Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pierce County Democrats and the 2008 Elections

By Professor Richard Anderson-Connolly
University of Puget Sound
Member - 27th District Democrats

This is an open letter to Democrats in Pierce County

Democrats in Pierce County generally did worse than Democrats nationwide and around the state of Washington. Rather than beginning an honest discussion about the way to prevent a similar performance in the future, Party Chair Nathe Lawver is looking to switch the subject and scapegoat the electoral reform of Ranked Choice Voting.

Let’s consider the performance of Democrats locally:

In a Top-2 race current Democratic County Executive John Ladenburg lost his home county by 16% in the contest for state Attorney General. Ladenburg had a better showing in Klickitat County.

In a Top-2 race for the 8th Congressional seat Democrat Darcy Burner lost in Pierce County by 17%.

In a Top-2 race Democratic State Senator Marilyn Rasmussen (2nd Dist.) lost her seat to Republican challenger Randi Becker because she lost Pierce County. Rasmussen won in Thurston. This was the only seat in the state the Republicans took from the Democrats in the State Senate.

In a Top-2 race the Republicans picked up a house seat (26th Dist.) in the position left open by retiring Democrat Pat Lantz. The Democrat Kim Abel lost Pierce by 10% but Kitsap by only 3%.

In a Top-2 race for Commissioner of Public Lands Republican Doug Sutherland carried Pierce County by 9% even though he lost the statewide race to Democrat Peter Goldmark.

Tim Eyman’s initiative passed in exactly one county in the entire state – Pierce.

Yet what message does the Pierce County Democratic Party leadership want to us to take from these terrible results? Even though none of these was an RCV race we are told that RCV is the biggest problem for the party in the county. This is an embarrassingly obvious attempt to distract attention from the real issues with the local party.

Without some critical self-reflection by the party, 2010 and 2012 have the potential to be bad years for the Democrats locally. The next gubernatorial race may come down to Pierce County and we can’t simply rely on the Obama effect. I’m certain there are some nervous folks in Olympia who have made the same assessment of Pierce County. Clearly the Democratic Party does not have a winning message for Pierce County voters or else it is too poorly organized to get that message across.

In his post-election email Calvin Goings wrote that “it appears that because of Ranked Choice Voting, Pierce County will be a red mark on a blue state.” It’s unfortunate that Goings, as the most progressive candidate on many issues, didn’t have a better showing. But blaming the refs is not a progressive value. Almost certainly under a Top-2 system Goings would have been eliminated in August and his issues would have received less attention. If you have to lose, it’s better to lose in November.

And Lawver, when asked about the RCV election, described it as “rather cumbersome.” It’s disappointing that a chair of the Democratic Party actually can call a more democratic voting system “cumbersome.” I can think of many elements of our democracy that are cumbersome but fortunately many Democrats value outcomes like choice, transparency, and high voter participation.

In any case the “cumbersome” parts of this election were delays caused by the auditor’s office. The system was not tested at full volume and it was discovered only on election night that the computer needed more memory. Polling places were consolidated and the office was not prepared for the high volume. Still, these were minor issues, certainly compared to the delays with mail voting. For the most part Pat McCarthy did a decent job with the county’s first RCV election and a few simple improvements will make it run even better next time. (If the council appoints an auditor who actually supports RCV the improvements will almost certainly be done.)

Lawver, Goings, and McCarthy are all good people who have done good work as Democrats but they shouldn’t represent the party on the issue of RCV. Outside of Pierce County, the Democratic Party is typically the party of electoral reform. Barack Obama was the prime sponsor of RCV legislation when he was a State Senator in Illinois. Howard Dean, the chair of the National Democratic Party, supports RCV. So does Dennis Kucinich. And Jesse Jackson, Jr., who introduced federal RCV legislation. Al Franken supports RCV and would likely be a Senator now if Minnesota used it. The Democratically-controlled legislature of Vermont passed a bill to use RCV for federal offices but the bill was vetoed – by a Republican. The state parties of California, Colorado, Minneapolis, and Maine endorsed RCV. The local Democratic parties in San Francisco, Oakland, and Minneapolis – all cities that have passed RCV initiatives – supported it. And just this week our neighbors to the south – the Democratic Party of Oregon – made passage of a local option RCV bill a legislative priority. Every year more and more Democrats get behind RCV. (Of course Democrats don’t have a monopoly on electoral reform – John McCain also supported RCV.)

