Be on the lookout -- the solution to the "primary" problem may soon be coming up I-5 to Seattle. But not from Olympia. Tacoma, actually Pierce County, is set to become the state leader in voting reform.
The solution is Pierce County Charter Amendment 3. If passed by the voters Nov. 7, we would eliminate the pick-a-party primary and instead use instant-runoff voting (IRV) at the general election.
Instant-runoff voting lets the voters rank the candidates on the ballot, regardless of party, and eliminates the least popular candidates until a majority winner is reached.
It's easy to understand through an example. In the senatorial race, the Cantwell camp is putting pressure on the Green Party Candidate Aaron Dixon to get out of the race. In a close race, even a small number of votes for Dixon could give the race to Republican Mike McGavick. Certainly the McGavick campaign has similar worries about a Libertarian spoiler given Bruce Guthrie's infusion of $1.2 million into his campaign budget.
It is quite possible that the winner will not have a majority, a disturbing outcome in a democracy. With instant-runoff voting , voters who prefer Dixon and Guthrie could select a second and even third choice. After the minor candidates are eliminated the race would come down to Cantwell vs. McGavick, the winner would have a majority, and thus more legitimacy to govern. instant-runoff voting would be just like an election between the top two candidates -- yet accomplished in one election.
Consider another example. Many Seattle residents, those in the 43rd Legislative District, may soon be represented by a legislator that the majority does not prefer. In a six-way Democratic race Jamie Pedersen won with 23 percent of the vote, beating Jim Street by only 1 percent. It is possible -- and given the way we now vote we will never know -- that Street would win in a traditional or instant runoff.
Our current voting system allows for vote splitting and minority winners at both the primary and general elections. Amendment 3 in Pierce County would establish only one general election with instant-runoff voting and produce a majority winner.
Amendment 3 levels the playing field for independents and third parties by requiring the same number of signatures for ballot access that applies to the major parties. The current law, put in place by the two major parties, makes it more difficult for independents and third parties to get on the ballot.
Amendment 3, unlike the Top Two primary, will avoid legal problems because it gives control over the use of the party's name to the party, thereby respecting the First Amendment rights of association that also got the old blanket primary into trouble with the courts. While at first this may seem like giving more power to the major parties, the opposite is true.
Because instant-runoff voting eliminates the lesser-of-two-evils approach to voting, independent and third-party candidates will receive many first-choice votes from those who are only weakly attached to the two major parties, a growing number almost every year. The parties may have a bit more control internally but they will face more serious competition externally -- more candidates and thus more voices will participate in the instant-runoff voting election.
Candidates who would be popular with the people but who are shunned by the parties can simply run as independents or on third-party tickets. Parties, of course, will be aware of this and thus will have an incentive to let popular candidates use their names.
Further, let's not understate the power that insiders already possess. Unlike the 43rd, in most districts party bosses are able to impede any meaningful challenges to their preferred candidate, particularly an incumbent. The pick-a-party primary is typically acquiescence by voters to a decision that has already been made by party insiders.
Both King and Pierce are home-rule counties, meaning they have their own charters, which grant them substantial autonomy from Olympia. In Pierce County, Amendment 3 was put on the ballot by a vote of the Charter Review Commission. The review of the King County Charter begins in November and County Executive Ron Sims is considering commissioners.
There is nothing to prevent King County from following the lead of Pierce County by adopting instant-runoff voting for county elections. Now is the time to ask Sims to appoint commissioners who will consider replacing the pick-a-party primary with instant-runoff voting.
Once Pierce and King, the state's two most populous counties, have adopted instant-runoff voting, we can car pool to Olympia and solve the problem for statewide offices.
Richard Anderson-Connolly is associate professor of sociology and international political economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He is on the steering committee for Pierce County Amendment 3.
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