked choice voting was met with more enthusiasm. So I’m now also leading an organization called New Hampshire Ranked Choice Voting (NHRCV). We’re focused on educating about and advocating for ranked choice voting in NH. We’re not focused on combining the primary (although I wholeheartedly still support that concept). NHRCV is having success in a non-partisan/cross partisan manner with people, volunteers and resources, thus far.
So here’s the kicker. Guess what’s been happening in the last couple of months? We’ve had new people joining NHRCV, people who haven’t been involved with the independent voter group or the RCV group before, holding up Gehl and Porter’s book, saying that they would be a lot more enthused about our efforts if we were supporting a “top 5” reform. I’ve had others who have been enthusiastically volunteering, say, “Wait, you mean we’re just supporting ranked choice voting without doing away with party primaries? Well, how will that really change anything?” While I do think RCV reform alone will be a great improvement, I agree that a more fundamental change is sorely needed to truly transform our system to one that really works for “the people.” Oh, the irony of finding myself as the jaded one; the one setting aside the “ideal,” and making the case for working with what’s possible.
Indeed, Gehl and Porter are extremely welcome voices to the movement. Their research and credibility brings vibrant clarity, with concrete examples, to these issues. It looks like their work has the capacity to thrust the need for systemic change to the forefront, as they argue in mainstream terms and call upon us to open the market and innovate like we would in any other industry. They call upon us to quit saying the system is broken; they expertly unveil how the system is working exactly how it’s meant to work, and that’s the problem: we need a new system! They lay out in great detail how “the political-industrial complex is a private industry within a public institution,” and that “reveals the root cause of the situation in which we find ourselves.” They then eloquently propose the solution: a “top 5” combined primary utilizing ranked choice voting in the general election.
If every well-intended, rational American reads Gehl and Porter’s book, combined with Gruber, Hardy and Kresky’s Touro Law Review article, “Let All Voters Vote: Independents and the Expansion of Voting Rights in the United States,” it will be more than possible to bring about the needed systemic reforms that could do wonders for our representative, constitutional Democracy.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and President of New Hampshire Independent Voters and New Hampshire Ranked Choice Voting.
Politics for the People Zoom Call
With Author Katherine Gehl
Sunday, October 18th
Click here to RSVP!