Let’s recognize that a fight against RCV comes with an opportunity cost: Truly progressive issues – like jobs and wages, civil liberties, the environment – must necessarily receive less time, energy, and money. Furthermore many new and young voters came into the Democratic Party because it promised progressive change, including issues like electoral reform. If many new Democrats had to pick between Obama, a supporter of RCV, and most local Democratic leaders, I don’t think it would be a close contest. Fighting RCV is a terrible way to keep the newly-energized progressive youth movement excited about the Democratic Party. Within a year the party will be nothing more than the same people repeating the same ideas that brought the county to its current state.

In the News Tribune, Peter Callaghan called it for what it is: The county party leaders are looking for a scapegoat, something to distract attention from their own poor performance. What he didn’t emphasize is that this is largely a problem for just one of the two parties – the Democrats. The Republicans have been far more reasonable. I have heard few complaints about the system from Bunney supporters. They knew the rules, fought the good fight, and lost a close one.

I hope that rank-and-file Democrats, the progressive base that does most of the work for the leadership, will refuse to go along with the scapegoating of RCV. Instead of blaming the system – an explanation that doesn’t fit the facts – Democrats need to engage in a deeper debate about the best way to recruit and build strong candidates.

Let’s focus on issues like health care, civil liberties, peace, full employment, and, yes, progressive electoral reforms. If we can offer Pierce County citizens policies that represent their values and interests then we will get our share of victories using a democratic voting system like RCV. If we ignore the important issues to spend our time fighting electoral reforms then we can count on the local party’s continuing decline even as the rest of the state and indeed the country become more Democratic.

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At 8:42 AM, Blogger Chad Lupkes said...

Are you casting Nathe as the bad guy because of a single word? "Cumbersome", as in it's a tough job trying to get people who have used a first past the post for all previous elections. Have you done an interview with the Pierce County Chair? If so, post the entire interview. Otherwise, it's not a fair accusation.

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given the results, Democrats should favor the repeal of the Top 2 system. What is Lawver's position on this?

At 12:01 PM, Blogger RAC said...


I'm afraid it's not just a single word. At the 27th LD Dems meeting on Monday the chair announced that Nathe wants to talk about repealing RCV at the county party re-org meeting.

You can listen to the interview on KUOW where Nathe describes RCV as cumbersome:

I know he has a tough job and I'm not blaming him for the poor performance of Democratic candidates in the county. The issue is clearly bigger than one person. But he can be blamed for his decision to respond to the poor performance by going after RCV. Time spent on this is time not spent on building the party to prepare for the next gubernatorial or senatorial election.

And I'm sure Nathe is getting bad advice from many of the other leaders of the party, most of whom have been against RCV even before they understood it, and are too stubborn now to let it go.

Chad, as a progressive Democrat you know that we often have to keep the leadership honest. That's what I'm trying to do here. If I'm wrong and the leadership is not trying to repeal RCV then nobody will be happier than I.

Rich Anderson-Connolly

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous I said...

RCV REDUCED VOTER PARTICIPATION in the races where it was used - over 20,000 voters who voted with the general ballot didn't bother with the "cumbersome" RCV ballot. By the way, Obama and Gregoire won in Pierce County, as did Norm Dicks and Adam Smith and the overwhelming majority of Dem legislative candidates. The fact that Reichert predictably clobbered Burner in Republican precincts of Pierce County is meaningless to the issue of RCV. If Connolly is truly a Democrat, I suggest he should, with a an open-mind, study why Dems performed below expectations in RCV races. Examine turnout, messaging in a crowded field, the advantage/disadvantage of multiple candidates from one party, how the importance of money and name I.D. was increased by RCV, and what can be done about that, etc. The initial post is a diatribe against Democratic party chair Nathe Lawver rather than a helpful analysis. That said, the voters are probably going to scrap RCV regardless of what party chairs or party members think.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger RAC said...

