This article was originally published December 1, 2014. It seems particularly relevant today, after a the election of Donald Trump. (Edited for relevance).
The Strategic Decision:
In early 2014, as a group of election reformers were strategizing on their best chances to change our voting system they made a critical decision.
Mark Frohnmayer, one of the chief architects of the four different draft initiatives, favored initiative 54 which included an open primary with approval voting and a top two final election.
Approval voting is a scientifically tested model of voting that according to voting experts will produce a more satisfying result for the most voters and is not as subject to manipulation as other types of voting. (For more on voting theory go to The Center for Election Science).
Jim Kelly, an active and generous supporter of election reform, favored initiative 55. I-55 included the open primary with a top two general election, but not approval voting. It continued our current system known as first past the post voting. All electors would vote for a single candidate in an open primary and only the top two would move onto the final general election.
Kelly and his supporters believed that including approval voting and an open primary would be too big of a leap for voters. Kelly’s argument won the day and all the money coalesced behind Initiative 55 which won a place on the Oregon General election ballot as Measure 90. (Note: Frohmnayer believed that M90 included an implicit charge to the Legislature to implement a form of approval voting or IRV as well. Others contest that mandate)
When A Door Shuts a Window Opens:
Measure 90 was crushed. It wasn’t enough of a change to inspire many independents, it ignored the legitimate concerns of minor parties who felt marginalized, and it went too far for major parties and their base who believed an open primary threatened their influence.
But while M90 failed it did stir up a lot of debate and ideas by opponents, many of whom did agree that there were ways to improve our democracy through election and voting reform…..
One of the ideas spawned by M90 was approval voting. This article attempts to show how a change in the election process, from moving from a first past the post process to an approval form of voting, can improve voter choices and make election outcomes much more inclusive and satisfactory.
Approval voting as applied to news sources as a surrogate for elections.
Pew Research recently released a study which asked news consumers to rank their favorite news source and the trustworthiness of most of the better known news sources. The results were sorted by political leaning.
Using this data we can demonstrate the differences between first past the post and approval voting, and how approval voting with an open primary leads to more satisfying choices for more people, and allows for incremental changes and a political consensus without the need to compromise on principle when voting.
Pew first identified five political cohorts of news consumers.
- Consistent Liberals
- Mostly Liberal
- Mostly Conservative
- Consistently Conservative
These consumers were asked two specific questions producing data sets for each question broken down into the political cohorts.
- What is your main source of government and political news
- Do you Trust or Distrust a source of news
The Test Question:
Lets assume that we were to take a national vote on the following question.
Q: If there was a national emergency and all communications were compromised in the US, and we could use limited public resources to re-establish communication for a single news source for everyone which news source would it be?
We would hope that the news source was respected, reliable and a popular choice. We would want to avoid any news source that many or most people distrusted, even if it were highly popular among Democrats or Republicans.
The Pew data lets us simulate this vote using both a closed primary and first past the post voting method and the approval voting method with or without a closed primary.
I. Closed Primary, First Past the Post
First, we sort the data into “parties”
- The consistent liberals and mostly liberal will stand for Democrats
- The Mixed will be the independents and non affiliated
- The mostly conservative and consistently conservative represent Republicans
Next using the data set “What is your main source of news broken down by political type” which is identical to a first past the post voting method, we determine the Democratic and Republican closed primary winners. The independent cohort is ignored. Here are the “primary results” for Democrats and Republicans
- CNN: 35%
- NPR: 22%
- MSNBC: 17%
- Local TV: 16%
- New York Times: 10%
And the Republican Primary Results:
- Fox News: 77%
- Local Radio: 17%
- Local TV: 11%
- CNN: 9%
- Yahoo News: 6%
A general election would feature CNN and Fox as well as any minor party and independent candidates.
