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Voting Itself Becomes Question for Ballot Measures

There are a number of voting measures on ballots this year, including ranked choice voting proposals in Alaska and Massachusetts. Missouri and Virginia voters will decide who's in control of redistricting.

In two of the last five presidential elections, the winner has failed to receive the most votes from the public. Even Republicans who are optimistic about President Trump’s re-election chances believe he's almost certain to lose the popular vote again on Tuesday.

Given that context, perhaps it’s not surprising that there are a number of measures on state and local ballots that would change systems of voting. “People are recognizing that the plurality methods of choosing candidates isn’t working, so they’re looking for appealing alternatives,” said Chris Lamar, legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, an election watchdog group.

Voters in both Massachusetts and Alaska will decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting systems. Under ranked choice voting (RCV), if no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, the candidates with the lowest levels of support are gradually eliminated until someone does receive a majority. 

This will be the first presidential election with a ranked choice voting component. Maine voters approved an RCV measure in 2016. It’s had a complicated legal history since then, but in September, the state supreme court rejected an effort by the state Republican Party to put the question on the ballot again. The party had fallen short of the required number of signatures. 

Maine voters approved RCV following back-to-back plurality wins by Republican Paul LePage for governor. “That there’s no repeal measure in Maine reflects the fact that a majority supports it up there,” said Jack Santucci, an expert on voting methods at Drexel University.

In Alaska, the RCV measure would also create a top-four primary system, with all candidates appearing on the same ballot and the top four finishers moving on to the general election, regardless of party. Florida voters will decide whether to create a top-two primary system for state offices.

Puerto Rico will hold a referendum on statehood. A statehood measure passed overwhelmingly in 2017, but the Popular Democratic Party boycotted the vote, which featured low turnout. Statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., are expected to be live issues for debate next year, if Democrats prevail in the congressional and presidential elections. 

Voters in St. Louis will decide whether to move locally to a system known as approval voting. Everyone can vote for as many candidates as they'd like. If there are four candidates for the board of aldermen, you could choose to vote for one of them, or for two, or for the whole lot. Unlike RCV, each vote would count the same. The person with the highest total would win. Approval voting is a novelty in this country, but voters passed a measure to try it out in Fargo, N.D., two years ago.

That underscores an important point about voting reform efforts: While they may crop up only in isolated places, they have the potential to spread. Oregon held the first statewide election conducted entirely by mail back in 1993. This year, all but six states are allowing voters to cast ballots by mail without an excuse.

And now voters are ready for more experiments.

“It does seem like there’s more of this than normal,” said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It does reflect some dissatisfaction with our current politics, no doubt about that.”

Voting changes are sometimes presented on the ballot without encountering organized opposition. There’s no organized campaign against the St. Louis approval voting measure, for example.

That doesn’t mean politicians like the changes. Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota all have measures that would make it harder to put initiatives on the ballot or make them more difficult to pass. The North Dakota measure, for example, would require any initiative approved by voters to be passed also by the Legislature before becoming law.

The Florida Legislature has already curbed the potential impact of Amendment 4, which was perhaps the most high-profile ballot measure in the country in 2018 and aimed at restoring voting rights for ex-felons. The Legislature quickly passed a law requiring that such individuals pay off any fines or fees before regaining voting rights. (California has a measure on the ballot this year to allow people on parole for felony convictions to vote.)

Coincidentally, this year's measure to raise the vote threshold needed for ballot measures to pass is also known as Amendment 4

“People in power are seeing what everyday people in their states are doing to increase their votes and strive for fairer representation, and the politicians, quite frankly, are saying no,” Lamar said.

Changes in Redistricting

Virginia voters appear set to pass a measure on Tuesday that would turn redistricting over to a commission, an idea that has been embraced in several other states, including Colorado, Michigan and Utah in 2018. That year, Ohio voters approved a measure requiring that congressional districts win approval from at least three-fifths of the Legislature, including at least half the members of both the majority and minority parties.

Two years ago, Missouri voters approved a measure known as Clean Missouri, which created a new, nonpartisan state demographer to draw legislative maps, who was to be guided by principles such as “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness.” The maps would then have to win approval from bipartisan commissions.

The Legislature has countered with this year’s Amendment 3. It would eliminate the state demographer and allow commissions appointed by the governor to run redistricting.

“From where I stand, Clean Missouri means instead of honoring municipal and natural boundaries, communities across the state would be sliced up into districts designed specifically to dilute and diminish individual communities’ voices,” said state Sen. Dan Hegeman. “It will diminish the voice of rural Missouri in the Legislature.”

To sweeten its appeal, Amendment 3 would ban lobbyist gifts (currently, they are limited in value to $5) and lower campaign contributions to state Senate campaigns, from $2,500 to $2,400. Those minor changes are a “smokescreen,” complains Sean Soendker Nicholson, campaign manager for the Clean Missouri coalition.

“We’ve been rather aggressive as a campaign letting folks know that it’s a trick,” he said.

Amendment 3 makes other changes that would make challenging partisan gerrymandering more difficult in court. The Clean Missouri campaign says that its language would make Missouri the first state to use eligible voters, rather than total population, for redistricting purposes, which would diminish representation of children. Hegeman says such a switch would still require support from the Legislature.

Still More Voting Changes

Alabama, Colorado and Florida all have measures that would clarify that only citizens may vote. The measures are in part a response to a law, which took effect in 2018, that allows noncitizens to vote in San Francisco for school district elections.

This year, voters in San Francisco and Oakland will decide whether to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can vote in local elections in some Maryland communities and in school board races in Berkeley. A measure to lower the voting age to 16 in Golden, Colo., failed in 2018. 

California voters will decide whether to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, so long as they turn 18 in time for general elections. Such policies are already in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia. 

Colorado voters may buck a recent trend toward expressing displeasure with the Electoral College. A total of 15 states and D.C. have approved the National Popular Vote compact, agreeing to award their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. The idea would need approval from states with a total of 270 electoral votes to take effect. If Colorado voters overturn the law passed last year, it will badly blunt the idea’s momentum.

Mississippi voters could end the state’s “electoral college” requirement for electing governors and other statewide officials. Currently, the winning candidate not only has to win the most votes, but also carry a majority of the state House districts as well. If Measure 2 passes, candidates who fail to receive a majority of the vote would then face a runoff instead of having races decided by the state House.

Caroline Tolbert, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, says ballot measures offer states and localities a good way to try out alternatives to traditional plurality voting.

"I believe our election laws are long overdue for revision," she said. "I welcome experiments where we can learn from the states."

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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