Let’s look at the archival data to determine the undervote.
In 2008 the auditor received 333,824 traditional ballots and there were 298,912 valid votes for Executive.
In 2004 the auditor received 317,002 ballots and there were 288,236 valid votes for Executive.
The undervote in 2008 was 10%.
The undervote in 2004 was 9%.

This is a small difference and it would be difficult to attribute it to RCV. Another hypothesis is that the exciting presidential race brought out many new voters who were mostly interested in the presidential race. It’s plausible that a less interesting top-2 exec race would have had an even higher undervote this year. But in any case a 1% difference in the undervote is a weak foundation upon which to build a repeal argument.

Secondly, the county party can take little credit for Obama victory. Indeed the wins by Obama and Gregoire actually reveal the weakness in the county party because they show that this should be a blue county. If local Democrats lose in a county carried by McCain there would be less reason for concern. It’s the fact that Dems at the presidential level do well but at the local level do poorly. That’s the way we know that we are underperforming.

My post is not a diatribe against Nathe (whom I like as a person) but rather is a critique of the scapegoating of RCV that is built upon misinformation. Let’s move beyond the party talking points and actually debate the future direction of the county party.

Rich Anderson-Connolly

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous I said...

That's an important point about the undervote remaining essentially the same in the exec race(9% in 2004 and 10% in 2008). It's that kind of analysis, and those kind of numbers, we need for a constructive dialogue. How about in the other RCV races, like Roger Bush's race? And Gregoire's victory in Pierce can be, in part, credited to the local party - Pierce was a battleground and local Dems did a lot of work on her campaign. Local Dems also did a lot of work on the Obama campaign. But getting away from the party angle for a moment, can someone explain Dale Washam's victory?!

At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Nathe Lawver said...

The RCV system was sold to Pierce County voters on the following:

1.It would eliminate the pick-a-party primary.
2. It would be less expensive because we would not have a primary.
3. It would foster more participation in the democratic process, through more people voting.

On all of these sales points, it failed.

Number one: It was the Supreme Court that eliminated the pick a party primary, and it was changed to the current top two primary.

The installation of RCV as a counter to the pick a party was disingenuous by those working to sell it to the voters of Pierce County.

Number two: This election was more costly to the tax payers of Pierce County with the purchase of software and the extra hours needed to count the second ballot cards.
Let alone the anemic amount the council chose to give the auditor's office for voter education.

The taxpayers still paid for a primary this election cycle.

Number three: Nearly 20,000 voters choose to not participate in the second ballot card, and an additional 13,000 (33,000 total, or about 10 percent of participating voters) choose to not vote in the executive race and another 50,000 in the assessor-treasurer race (that's 70,000 voters, for those of you keeping track, or nearly 20 percent of participating voters) ... that is not more participation, and it is not democratic ... capital or small 'd'.

The number of candidates does not measure the strength of our democracy, our strength is measured by the number of voters that participate in the election.

And with this epic undervote, RCV has not been more democratic compared to traditional balloting.

If history in San Francisco is an indication, we will see a gradual drop in the use of RCV by voters in future elections.

On the election results:
The Democratic Party and people of Pierce County won county-wide on each top executive position on the ballot.

We continue hold 2/3 of the legislative seats that represent the county in Olympia and have re-elected both Congressman Dicks and Congressman Smith.

It is the hard work and joint work of campaigns, the party and the volunteers that fuel both that brought about these victories. For that we can be proud.

-Nathe Lawver
Pierce County Democratic Party

At 1:41 PM, Blogger RAC said...

I thank Nathe for his response. He did not, however, directly engage the points I raised in my original post. But I am happy respond to his new points.

