Oregon is one of thirty six states where one party holds a “trifecta”, the governor’s office, and a majority in the senate and house. Republicans hold twenty two trifectas and Democrats hold fourteen. Fourteen states have a divided government. Seventy two percent of the States are effectively one party states.
More states are becoming less competitive. On average, Republicans have held their trifectas for eleven years while Democrats have held theirs for two years. This is the foreseeable result in a two party election system where money is unconstrained, the two dominant parties are shrinking and their voter and donor bases are becoming more powerful.
Forget flipping one party states, what are the possible ways non dominant party voters and interests can influence public policies in single party states.
1. Join them
In one party states, it’s all about the nomination. Joining the dominant party allows a voter or interest group to influence the nomination process and get a preferred candidate on the November ballot where they will sail to victory. In States that have closed primary elections, like Oregon, the May primary will decide 90% of the House and Senate elections and the Governors race. The problem with that is that the financial special interest still can’t match the current donor base money, and there aren’t enough moderate Republicans or independents who want to join the Democratic party anyway. And of course, the current rules favor the long time donors and the insiders who have paid their dues.
2. Moderate the non dominant party
The non dominant major party could moderate it’s policies and move towards the center ideologically. In fact long standing political science theory says that’s what should happen in a two party system. But that’s not happening. Or at least that’s not what the voters believe is happening. Perhaps due to the nationalization of all politics. Voters perceive the local and State Republican and Democratic Party politicians to reflect their party’s national brand and identity. And in many cases, they do. In Oregon the Republican Party activists are very much supportive of Mr. Trump. It’s that national branding that repels many independent voters, even those who may lean right. They won’t join a party of Trump.
Even if moderation of the non dominant party is possible, it would be a very long process.
3. Form a third party
Our first past the post voting always results in a two party system. There is no financial support for a third party to co-exist long term along side the Democratic and Republican Parties. So when you mean a third party, you’re really talking about an alternate major party that would succeed the non dominant legacy major party. In Oregon that would mean the Independent Party of Oregon, a large moderate reform party, would be promoted to major party status and the Oregon Republican Party would fall back to a minor party.
Again, the problem is that parties are nationalized. The Democratic and Republican Parties are the two major parties in the minds of Americans. Changing that would be a monumental societal shift. But maybe a bigger problem than that even is the national GOP would not let the Oregon GOP fall into minor party status. It would do whatever was necessary to stop that from happening. And the Democrats in Oregon would support the GOP. Democrats prefer a Trumpist Oregon GOP to a moderate center right political party as it’s opponent.
4. Change the rules
If voting habits, state culture and national brand mean Democratic and Republican Parties are unassailable and one party states will continue to dominate under our current election rules, and if “packing” the dominant party with moderate voters isn’t an option, then the last option is to change our election rules to empower more voters and reduce the power of the dominant party base to limit our choices through their party domination and the election architecture.
There are various changes that would help. One change gaining traction is Ranked Choice Voting. In Oregon for instance, our closed primary could be an open primary, with all voters regardless of party affiliation, ranking candidates. Political Parties could issue endorsements for candidates using their own resources to do so, and the top 4 candidates could move to the November general election.
This would allow the parties to retain the power to select their own party representatives, assure all voters get to vote in elections that they have paid for, and make sure minor party or independent candidates still have the opportunity to appear on the November general election ballot.
This may not change a one party state to a divided government state. In Oregon, Democrats would likely still have a trifecta. However, the Democrats who win election would more fairly represent all Oregon voters, not just the activist base or donor base, of the Democratic Party. That should result in a more broadly based consensus building government body.
For moderates who are not part of a dominant party coalition in a trifecta state, aligning with the non dominant party is a dead end. The real strategy should be to increase the power of the voters and allow them to choose moderate leaders. That will require a change in rules that reduces the influence and power of the activist base within the dominant party.
Initiatives and opportunities
One reform organization founded by business people is Change the Rules. They propose three changes that could improve our elections and governance. Election reform (including ranked choice voting) that empowers all voters, non partisan redistricting, and dealing with the big money in elections.
Oregon has some useful tools to begin the work on changing the rules and could be a model in other states. We have a robust third party system that has the potential to mobilize a large number of voters. The Independent Party of Oregon alone has almost 5% or all voters, over 125,000. We have a group of active moderate businesspersons and capitalists who are culturally and fiscally moderate and could fund the change strategy. And most importantly an initiative and petition system that allows the people to place statutory changes on the ballot. Democratic and Republican Legislators and politicians will not vote to change a system in which they and their activist voter and donor bases thrive (in the case of Oregon Democrats) or at least survive (in the case of Oregon Republicans). So the path to real change of the rules will be the ballot box.
The real question is, will influencers see the benefit of changing the rules in a way that diminishes the influence of dominant party insiders and activists if it also reduces their influence within the non dominant party. So far, their answer has been no. But if faced with a perpetual one party trifecta state, it may be the best strategy. And, it has the added benefit of being pro democracy and for good government.