Though Americans like to see themselves as the authority on democracy, the truth is that we do better at sports than we do at democratic elections. As I write this, the Detroit Tigers are playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. As nearly everyone knows, both teams had to survive a sequence of playoffs in order to compete for the World Championship.
Eight teams were reduced to four, then two, and soon there will be one World Champion. Of course, many of us would argue that in 2004 the “real world series” between the best two teams was the contest between the Yankees and the Red Sox, but the Sox still had to face the Cardinals before it was all over.
Compare this to the current Massachusetts gubernatorial election. Deval Patrick, Kerry Healey, Christy Mihos, and Grace Ross are each trying to achieve a plurality in the general election. There’s a good chance that Patrick may get an outright majority, but a plurality is all that’s needed to gain election.
However, Tom Reilly and Chris Gabrielli would both have likely outpolled Mihos and Ross if their names were still on the ballot. In fact, one of them might have even outpolled Healey. So, are Massachusetts voters really given the opportunity to weigh all the choices? I don’t think so.
Imagine what it might be like if all viable candidates were allowed to proceed straight to the general election – without any primaries. Vote-splitting among the three Democratic candidates would most likely give unacceptable results.
Now imagine that voters were given the opportunity to rank their choices and that an “instant runoff” system was in place that would sequentially eliminate the candidate with the lowest number of ballots and transfer those ballots to the next available choice – basically the same mechanism we use in Cambridge for our municipal elections except that only one person is to be elected. The governor’s race would effectively become a nonpartisan election.
Though it is likely that most Democratic ballots would remain with other Democratic candidates, many ballots would freely transfer across party lines. If Reilly was eliminated, some of those ballots might help Healey, and many Ross ballots might transfer to Patrick. Healey would likely gain ground with the defeat of Mihos.
There’s a good chance that the two candidates who make it to the final round might even be of the same party.
I wish we could institute nonpartisan elections in Massachusetts for all statewide offices and for every state representative and state senate race. Under the present system, most competitive elections are in the primaries where voter turnout is usually far lower than in the general election.
When you factor in the fact that there are more unenrolled voters statewide than either Democrats or Republicans, and that unenrolled voters have their choice of party ballot at the primary, it has to make you question why we continue to even have party primaries.
Why not just dispense with them entirely and proceed to the general election where ALL voters can rank their choices and have the winners decided by Instant Runoff Voting? Not only would this eliminate the expense of the primaries, it would involve all voters in the election of a true majority winner without the problem of spoiler candidates splitting the vote of any constituency.
Perhaps the worst example of vote-splitting was the 1970 New York senatorial election when Conservative Party candidate James Buckley, brother of William F. Buckley, managed to win the U.S. Senate race with only 39% of the vote in a three-way race against Democrat Richard Ottinger (37%) and liberal Republican Charles Goodell (24%). Had there been a runoff election, the liberal votes that split between Ottinger and Goodell would likely have joined to defeat Buckley in a near-landslide. So much for democratic elections.
The current system also discourages challengers for state representative and state senate races and, in essence, denies voters the right to choose their representatives. Not long ago, Marjorie Decker was roundly criticized by Democratic party insiders for challenging incumbent Paul Demakis for his state representative seat.
Insiders prefer that these matters be settled behind closed doors without the advice of voters. This year we watched while Jarrett Barrios raised so much money for his Middlesex County District Attorney run that it scared off all but two competitors, Melrose State Rep. Michael Festa and the eventual survivor, Gerry Leone.
Barrios then decided it was a race he couldn’t win, so he backed out and re-entered the race for his current state senate seat. Though Anthony Galluccio had already chased out several potential competitors in that race, he was then himself chased out by Barrios – all under the watchful eyes of state party leaders who were delighted to not have a competitive election in that district. Across Massachusetts, actual competitive elections are the rare exception.
If we abandoned all primaries in favor of a nonpartisan general election with Instant Runoff Voting, what role would be left for the political parties to play? For starters, they might actually have an incentive to define a platform on which all their candidates could stand and which could help to ensure that when ranked ballots transfer they stay within the party.
They would still have the option to nominate one of their candidates as the party’s preferred choice in the general election. They might also have an incentive to do something they almost never do any more – recruit and develop viable candidates.
Recently, Instant Runoff Voting has been adopted in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt. Voters in Minneapolis, Minn., Davis and Oakland, Calif., and Pierce County, Wash., will vote this month whether to adopt it.
In Minneapolis, the vote will also adopt a proportional representation system similar to our Cambridge system for several elected boards.