Smells like a smart system for state's primary elections

By Krist Novoselic
Published November 23rd 2005 in Seattle Times
THE fight in federal appeals court over Washington state's primary-election system is polarized around two principles. One argues for wider voter choice through a "top-two" primary, while the other pulls for the right of free association by way of a Montana-style system of partisan ballots.

These two important elements of our democratic experience — choice and free association — need not be mutually exclusive. Nor can we let this false dichotomy distract us from the challenges facing Washington elections.

Just a small modification of the top-two system would alleviate the concerns of all parties involved. The change, to a ranked-choice ballot, would remove the constitutional problems created by Initiative 872, now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately build a quality democratic system that would invite increased participation.

This past September, with a closed primary system in place, 63 percent of Washington voters did not participate. Too many citizens hold our democratic structures in low esteem. Meanwhile, the majority of races for public office are uncontested or uncompetitive. A poorly received primary-election model only makes matters worse.

Modifying the I-872 top-two primary system with a ranked-choice ballot would narrow the field to two candidates, who, regardless of party affiliation, would then advance to the general election. The main departure would be that each voter would rank the candidates for office in his or her order of preference, from the first choice down through as many candidates as the voter chooses to rank, or as many as the rules permit. It's as easy as 1-2-3.

Votes would be counted in a series of rounds. Each round would eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes and redistribute ballots to those voters' next choices.

This process of elimination and redistribution is repeated in subsequent rounds and the top-two-ranked candidates advance to the general election.

Political parties would nominate their own candidates in a pre-primary convention, preserving their right of free association. In fact, they could nominate multiple candidates for a position, thus promulgating the wider-choice benefits of I-872. Assured that votes would converge on the most-popular candidates, parties would have great incentive to put up a diverse field of qualified candidates from within their ranks in order to bring a wider share of their supporters to the polls.

While partisan voters could rank their own candidates faithfully, independent voters who do not wish to vote along any party line would be able to select candidates from a larger, mixed pool, thus preserving the wider choices of I-872.

So, there you have it — more voter choice and the preservation of free association, working in harmony instead of clashing.

A ranked-choice primary promises many more benefits. In San Francisco, where ranked-choice voting is used, negative campaigning was greatly reduced. In fact, rival candidates actually endorsed each other, vying to be the second choice of their opponents' supporters.

Ranked-choice voting fosters positive participation because voters express themselves without feeling like they're throwing away or wasting their vote — a tragic reality in today's politics.

Why not utilize this smart and efficient system to give Washington voters better value and to improve turnout?

It's a system that can be built on. In the future, we could choose to fold the primary into a single, efficient, ranked-choice general election, shortening the campaign season and saving tax dollars.

Ultimately, we might consider proportional voting — a variation of ranked choice — making our legislative races much more competitive.

Ranked ballots have held up to constitutional scrutiny by meeting equal-protection requirements. Our own state Supreme Court has upheld ranking candidates for Washington primary elections.

After the system was approved by voters, the political establishment in San Francisco tried hard to slow the implementation of ranked ballots. Defenders of the status quo failed and ranked-choice voting now stands unchallenged because of its solid case law.

Washingtonians want meaningful participation. Adding a ranked-choice component to our primary elections is just the start toward moving on to a more-functional, competitive democracy that is a model for the rest of the nation.

Krist Novoselic was the bass player for Nirvana and one of the group's co-founders, along with the late Kurt Cobain. Novoselic is on the board of Music for America, an organization working to boost voter participation among young people.