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.