By Richard Anderson-Connolly
Dwight Pelz, the chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, made a number of statements about Ranked Choice Voting when he was in town campaigning for re-election last Thursday, January 8th. His opposition to RCV, like that of many other Democratic officials, is based upon a number of misunderstandings.
Pelz claimed the following:
(1) RCV is an attack on parties;
(2) RCV is elitist because it requires that voters understand the candidates before voting;
(3) RCV is promoted by those who want to see less voter participation.
All three statements are incorrect.
First, instead of attacking parties, RCV gives the parties in Pierce County stronger First Amendment associational rights than the parties have under the Top 2 system. The Ranked Choice Voting system eliminates the primary election and permits all qualified candidates - those who live in the jurisdiction, pay the filing fee, and gather the required number of signatures - to appear on the general election ballot.
The ability of any candidate to use a party label is completely under the control of the county party under the RCV system. The Pierce County Democrat Party could decide to let anybody use its label or could hold a caucus to select its nominees or could run a mail-in primary or could adopt any other mechanism it chooses. Furthermore the party can nominate one person per office or multiple candidates. It would be difficult to design any system that better protects the associational rights of parties than RCV in Pierce County.
Not only is the first claim incorrect but also inconsistent with the party's legal challenge to the Top-2 primary. The Top-2 clearly weakens the parties' associational rights. Yet Pelz and some other Democrats believe in repealing RCV in order to return Pierce County to the Top-2. Or are they playing a deeper strategy where they believe the courts will throw out the Top-2 and restore the Pick-a-Party primary? In this case not only is his attack on RCV dishonest but also quite risky.
Secondly, Pelz claimed that RCV is elitist because it forces voters to know about the candidates in order to vote. He suggested that both younger and older voters might not be up to the challenge. While it's certainly true that most RCV advocates would prefer that voters be fully informed about the candidates, the reason that the voter education is a bigger problem for RCV or the reason it's elitist is not clear.
Perhaps Pelz believes that the option to rank up to three candidates is too difficult. Yet no data support this claim. In fact we know the opposite to be true. Voters report that they understand the way to vote using RCV. Voting under RCV does not differ very much from first voting in the primary and then voting in a general election; that's why it's also called instant runoff voting. If a top choice in the primary is not in the general election then most voters go with another candidate. Not too difficult.
Isn't it far more elitist to claim that voters are not smart enough to rank a second and third choice, if they want to use them? If voters are not smart enough to vote using RCV, then they're probably not smart enough to vote under any system, which means that democracy doesn't work. I don't think Pelz believes this. Certainly advocates of RCV believe that democracy works. It doesn't mean that voters never make a bad choice, but simply that a representative democracy tends to be better than any other political system.
Pelz's third reason for opposing RCV is his allegation that RCV is promoted by people who think that 65% turnout is too high and want to reduce it. Pelz could not be more wrong. Indeed, increased participation is one of the goals held by those who support RCV. The League of Women Voters, whose reason for existence is increased voter participation, supports Ranked Choice Voting. FairVote, a national organization which promotes RCV, has a broader agenda of electoral reform, including a right to vote initiative and the national popular vote for the president, all of which encourage greater participation by the electorate.
The fact is RCV elections have greater participation than plurality elections. First, RCV consolidates the low-turnout primary into the high-turnout general election. By advocating the repeal of RCV and the return of the Top-2, Pelz and other Democrats are in effect promoting lower participation by giving the important task of selecting just two general election candidates to the minority of the electorate who participate in the August primary. Second, voter participation is positively related to the competitiveness of elections. RCV races, like that for the Pierce County Executive, are not capped at only two candidates. In a race with three, four, or more strong candidates voters are more likely to find a candidate they strongly prefer.
I certainly hope that the chair of my party is willing to reconsider his opposition to RCV based on the the logic and evidence behind the arguments. Nothing he presented supports repeal of RCV and the return of the Top-2. Quite the contrary. RCV is better for the party. It is elitist to assume that workers can't handle it. And participation is higher under RCV than the Top-2.
The leaders of the Democratic Party in Washington and Pierce County should reflect upon the example set by more progressive Democrats and get behind the electoral reform movement. Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich have strongly endorsed RCV. Barack Obama was the prime sponsor of a bill to implement RCV in Illinois when he was a State Senator. Ultimately, if the leaders of the party refuse to support electoral reforms, the rank-and-file members of the Democratic party should step forward and set a progressive agenda.