Oregon election reform: Ranked Choice Voting in the Primary could bridge divides

Democratic and Republican leaders, insiders, donor bases and fanatical factions (super 2A, identitarians and other groups that represent a very small but rabid ideological position) are united in one thing. Opposition to any election reform that threatens their influence. The leadership of the party in power likes the rules as they are, and the leaders of the party out of power believe they will get back into power in the next election. Neither those in power nor on the precipice of power like uncertainty. And reform always entails change and therefore uncertainty. That’s why in blue Oregon both Democratic and Republican establishments have long resisted campaign finance reform, election reform, and anti gerrymandering reforms.

It’s pretty hard in a two party system to enact reforms that the leadership of both parties oppose. But while some in party leadership, donor bases and fanatical factions may oppose reforms, most rank and file party members and some elected leaders support them. A key tool the political elites use to tamp down any demand for reform is fear that reforms are a subterfuge by “the baddies” to enact changes that will lead to a takeover of the elections, undemocratic outcomes or even tyranny by the minority. That’s a powerful argument in our current post truth world where a two tribe culture has taken firm hold.

The key to reform may not be a wholesale change of the way we hold general elections, but focusing on enacting reforms that don’t threaten current officeholders and eliminate the arguments about reform being some undemocratic subterfuge by the other tribe. In other words, reform the tribes. Ideally, the reform should deliver on problem solving and election fairness that most voters desire. One modest – though still extremely significant change – in Oregon would be to use ranked choice voting only in major party primary elections.

Using ranked choice voting is unlikely to change the outcomes of many primary elections, which is why it is an attractive reform to the current elected leaders. Yet it does have the potential to bend the curve away from hyper partisanship and towards a more cooperative and widely inclusive government as primary candidates seek to find more common ground within their party.

Limiting ranked choice voting to the primary preserves the integrity of the two party system so should meet less resistance even from the donor and fanatical faction bases. And I believe it would actually strengthen the two party system as independents and minor party members considered rejoining a major party once they recognized that their participation in a primary using ranked choice voting allowed them to more fully express their preferences.

It would preserve the integrity of third parties. Unlike a “top two” primary system, a simple change to ranked choice voting in major party primaries still allows minor parties to have their candidates appear on the November ballot.

While many reformers believe we need more drastic changes to our election processes, it could be that all we need for now are effective election reforms that improve the two party system. Those reforms would still meet opposition from the donor class and the fanatical factions which have an inordinate amount of power within the parties under current rules. But primary election focused reforms that don’t threaten current elected leaders are more likely to get support from party leaders who want to govern in more inclusive and transpartisan manner, and from a party’s rank and file party membership.

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