As the dust settles over one of the most bitterly fought mid-term elections in modern history, the tribal bases of both political parties continue to clash along the seams of a deeply divided nation. Democrats furious at President Trump flipped the House, but believe in some close races that they were the victims of voter-suppression efforts. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, but fear that a “deep state” in Washington is still out to get their president. The split decision on Tuesday did little to quell their partisan rancor.
Yet there was another election last week that was not stoked by fear and partisan loathing, but rather by a bipartisan spirit of reform and national renewal. Little mentioned in the “horse race” coverage of the mid-terms, that parallel election resulted in a “reform wave” that may very well have the more lasting impact on our democracy.
There were campaign and election reform initiatives on the ballot Tuesday in more than two dozen states and localities, and with a few notable exceptions, they won, sweeping aside defenders of a status quo system that consistently produces incivility, political extremism and government gridlock. Some of the most notable reforms will end the practice of partisan gerrymandering that allows politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around, which explains why the vast majority of seats in the House of Representatives are uncompetitive.
Other reforms will end the practice of low-turnout “closed primaries” that empower extreme partisans in both parties and disenfranchise political independents. Still other reforms that passed last week will introduce automatic voter registration to make voting easier, and impose stricter ethics laws on politicians to reduce the influence of money in politics and slow the revolving door between government officials and lobbyists.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the mid-term election is that Americans are making the connection between a rigged campaign and election system and the dysfunction that afflicts American politics,” said Josh Silver, cofounder and director of Represent.Us, a national, non-profit electoral reform group. “Grassroots conservatives and progressives are now linking arms and passing structural reforms around the country to fix our broken politics and eliminate the incentives for politicians to appeal to the most extreme voters in both parties. And based on our research we just witnessed the most democracy reform in a single election ever. That means today is a new world.”
Michigan, Colorado, and Missouri all passed major anti-gerrymandering initiatives, for instance, that will take the drawing of congressional districts out of the hands of political partisans and entrust that critical job instead to independent or bipartisan commissions. A similar initiative in Utah is trending “win” but votes are still being counted. They are set to join Ohio, which passed its own anti-gerrymandering measure earlier this year, as well as California and Arizona, which had already adopted non-partisan commissions.
Voting reforms that automatically register voters whenever they update a driver’s license or state identification card and make it easier to receive absentee ballots passed in Michigan and Nevada last week. Anti-corruption reforms that limit or ban lobbyist gifts to politicians, tighten campaign finance rules and increase government transparency passed in Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota. A host of voting and anti-corruption reforms passed last week at the city level in Denver, Baltimore, Memphis, Phoenix, and New York.
Unfortunately, in South Dakota, which passed the nation’s first statewide Anti-Corruption Act three years ago only to see establishment politicians in the state legislature repeal it, an anti-corruption amendment to the state constitution was defeated last Tuesday.
Maine's Ranked-Choice Voting
Maine became the first state to decide state primary and congressional races based on a ranked-choice voting system that passed earlier this year in a hard-fought reform battle. Rather than choosing just one candidate in these races, Maine voters now rank them in order of preference and those rankings are used to decide the race if no candidate receives a majority. The reform came after nine of Maine’s last 11 governors won with less than 50 percent support, including the bombastic and decidedly uncivil Republican Governor Paul LePage, who first won in 2010 with less than 38 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race.
After the ranked-choice voting initiative passed by referendum in 2017, LePage and the GOP-dominated legislature, backed by a number of Democratic state lawmakers, repealed it. Undeterred, reformers worked through a frigid Maine winter to collect the signatures to successfully resuscitate the initiative. In ranked-choice voting in last summer’s primaries, Republican Shawn Moody won an outright majority, and Democrat Janet Mills won on the fourth ranked-choice tabulation. Mills won the general election last week and is now the governor-elect.
“From the moment ranked-choice voting originally passed, the political class in Maine did everything in its power to smother it,” said Cara Brown McCormick, Executive Director of the Chamberlain Project, who helped manage the successful campaign to pass ranked-choice voting. “But the people of Maine rose up and reclaimed the sovereign power the state constitution gives them to decide how to choose their leaders. We like to say that ranked-choice voting lets you vote your hopes, and not your fears. For candidates it means you don’t have to divide people to win, you have to bring them together.”
Key to the success of the current wave of campaign and election reform is support from across the political spectrum. With 42 percent of Americans now identifying as independents (compared to 29 percent as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans), in a 2017 Gallup poll, the “duopoly” by which the two political parties controlled the campaign and election system through closed primaries and partisan gerrymandering increasingly seems corrupt to many voters. In a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll, more than half of American voters said the system U.S. political parties use to pick candidates is “rigged,” and more than two-thirds want to see the process reformed.
“We believe the reform wave is ‘post partisan,’ because a majority of Americans now believe that the current system is broken and needs a fundamental reset,” said Silver of Represent.Us. “That’s a real sea change in attitudes in this country. It means that Americans have woken up to the true causes of the dysfunction in our democracy, and are taking actions across the country to fix them.”