American politics is being held hostage, says a group of reformers with growing access to big-donor money who define their mission as trying to set it free.
The hostage takers, to hear them tell it, are the small group of voters who decide party primaries. Only about 10 percent of American voters choose about eight out of 10 members of Congress, says a new report out Tuesday from Unite America, a group that is pushing states to adopt nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting.
This small group — this 10 percent who make up primary voters in both parties — encourages extremism and gridlock rather than bipartisan cooperation, the report argues, in a conclusion that is widely echoed by many political scientists. This is due in large part because of partisan gerrymandering, the process in which state legislatures create distorted congressional districts to give their party an advantage.
As a result, in many congressional districts the primary is the only truly competitive race, with the winner coasting along to victory in the general election because the district is designed to be either heavily Republican or heavily Democratic.
“Most Americans tend to point the finger at the other party or at both parties when it’s actually the system itself that, by its design, produces the bad outcomes that we don’t like. And so if we were to be as pissed off at this broken system as we are at each other, I think we actually stand a chance at fixing it,” Nick Troiano, the group’s executive director, said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.
Unite America is more than an organization that puts out reports, however. It is aiming to mobilize $100 million over the next two years to push for open primaries and ranked-choice voting in states around the country. And it has some momentum.
Kathryn Murdoch, a philanthropist with deep financial resources as the daughter-in-law of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, donated over $6 million to the group in 2020 alone, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Murdoch is on the board of the group, and she is trying to help persuade other big donors to support the cause as well.
“An underlying challenge facing this movement is, one, a lack of awareness, but two, a lack of resources. There is so much money going into deciding who gets elected, over $14 billion last election cycle, rather than in how we elect, which was only about $30 million last election cycle,” Troiano said.
The hard part is nudging the process along state by state, something Troiano acknowledges is something that will take a decade to accomplish, not one election cycle.
But there’s no question that ranked-choice voting is gaining attention and support. It is the process by which a voter, rather than simply picking one candidate, lists choices in order of preference. In most settings, if no candidate gets 50 percent, then the last-place candidate is eliminated and all their votes are awarded to the second choice of the voters who picked that person first. This process continues until a candidate reaches above 50 percent.
Maine has conducted its statewide elections through ranked-choice voting since 2018. New York City used it for the first time earlier this year in a special election for a City Council seat, and will use it again this June in its closely watched mayoral primaries. In two states that are known for innovation when it comes to elections — Democratic-leaning Colorado and conservative Utah — municipalities have started to use ranked-choice voting, and state lawmakers support expanding it. Minnesota cities Minneapolis and St. Paul also use the system for local elections.
House Democrats are hoping to pass a bill that would mandate ranked-choice voting across the country, as a first step to passing legislation through the Senate.
It’s a reform that not all states are getting behind. Voters in Massachusetts rejected ranked-choice voting in a referendum last fall.
But in Alaska, voters not only approved ranked-choice voting, they also agreed to get rid of partisan primaries and move to a “final four” primary. That means that as of 2022, any voter can vote for any candidate from any party in the primary election. The top four vote getters will then advance to the general election, and ranked-choice voting will determine the winner from those four.
When Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial in February, some political observers argued that her 2022 reelection effort would become more difficult. Murkowski would get a Republican challenger in the party primary, the thinking went, and that challenger would galvanize hard-line Trump loyalists in the party to toss Murkowski aside.
But it soon became apparent that Alaska’s primary change meant that the small group of party purists no longer controlled things, and this reduced the chances of Murkowski losing her seat over the vote. Unite America spent at least $2.8 million in the campaign to promote the initiative, which was narrowly approved by voters.
In the 2020 cycle, Troiano said, Unite America spent about $14 million to promote ranked-choice voting, and advised donors of another $14 million on which groups and initiatives to give to.
In addition to Alaska, three other states have open primaries, but without ranked-choice voting: Nebraska, Washington and California.
It’s the combination of nonpartisan “final four” (or “final five”) primaries, along with ranked-choice voting, that reformers like Troiano think is a potent mix to reduce polarization and help free politicians from the iron grip of the most liberal or most conservative voters in their party.
In Wisconsin, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers last week proposed a bill that would implement this system in the Badger State. Unite America will be spending money in that state alongside Wisconsin businesswoman Katherine Gehl — another Unite America board member — and the group will also campaign in Utah, Colorado and Minnesota.
Unite America is also “evaluating potential ballot and legislative campaigns around the country and working to establish new campaigns at the same time,” Troiano said.
“If you had five with a ranked-choice ballot, then those candidates can’t just rely on what has been the business model of both parties today, which is demonize the other side and turn out your base,” Troiano said. As candidates seek to become not only first preferences but also second choices, “there could be a cost to being the candidate that is trying to tear down other people rather than putting out what you’re for and contrasting that with others.”
Troiano hopes the reforms will encourage politicians seeking votes “to build as broad of a coalition as you can,” rather than trying to appeal to an incredibly narrow group of voters who generally see the primary voters on the other side as the enemy.
“They want to see rigidity in the ideology of the folks that they elect. That is the underlying reason of why Washington is unable to produce meaningful results on issues,” Troiano said.
The report from Unite America points out that many members of Congress get sent to Washington by winning votes from far less than even 10 percent of eligible voters in their district.
For example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. — a conspiracy theorist and prominent far-right antiestablishment figure — won the Republican primary with the support of only 8.5 percent of all eligible voters in her district.
And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — likely the most prominent young socialist in the country — prevailed in her 2018 primary challenge against a more moderate incumbent with fewer than 16,000 votes in a district that has over 400,000 eligible voters, or just 4.5 percent of the potential electorate.
Even in elections where the primary winner gets more than 10 percent of eligible voters, their support is more extreme and more ideological than even most voters in their own party. Unite America did a poll in Colorado’s Third Congressional District, where Rep. Lauren Boebert won the primary with the support of about 19 percent of eligible voters in the district.
The poll found that Republicans who voted in Boebert’s primary, compared with general election voters in the district, were far more likely to want leaders who do not compromise with Democrats. And 59 percent of Republican primary voters said they watched Fox News most frequently, compared with just 24 percent of all general election voters.
Boebert has quickly made a name for herself as a right-wing firebrand since her election to Congress. On the morning of Jan. 6, hours before Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Boebert — who echoed Trump’s baseless lies about a stolen election — tweeted, “Today is 1776.”
Troiano said that getting rid of partisan primaries is key to reducing this kind of radicalism. His group’s report notes that Trump directly referenced primary elections in his Jan. 6 speech. “You have to get your people to fight,” Trump said. “If they don’t fight, we have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight. You primary them.”
Partisan primaries have become “a threat to democracy,” Troiano said. “I can’t think of a more important time or reason to get these changes done than in the aftermath of the most significant attack on our democracy that we've seen … which was so clearly tied to this problem of partisan primaries.”
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