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Making Elections Institutionally Better
... for both voters and political parties.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, recently released its ninth edition of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. It’s essentially a list of policy recommendations promoting individual liberty and limited government, and this year, senior fellow Walter Olson wrote an interesting chapter on election law. He offers ideas for both state and federal lawmakers, and he provided a little synopsis on Twitter.
I think he got a lot of things right, and I’d like to add some thoughts.
I wrote a long piece on ranked-choice primaries a while back, and I’ve become even more sold on the idea since then. To be clear, I’m not advocating for this system to be used in general elections (like Alaska did this year). But for primaries, I think they can bring institutional strength back to our political parties. That’s important, because it’s the weaknesses of our major parties that have been responsible for producing some really terrible nominees in recent years — candidates that can certainly rally a good chunk of the base, but don’t necessarily represent the party or most of its members, and tend to alienate (or downright terrify) persuadable voters needed to win general elections.
If party primaries are going to continue to be left up to party voters (there’s a compelling argument that the decision should go back to its leaders), it makes sense for candidate-acceptability to be a more highly valued measure than it currently is. The point of an institution, after all, is to shape its members through certain standards, principles, and guardrails. It shouldn’t merely serve as a winner-take-all prize or armament for any Johnny-come-lately who may have no regard for the institution’s values. That’s how to ultimately kill that institution.
It’s important to ask a question here. In most political primaries today, which of the below two types of candidates holds more of a political advantage… let’s say in a field of three or more?
Candidate A, whom has relevant experience and seems competent, whom a majority of the party’s base would be perfectly content with (even if he or she is not their first pick), whom is generally aligned with the party’s ideals, and whom is sufficiently appealing to non-party, persuadable voters required to win a general election.
Candidate B, whom isn’t experienced nor seemingly competent, whom excites a passionate minority of the party’s base (but turns off most party voters), whom stands at sharp odds with the party’s ideals, and whom has insufficient general-election appeal to non-party voters.
Right now, Candidate B would likely have the advantage. That’s because any type-A candidate — again, someone who upholds their party’s ideals, most party-voters would be fine with, and stands a good chance of winning the next contest — would split the vote. The more splits, the more likely Candidate B is to win the primary… and then go on to lose the general.
Is that outcome good for, or representative of, the party? Is it a healthy thing for the institution? Is it likely to keep the party’s voters happy and supportive? I sure don’t think so.
Of course, all of this assumes that the type-B candidate is the exception, and not the rule. If the situation is reversed, and most primary candidates are of the type-B variety, I’d argue that the party — the institution — is effectively already dead, and is, in fact, nothing more than a prize or armament.
So yeah, I think ranked-choice primaries are the way to go. They would also help even the playing field in races where some candidates have significant funding advantages, because ideals would be more front and center.
Let’s move on.
This should be a no-brainer.
One of the great eternal shames of the “stop the steal” idiocy following the 2020 election was the anti-democratic efforts of congressional Republicans to delay the election’s certification. That corrupt initiative was platformed off of poorly worded language in the ECA (written 135 years earlier) that became Trump’s fallacious legal argument for overturning the results of the election.
It’s hard to imagine any administration, other than one led by Donald Trump, ever exploiting the ECA’s deficient wording (related to objection provisions) to stay in power, but because it was indeed attempted, it’s time (as Olson says) to tighten things up. Congress needs to get it done.
These are important points. Despite wide-eyed contrary claims from both sides of the aisle, our country doesn’t have much of an election integrity problem. Both election fraud and voter suppression exist, but their cases are minuscule in number. We should punish those who violate election laws, but not as pretend as if we’ve got a systemic problem on our hands. We don’t.
Some parts of our nation, however, clearly have significant vote-processing inefficiencies. Case in point, as of the time I’m writing this, it’s still unknown whether fellow Coloradan Rep. Lauren Boebert will remain in office come January. And election night was a week and a half ago!
As a conservative who’s been voting exclusively through very convenient mail-balloting for almost a decade now (it’s how my state has operated since 2014), it drives me nuts that a lot of Republicans are now opposed to such advancements, including even ballot drop-boxes.
What’s particularly aggravating is that Republicans by and large had no problem with this stuff up until the 2020 election, when Donald Trump began portraying such processes as corrupt, and encouraged his voters to wait until election day and vote in-person. There was never a strong argument for it, beyond Trump wanting to maximize the “red mirage” in order to claim early victory on election night.
Making voting convenient benefits both parties. This includes early voting. And it can be (and is) done reasonably securely.
I’ve never believed ballot harvesting to be a terribly controversial or consequential practice, but I suppose I can understand people’s concerns with it. It’s one thing for a friend or family member to drop off your ballot. It’s another for a third-party non-election-official to have that level of interim ballot access. I’m fine with reining in ballot harvesting.
This goes back to Olson’s point about how long it takes in some places to count votes. The election system former governor Jeb Bush put into place in Florida is indeed the gold standard. Other states should absolutely study and employ it.
For more detail on Olson’s ideas (that go well beyond what I covered here), along with some pretty solid non-election-law policy recommendations, I suggest checking out the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. It’s a good resource.
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