First, RCV replaced the Pick-a-Party well before the Supreme Court ruled. When RCV was passed by the voters in 2006 and defended by the voters in 2007 the Pick-a-Party was still the law of the state. The Court did not rule until March of 2008 in favor of the Top-2. Certainly there was no way to know in 2006 that the Supreme would rule in favor of the Top-2 in 2008. In fact most legal experts were surprised by the decision and further legal challenges may still be brought forward. The fact that the Court later replaced the Pick-a-Party for other races does not support Nathe’s first point.

Second, it costs more money to run two elections than one. RCV means only one election. I am certainly willing to concede that RCV has not paid for itself yet – after only one cycle. But most of the expenses were sunk costs for equipment and voter education while the savings will be ongoing every time we run only a general election. Next year, for example, the county won’t need to run a primary for the special election for the auditor. This will probably save around $200,000. And there are enormous potential savings if we expand RCV to other jurisdictions like cities and school districts. This would require that people like our auditor support the local option bill in Olympia which would give district governments the authority to run RCV elections. It’s unfair for local Democrats to argue that RCV doesn’t save money while working against passage of a bill that would allow it to save more money. If Democrats were truly concerned about costs they would push to expand RCV instead of repealing it. If we repeal RCV now we waste our initial investment instead of getting a return on it. San Francisco spent a lot of money implementing RCV in 2004 but the system has already paid for itself and is now generating real savings.

Third, clearly more people participated under the RCV system. In the Top-2 August primary less than 40% of registered voters participated. Thus a minority of those eligible eliminated most of the candidates and limited choice to only two. RCV occurs at the November general election where we saw over 80% turnout.

The undervote issue is quite an exaggeration. As I mentioned in a previous response above the undervote for the Executive race was 10% this year and 9% in 2004. Are the Democrats really pursuing the repeal of RCV because of a 1% difference? What about the 40% difference in favor of RCV considering the general vs. the primary turnout? And in the Assessor-Treasurer race there is no way to separate the effects of two changes: the move to RCV and the move to non-partisan races. Without the signal provided by party affiliation many people may have been unsure about casting a vote and simply skipped the race. I don’t know the relative strength of each effect but neither does Nathe; however it would be a fallacy to blame it all on RCV.

Nathe makes a comment that I’m certain he must not have fully considered and can’t really believe: “The number of candidates does not measure the strength of our democracy, our strength is measured by the number of voters that participate in the election.” By this logic we could have a one-party system with one candidate on the ballot and force everybody to vote. We would have 100% turnout yet with absolutely no choice and no democracy. A genuine democracy must present the voters with real choices, meaning multiple candidates hopefully from multiple parties. I certainly favor high voter turnout but let’s not create a false dichotomy between multiple candidates and high turnout. That’s another obvious fallacy. RCV gives us both choice and turnout.

Nathe ends his post with an optimistic interpretation of the results for Democrats in Pierce County. But everybody knows that the strength of the county party is not measured by the Norm Dicks and Adam Smith races. And Pierce County did not contribute to the 2/3 Democratic control in the state legislature (see my original post above). The biggest win for county Democrats occurred in the Executive race – ironically the one with the RCV system that Nathe wants to repeal. If Democratic performance were really the issue it would make more sense to push to replace the Top-2 with RCV given the results in Pierce County.

While I appreciate Nathe’s willingness to engage in debate I am disappointed with the substance of the arguments. None of the reasons he states is a reasonable basis to pursue repeal. And it’s not only Nathe. I’ve heard even more vacuous talking points from other Democrats. They sound as if they are desperately trying to come up with some plausible-sounding rationalization to the party faithful for something they want to do for other unstated reasons or maybe for no reason at all.

Why spend our energy trying to replace RCV with the Top-2 if we are going to lose badly again in Top-2 races? Pierce County Democrats should follow the better example set by President-Elect Barack Obama and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean by supporting RCV.

Rich Anderson-Connolly


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