Sunday, March 03, 2024
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OPINION: Better government with better elections

Elections are the foundation of American representative government. Bad elections result in bad government.

Unfortunately, Idaho’s political parties have gained too much control over our elections, deciding who is on the ballot and who can vote. As a result, Idaho’s taxpayer funded elections are among America’s least competitive. 50 out of 105 state legislative seats were uncontested in the November 2022 general election, meaning there was no competition and voters had no choice on the ballot. This high number of uncontested state legislature races places Idaho in the bottom 10 of U.S. states for voter choice by Open Primaries, a national election reform organization.

Veterans for Idaho Voters (www.v4iv.org) is a cross-partisan group of Idaho military veterans who support the Open Primaries Initiative (OPI). We took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and that includes advocating for open and fair elections for all Idahoans.

There are two parts to the OPI: (1) a non-partisan, open primary where all voters select their favorite from all candidates in the race, and (2) a final four general election where voters select their preferred candidate while also having the option to rank the other candidates. We focus today on the final four general election process.

First, with the OPI, we will see more competition in our races for state legislature or county races, and are likely to see two or three candidates advance from the primary to the general. If fewer than four candidates run in the primary, then all candidates advance to the general election. For statewide races, like governor or attorney general, we can expect four candidates on the November ballot.

Second, to make sure the winner has broad voter support, the OPI calls for an Instant Runoff (also called ‘ranked choice voting’ or ‘single transferable vote’) to select the winner. An Instant Runoff is the process by which we move from four candidates to one majority winner. This system has been used in the U.S. for many years and in some countries, like Australia, for nearly a century.

A dozen U.S. states and hundreds of cities use runoff elections, including Boise. In these races, if no candidate achieves a majority, then a subsequent runoff election is held between the top two candidates. These runoffs ensure the winning candidate best reflects the constituents’ preferences and that the winner is accountable to all voters, not just a fringe few. Extremist candidates with narrow support do not do well in runoffs. However, the traditional runoff process is inefficient. It requires printing another ballot, running another election, and asking voters to vote for a third time (primary then general then runoff). In-person runoffs also have low turnout from voter fatigue. And administering elections is expensive; a statewide election costs Idaho taxpayers about $2 million.

On the other hand, in a final four Instant Runoff general election, we save time and money by combining the multi-candidate general and two candidate runoff into one election. 

The Instant Runoff works by asking voters to pick their top candidate and, if the voter chooses, to rank additional candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the fewest votes and least support is eliminated. Those votes are reassigned to the voters’ second choice candidate. The process repeats until there are two candidates left and the one with the most votes wins.

Here’s an example with a three candidate race: Anna’s first choice is Candidate Dave but he receives the fewest votes of the three and is eliminated. Anna’s second choice is Candidate Beth, so Anna’s one vote in this one race moves from Dave to Beth. The other voters who put Dave first, have their one vote reassigned to their second choice. In this example, of the two remaining candidates — Beth and Steve — more of Candidate Dave’s voters preferred Candidate Beth and she gained a majority of the votes. Candidate Beth may not have been Anna’s first choice, but she prefers Beth to Steve, so Anna is happy with the result. (You can try voting in a sample Instant Runoff ballot on our website: www.v4iv.org.)

A dozen Utah cities use ranked choice voting in municipal elections. County clerks say it is better, faster, and cheaper. 86% of Utah voters were satisfied with their voting experience.

Six U.S. states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina — use ranked choice voting for military ballots. If we can trust ranked choice voting for active duty soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and guardians, then we can trust it here. 

Virginia Republicans used ranked choice voting to select Glenn Youngkin as their governor candidate. He became the first Republican in a decade to win.

The final example comes from Alaska. Alaskans were fed up with closed elections that gave too much power to parties and put politicians into the statehouse who failed to compromise or deliver solutions. In 2020, Alaska voters passed an open primary and top four instant runoff general election ballot measure similar to Idaho’s Open Primaries Initiative. 

In 2022, under this new ‘top four’ system that gave voters more control, Alaska elected a Republican governor, a Republican U.S. Senator, a Democratic Congresswoman, a Republican led state house and a Republican led state senate. More Alaska women ran for office in 2022 than the previous five election cycles combined. At the state legislative level, women won a majority of open seats, while Independents now hold 10% of all seats. Last session, a bi-partisan group passed Alaska’s state budget in record time. And for those concerned that this system hurts marginalized communities, the Alaska Federation of Natives passed a resolution endorsing their new ‘top four’ elections. 

Alaskan voters like their open elections, too. According to a McKinley Research Group survey, in the November 2022 general election, 79% of Alaskans said voting was simple. 72% said the quality of candidates was equal or better, and 72% said their vote mattered equal or more to the old, closed system. On the other hand, fringe politicians who previously won due to closed races and low turnout, are not so happy.

With its final four Instant Runoff general election, the Open Primaries Initiative will increase both voter access and candidate competition. Those opposing the OPI represent political interests threatened by competition and fearful of facing all their constituents. Access and competition are fundamental to good American government. We urge all Idahoans to support the OPI because it will bring us a more representative government with elected leaders who are more accountable to their constituents. 

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Todd Achilles (Boise) Army veteran; Stan Hall (Boise) Army veteran; George Moses (Boise) Air Force veteran, Randy Worrall (Ashton) Air Force veteran.