II. Open primary using first past the post voting. Top two final election
Using this same data set – what is your main source of news – and including the independent voter results creating an open primary election would result in this:
- CNN: 16%
- Fox: 15%
- Local TV 10%
- NPR: 5%
- Local Radio 4%
So, whether you have an open or closed primary, if you were to use first past the post voting the results are the same. The final top two are CNN and Fox News. The downside with the open primary with a top two and first past the post voting is that no smaller market niche news sources (MSNBC, Wall Street Journal) would appear on the General election ballot. That seems to be the worst result of all options. In a closed primary using first past the post voting, even though the smaller news outlets may stand no chance of winning in a final election (see full Pew results) their voices can be important in the final election as their points of view may be adopted by the major contenders in order to reduce the chance that the minor choices could act as spoilers. And this was the exact argument that I believe won the day for M90 opponents
III. Approval Voting – Closed Primary- Top two
The second set of data, whether a news consumer trusts or distrusts a news source, is an approval style of voting. If you trust a news source I would argue that it’s the same as saying you approve it. If you distrust it, you would pretty clearly not give it an approval vote.
Here are the top 5 most trusted news sources by party in a closed primary
- CNN: 61%
- PBS: 60.5%
- NBC News: 59.5%
- ABC New: s 55.5%
- NPR: 54%
- Fox News: 80%
- Sean Hannity Show: 45%
- Rush Limbaugh Show: 42.5%
- Glenn Beck Program: 37.5%
- Wall Street Journa: l 31%
You get identical final results using approval voting in a closed primary. You would again have Fox and CNN facing off against each other in a general election. And since it’s a closed primary you would again have minor party and independent candidates on the general election ballot in a closed primary system.
IV. Approval Voting – Open Primary (With or without top two or runoff)
Adding the approval/trust ratings of the independents, Democratic and Republicans into an open primary with approval voting and you get:
- CNN: 54%
- ABC News: 50%
- NBC News: 50%
- CBS News: 46%
- Fox New: s 44%
Now there’s something drastically different. Fox isn’t even in the top four most trusted. Because so many independents and Democrats simply don’t trust Fox. And there’s a pretty good argument to be made that a news source that is distrusted by so many people shouldn’t be the main news source for our entire country in an emergency situation. Our county would be better off with a widely trusted news source.
Since the Pew data doesn’t do a head to head comparison of CNN and ABC/NBC (tied for the second spot but lets say ABC news was in second. For the sake of argument), it’s not possible to say who would win in a top two runoff between CNN and ABC . If there were no top two runoff, then CNN is selected. If there is, then ABC and CNN face off against each other in a final election or runoff.
- Simply changing to an open primary while maintaining first past the post voting may not change any dynamics or options in a general election for major parties. But it would exclude Minor party candidates in November. A bad result and a good reason to have opposed M90.
- Simply changing first past the post to approval voting in a closed primary may not change the dynamics of our elections, at least as long as the major parties- maintain such a high degree of partisanship. Though it would allow minor party and independent candidates to participate in November. A better result IMO than open primary with first past the post.
- An open primary with approval voting and a top two final election provides better choices for independents and even arguable for mostly liberal and mostly conservative voters. Because having ABC or NBC news in the general election provides the mostly conservatives with a better chance of seeing their second most trusted news source rather than their 6th most trusted news source (Only 16% of Republicans trust CNN – the presumptive winner in a head to head against Fox – as a news source)
- With an open primary, approval voting, and top two general election, the second place finisher (ABC or NBC news) news would have an opportunity to convince more news consumers to change their vote in the general election, perhaps by hiring Wolf Blitzer, or adding programming like All Things considered or Radio Lab to their lineup which could attract some independent liberals)
- Check out the top five in the closed and open primary scenario. Both with and without approval voting. Under any closed primary scenario you see more of what some would consider very liberal and very conservative top finishers. However In the open primary with approval voting you see more consistent mainstream media in the top 5. While some may claim this is a bad outcome, and reduces clear choices, that’s only true if you don’t believe in incremental change and government by consensus. But, it is a valid critique.
- You could reach the same result as the open primary + approval voting without a primary. Which would allow minor parties to participate in the most important election. The benefit of having preliminary vote is that it allows a short time for the top two to form coalitions to attract voters prior to the general election. Consider a September preliminary open primary with approval voting and a November top two. Or no primary, a general election with approval voting, and a runoff in December if no one achieves 50% plus one.