Krist Novoselic: Democracy in Transition


Justice Antonin Scalia

Krist Novoselic blogs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Read all his previous columns here.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the following words regarding free association with the majority opinion in California Democratic Party v. Jones.

In no area is the political association?s right to exclude more important than in the process of selecting its nominee. That process often determines the party?s positions on the most significant public policy issues of the day, and even when those positions are predetermined it is the nominee who becomes the party?s ambassador to the general electorate in winning it over to the party?s views.

This 2000 ruling invalidated California?s Blanket Primary; therefore setting the stage for the series of events regarding Washington?s elections.

In 2004, the courts determined our longstanding Blanket Primary harmed free association. Washington's primary met the same fate as California?s.

As a result, Olympia had to come up with a new system.

The Washington Grange lobbied for a partisan top-two. This proposal is similar to the Blanket Primary; all the candidates would appear on the same primary ballot. The top-two vote getters proceed to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

The two major parties wanted a primary with exclusive partisan sections or ballots; similar to what is used throughout most of the US.

The House and Senate passed a partisan top-two bill with a provision for exclusive primaries if the former was declared unconstitutional. Gov. Gary Locke vetoed the top-two election section of the bill and signed the rest; effectively implementing what is known as the Pick-A-Party primary.

In 1935, the Grange led the effort for the passage of the Blanket Primary. Considering the veto, the organization worked to collect signatures for the partisan top-two and I-872 qualified for the 2004 ballot. That September, voters had their first experience with the Pick-A-Party and hated it. The following November, over 59% of voters passed I-872. The two major parties, along with the Libertarians, sued. As a result of the continuing litigation, the partisan top-two was never even implemented. It?s almost 2008 and I-872?s constitutionality is awaiting a ruling from the US Supreme Court.

Alternative Efforts

But it wasn?t only Washington State experiencing issues. Low turnout elections, uncontested or uncompetitive races, and a general lack of democratic vitality nationwide made people receptive to ideas for change.

In 2003, San Francisco voters approved Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for their non-partisan elections. Their first election using the system was in 2004. San Francisco reelected its mayor this year with Ranked Choice.

Having a functioning model in a major American city was a boost to the movement. In 2006, the largely populated entities of Minneapolis, Minn., Oakland, Calif., and Pierce County Washington voted to make the switch. (I was an active supporter of the Pierce campaign.)

Because of the continuing trials and tribulations with primary systems in Washington State, RCV advocates recognized the potential for reform here. A key element of Ranked Choice is how the system folds the primary into one general election. The campaign in Pierce County was promoted as an alternative to the Pick-A-Party primary. It succeeded in appealing to voter frustration and passed with 53%.

In 2007, instead of wanting to implement the new system, the Pierce County Council chose to ask voters to delay RCV until 2010. 67% of voters rejected the delay and the new system is on track for 2008. Voters can rank up to three candidates for the respective offices of Executive, Assessor-Treasurer, four County Council seats and Sheriff.

Ballot Access

Pierce County also changed its ballot access rules. There will not be any special exceptions for major party candidates. All candidates will need to collect twenty-five signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The offices of Assessor-Treasurer and Sheriff will be non-partisan RCV. With the Executive and council seats, if a candidate wishes to run with a certain party affiliation, there needs to be some kind of nominating process.

With RCV, a party can nominate multiple candidates without the usual voter dilution issues.

The two major parties are moving forward with the rules for their respective nominations

With the Republicans, a candidate qualifies if they receive over 40% of the vote at a party meeting in the jurisdiction for the office. Doing the math, a 40% threshold means there can only be two candidates.

The Democrats have more inclusive rules. As long as they are Democrats in good standing, there can be up to three party candidates on the ballot. If there are more than three, there will be a nominating process.

A nominating process is what Justice Scalia articulated when he spoke of the right to exclude. Many will bemoan this exclusion with tired cliches. They?ll groan over party bosses and moan over political machines. But anyone who has worked in local partisan politics knows these are obsolete criticisms.

The rank and file volunteers of a political party participate because it?s often the only avenue to make a meaningful contribution. By associating with folks who share the same needs or values, they?re amplifying their voices. 1000 voices are louder than 1!

Indeed, there is a new kind of boss, but they?re not chomping cigars or sporting bowler hats. The new bosses are big money special interests and their political machine is the professional campaign industry.

Progressive reforms have traditionally created opportunities for people to come together. The resulting collective force levels the playing field. Let folks associate to nominate an ambassador to the general electorate! It?s the essence of grassroots democracy.

Blanket General

The big race in Pierce is for the office of county executive. So far, the field includes one Republican, two Democrats and an independent. This filed of candidates is reminiscent of the ballot configuration in the old Blanket Primary. The difference is voters will have the opportunity to rank up to three choices in each race. For example, voters could rank the one Democrat as their first choice and the other Democrat as their second.

All four Executive candidates, so far, are sitting elected officials. The major party candidates are in Pierce County government. The independent is on the Tacoma City Council. That body is still elected with a traditional non-partisan system so it makes sense for him to not seek party affiliation in the RCV election. Also, he?s running in a partisan race and not coming across as a liability to any major party candidate as some kind of vote splitter. Voters will consider this candidate, as well as the others, without fear of any kind of wasted vote.

All Eyes

Considering the ongoing situation regarding elections in our state, many are watching how things develop in Pierce. Things seem to be on track. There?s a good faith effort by their election administrators to make the first Ranked Choice election go well.

Also, the US Supreme Court will rule on I-872 in the spring. And, in May, the King County Charter Review Commission will present its recommendations to the county council. (They?re considering Ranked Choice as an option.)

This past November, voters in Aspen Colorado and Pensacola Florida overwhelmingly voted for this election method. Los Angeles is on track for the next big place to make the switch.

Ranked Choice Voting is gaining traction around the nation and emerging as a viable option for elections here in Washington State.

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