There has recently been much debate in The Capital’s opinion pages and at Annapolis’ Charter Review Commission on the comparative merits of partisan vs. nonpartisan elections for city offices. But this is a false choice because there are better ways to combine the benefits of both partisan and nonpartisan elections while creating a more competitive electoral system.
Consider the type of voting system Alaska voters approved by state ballot initiative in 2020. Candidates will still have a party affiliation next to their names on the ballot. But instead of separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans, Alaska will hold one open primary from which the top four candidates, regardless of party affiliation, proceed to the general election. Then, in the general election, voters use ranked-choice voting to select a winner among the four nominees.
With ranked-choice voting — the voting system preferred by most democratic reformers — voters list candidates in order of preference. Ranked-choice voting reduces strategic voting, where voters won’t vote for their favorite candidate if their second favorite is more likely to win; that is, it allows voters to vote sincerely without paying a penalty. The result is that more candidates and parties are willing to compete.
Ranked-choice voting has been used for decades in Ireland and Australia and has recently been adopted in the State of Maine and dozens of U.S. municipalities, including New York City.
The combination of open primaries and ranked-choice voting increases both individual and party competition, including third-party competition, while reducing polarization and expanding the electorate’s size. The electorate is expanded because closed primaries, where only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary and registered Republicans in the Republican primary, prevents independents — a large fraction of the electorate — from having a meaningful vote in the primaries.
Expanding the electorate also reduces polarization because independents tend to be more moderate. When a city is dominated by one party, so that the primary dictates the general election outcome, the evils of the primary system permeate the entire electoral system.
It is ironic that Maryland politicians incessantly talk about making voting easier and expanding the electorate but then ignore the elephant in the room: Maryland’s system of closed primaries.
The daunting political problem with open primaries combined with ranked-choice voting in the general election is that incumbent politicians and political parties hate it because it increases meaningful competition. That’s why the ballot initiative, which bypasses those incumbents, is almost always necessary to pass open primaries and ranked-choice voting. But Annapolis lacks the ballot initiative.
As for the Charter Revision Commission, it is designed to be the City Council’s lapdog: the City Council appoints it and must approve its recommendations.
In contrast, Anne Arundel County has the ballot initiative, so that may be a more politically plausible mechanism to introduce open primaries with ranked-choice voting into the county. But the county makes using the ballot initiative difficult (10,000 signatures are required), and it is hard to imagine who would be willing to bear the cost of gathering the necessary signatures.
Maryland’s only other incumbent bypass mechanism is its constitutionally mandated periodic constitutional convention referendum, which isn’t on the ballot again until 2030.
The dismal politics of pro-competitive electoral reform may help explain why we are still debating proposals such as nonpartisan voting that have been extensively debated since America’s founding in the late 18th Century. Why think about better proposals if incumbents won’t pass them?
I’d imagine Maryland will get open primaries with ranked-choice voting about the same time it gets meaningful legislative redistricting reform to reduce pro-incumbent gerrymandering. If the press and the citizenry think that topic worth perennial debate, why not open primaries with ranked-choice voting, too?
Alas, the constitutionally mandated U.S. Census forces redistricting to the forefront every ten years; no similar force pushes open primaries with ranked-choice voting to the forefront.
J.H. Snider, the president of iSolon.org, often writes about democratic reform. He lives in Severna Park.
Source: Snider, J.H., Partisan vs nonpartisan elections is a false choice for Annapolis, Capital, May 7, 2021.