Finding Common Ground on Political Reforms

The_Gerry-Mander_vector.svg.pngOur political system is not working. From Washington, D.C. to the state capitol in Denver, our elected leaders continue to engage in polarizing policy dialogues that rarely result in compromise or consensus.

According to a recent Centrist Project Institute poll, a majority of Colorado voters (53%) believe the two major parties are not working together well in the state legislature to solve problems facing Colorado – with 71% placing blame for partisan gridlock on both Democrats and Republicans.

If we don’t tackle the root causes of our polarization, the tough policy questions in Colorado -- including infrastructure, education, energy and our budget -- may never get resolved. Independent candidates and legislators not beholden to partisan and special interests can be champions for reforms that otherwise benefit one (or both!) parties.

There are three important issues independents can take a different stand on: gerrymandering, ranked choice voting (RCV), and open primaries.

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the process of dividing a unit into election districts so that the voting strength of the majority party is spread out and the voting strength of the minority party is concentrated. It is an obstacle to democracy, manipulating the political system and promoting extreme partisanship and special interests.

This process creates "safe seats" where, to be re-elected, the representative need only to appeal to their party base, instead of the whole population they're representing. As a result, party primaries are most competitive where members of the same party are competing to see who appeals more to ideological purity. Pragmatism is forgotten. “Safe seats” are particularly prevalent in Colorado. In the past 10 years, not a single congressional district has changed party hands and only 3 out of the state's 65 house districts have done so. This is largely because, in Colorado, electoral maps are redrawn by state legislatures. Naturally, the party in power is more likely to draw a map that expands their own power.

Winning an election should not solely be dependent upon a candidate’s party affiliation. All Americans are negatively impacted by gerrymandering, but there is a solution and it’s one that has bipartisan support in Colorado. Former House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Highlands Ranch Republican, and former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Grand Junction Democrat, are working to bring more unaffiliated voters onto redistricting commissions.

This will lead commissions to redraw districts’ borders in a way that make elections more competitive and fair. Candidates will be encouraged to seek common ground when electoral maps are less partisan. Moreover, voters will be empowered to choose their representatives, not the other way around.

Ranked Choice Voting

Another way to more accurately reflect voters’ opinions is through ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting. RCV is a voting system where voters rank up to three candidates in an election by order of preference, instead of voting for a single candidate. The notion of voting based off who’s more likely to win, and thus supporting the lesser of two evils rather than a favored third candidate, is eliminated. Voters are enabled to vote based on their beliefs, and jurisdictions can determine which candidate truly has majority support.

Adopting RCV will allow elections to be less partisan and more inclusive and civil. While there are certain difficulties with implementing RCV on a state level as states have multiple jurisdictions and voting equipment preferences, it is relatively easy to adopt in cities. It has already been implemented in a few small towns in Colorado and in San Francisco.

The state with the most independent elected leaders, Maine, approved ranked-choice voting in 2016. It was the second largest citizen initiative vote in Maine's history. In October, the State Legislature voted to delay the implementation until 2021.

But voters are speaking out. Independent State Representative Kent Ackley introduced LD 1646, which would implement RCV for primary elections and non-presidential federal elections, while delaying RCV for state general elections until the law complies with the state's constitution, thus respecting the opinion of the Maine Supreme Court and the will of the voters. Over 32,000 signatures for a People’s Veto Referendum have been collected for LD 1646.

Independent politician Terry Hayes has strongly supported this referendum, saying that “Maine voters deserve more voice and more choice in our democracy.”

So do Colorado voters. If RCV was adopted in Colorado, it would save taxpayers a significant amount of money. Rather than the status quo of having two rounds of elections, each of which costs taxpayers around $1 million, Denver could have one election with a higher voter turnout.

Open Primaries

Giving voters greater choice in elections is also a prominent reason behind support for open primaries. In an open primary, any voter can cast a ballot in primary elections, regardless of their political affiliation. As a result, independent and unaffiliated voters can vote in primary elections. Moreover, election results become an honest reflection of the entire population’s beliefs about each party’s candidates, rather than a reflection of the beliefs of party insiders. While Colorado has created open presidential and congressional primary elections as of 2016, both Democrat and Republican leaders in Colorado opposed the measures.

Independent candidates such as Steve Peterson, Maile Foster, and Eric Montoya will support these recommendations for political reform because they are best for the state and its collective future. The current system isn’t handling our political divisions. We need to improve our democratic institutions to reduce polarization. By structuring the political system to incentivize finding common ground, the system can be improved and common ground can be found on policy issues as well. But first, we need meaningful political reform. If you support these independent candidates, Colorado can get beyond negative partisanship and start working towards real solutions.