Better Voting Nevada Initiative is not my first choice, but it is a choice

There’s a certain breed of PMCs — members of the professional-managerial class, in other words — who earnestly believe they can avoid the difficult work of convincing others of the superiority of their positions and the distasteful work of directly compelling the less powerful to bend to their well. Instead, they believe that, by exercising control over process and incentives, they can sit back, relax, and watch as people cheerily and voluntarily use their local knowledge and judgment to succeed according to the terms defined for them.

It’s a seductive fantasy.

Speaking as a bookish middle manager with unpopular political opinions, I understand the appeal. Faced with increased political polarization over matters big and small, this breed of PMC can pretend they don’t need to check if centrism is unpopular or if nonpartisan voters are reliably partisan. They don’t, in other words, check to see if they are out of touch

Instead, they can assume it is the incentives that are wrong. They can assume the reason we’re arguing with each other isn’t because we have irreconcilable differences in values which we uncomfortably mediate through political institutions because the alternative is endless bloodshed — it’s because we’re operating under bad rules that reward arguing and shouting. Consequently, if we simply change a few rules and work within a reformed political process, the rancor will die down, our shared values will shine through, and our PMCs won’t have to trouble themselves with the ugly reality of how many people openly and angrily disagree with them.

This is the fertile fantastical ground from which electoral reform measures germinate.

In theory, an open primary — one in which every voter can choose their preferred candidate during the primary election, regardless of partisan affiliation — would reward moderate candidates who appeal to voters across multiple political affiliations. In theory, a top-two primary, in which only the two most popular candidates in each primary election proceed to the general election, would ensure only candidates moderate enough to appeal to a broad constituency can reach the general election.

In practice, voters in California — which has both open and top-two primaries — keep electing speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) to Congress. Though there are members of Congress who are less moderate than they are, neither of them are known for their ideological or political moderation.

I mention this not to discourage or speak against the Better Voting Nevada Initiative, which was filed on Friday. It doesn’t propose a top-two primary, for starters — instead, it proposes a top-five primary. For sentimental reasons, I also prefer ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to select multiple candidates in order of preference and which the initiative seeks to implement, as it helps minor-party candidates pick up a few percentage points when they otherwise would receive fewer votes. 

No initiative is perfect and this one is no exception. Open primaries, which the initiative would also implement, create the opportunity for mischief. If voters care enough to believe they should have a voice in which candidates are put forward by a political party, they should spend the seconds of effort required to update their voter registration to match the political party they care so much about. Even so, as soon as someone asks for my signature, I’ll happily provide it, and if the initiative makes our ballots, I’ll happily vote for it.

Having said that, I think it’s important to temper expectations. Ranked-choice voting isn’t new — Australia’s been using it for over a century, Maine’s been using it since 2018, and several American cities and parties have taken a liking to it over the past decade. Virginia’s state Republican party even used ranked-choice voting to select candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general this year. (All three candidates won.) Consequently, we have enough data to know whether it meaningfully addresses political partisanship, encourages candidates to run towards the middle, or otherwise reduces the temperature of political campaigns.

As FiveThirtyEight points out, it does not. Australian politicians call each other fascists and communists, too.

Americans copying Australia’s election homework isn’t new, either. Massachusetts, the first state to adopt “Australian ballots” — ballots printed at government expense on which the names of all nominated candidates and proposals appear, which are distributed only at the polling place and marked in secret — did so in 1888, three decades after they were adopted through most of Australia. Prior to the adoption of “Australian ballots,” states either allowed voters to print their own ballots (many partisan newspapers and political parties printed color-coded pre-selected ballots on election day) or used viva voce voting (voting by voice — voters would walk into a room and announce who they were voting for). Both methods were notoriously ripe for fraud, intimidation and bribery.

That said, election reforms producing (un?)intended problems also isn’t new. Though Australians enjoy overselling our questionable motives for adopting secret ballots — contrary to the assertion that Southern states adopted paper ballots to facilitate the infamous “literacy tests” of the Jim Crow era, many southern states didn’t adopt secret ballots until well into the 20th century — it’s true that voting was considerably easier for illiterate voters before the introduction of secret paper ballots. Similarly, ranked-choice ballots aren’t known for their simplicity. Ballot fatigue — voters choosing not to fill out all of their preferences, or just refusing to fill out the entirety of their ballots — is not unheard of. Ranked-choice elections also require additional institutional and technological competence, which isn’t always a given — New York City, for example, embarrassingly tabulated 135,000 sample ballots in addition to the election’s actual ballots during their most recent mayoral race.

If ranked-choice voting doesn’t reduce political acrimony and makes our ballots more complicated, potentially disenfranchising voters as a consequence, then why should Nevadans support it?

The answer is the increased percentage for minor-party candidates I mentioned earlier — voters are more comfortable expressing their electoral preferences when they know their first choice doesn’t have to be their only choice. I personally have struggled with the desire to vote for a candidate I actually liked against the logic of voting for a candidate who might actually win, and I’m not alone. Ranked-choice voting also eliminates the so-called “spoiler effect” — the oft-overstated idea that support for, say, Green Party candidates exists, where it exists, at the expense of Democratic Party candidates — by allowing supporters of minor-party candidates to vote for major-party candidates as their second or subsequent choices.

No, ranked-choice voting won’t solve all of our political ills. The McPoliticization of American politics — the way arguments over national issues are overwhelming local parties and interests — is fed in no small part by the fact individual candidates must campaign under strict donation limits while political action committees can receive nearly limitless funding. Consequently, candidates struggle to have their voice heard through the din created by better funded single-issue advocacy groups, corporations, and labor unions, none of whom have any reason to moderate their message and every incentive to refuse to. Politicians, for all their faults, are at least accountable to their voters — the same can’t be said for the NRA or the CCEA, who are only accountable to themselves. If anyone in our electoral process should have the ability to throw millions of dollars’ worth of advertisements at us, it should be the people we’re actually voting for.

Even so, ranked-choice voting would make our politics a little bit better and a little more representative of our voices and desires. Implementing it in Nevada would be a small win, but a small win is still a win.

David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the executive committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, and the father of two sons. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david@colbornemmx.com.