Wednesday, July 25, 2018
VOTE: Election meddling. Ballot tampering. District gerrymandering. Census shenanigans. Voter roll purging.
If the last 18 months of prominent national news stories have demonstrated anything, it’s that voting matters. Otherwise, why spend so much money and energy trying to subvert, diminish or redirect votes and election outcomes, unless voting and elections matter?
Every group of power and influence in the United States recognizes this and expends great energy on this—except the one group most targeted by all the mischief. And the target group is, ironically, also the most powerful and influential of them all: Millennials.
“Millennials” is a shorthand way of describing an age group that is now the largest voting bloc in the United States. In 2016, Millennial and Gen X voters outnumbered Boomers and older voters, 69.6 million to 67.9 million. The vulnerable weakness of Millennials is they do not fully recognize this. As a cohort, they don’t vote; or they vote infrequently and haphazardly. They are the likeliest group to drop out of elections.
A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute conducted in June showed only 28 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 say they are “absolutely certain” they’ll vote in the midterms, compared to 74 percent of seniors. If they voted with the same passion as their parents, the electoral effect of this strongly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural age group would be titanic.
When they do vote, this age group votes strongly progressive, even if they are registered as “independent.” Democrats have as great as a 35-point advantage with young women voters in the 2018 U.S. House midterm elections, according to recent surveys.
For Republicans and conservative-leaning political groups the strategy is clear—discourage or choke off this volatile young voting group, drive them from the polls by any means. For Democrats and progressive-leaning groups—Get Out The Vote.
In their brief months of power last session, Democrats in the Washington State Legislature passed a couple of very canny bills to expand the franchise of democratic involvement (and their own chances in future elections), dubbed the “Access to Democracy” package. Automatic voter registration dramatically simplifies the registration process, signing up citizens to vote when they interact with a state agency, unless they opt out. When a resident renews her driver’s license, for example, she is also registered to vote. The package also allows automatic pre-registration for older teenagers, ensuring they can vote the day they turn 18.
Their final gift? Free postage on ballots returned by mail, removing one additional barrier to participating in elections.
Evidence suggests an energetic primary can also drive heightened interest and involvement in election outcomes into the fall, and certainly there’s never been a more engaging primary than the current one. Suzan DelBene is challenged by four men in the inland 1st Congressional District; while Rick Larsen has drawn five challengers attacking from all ends of the political spectrum in the coastal 2nd CD. In legislative races, eight candidates are running for three state positions to represent Whatcom and Skagit counties in Olympia.
Of these latter races, perhaps the most fascinating is unfolding in the historically somnambulant 40th Legislative District, where four Democrats of enormous appeal square off to fill the seat of retiring Anacortes Democrat Rep. Kris Lytton.
The aggressive math of the state’s rickety Top-Two primary suggests this excitement will settle into a more predictable trough into the fall, as it is unlikely more than one of these Ds will squeak through the primary. That candidate will then square off against the surviving Republican in a tiresome and static, polarized debate that will almost assuredly end in a 35-point victory for the Democrat. Top-Two is a hash that allows a candidate with only marginal partisan support to continue on while candidates with greater overall appeal are eliminated.
Something analogous is likely to happen in the 42nd District, with Republicans so confident in their easy victory that their candidates did not even bother to show up for a recent political debate sponsored by the Whatcom League of Women Voters.
Perhaps a more energetic system of voting could increase participation overall.
“A sharp increase in partisan rigidity in Americans’ voting patterns has led to less competitive state and national elections and more predictable outcomes based on which party is in the majority,” say proponents of FairVote Washington, a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms. “Fewer legislators fear losing in general elections, and fewer still can win in the other party’s ‘turf.’ Third parties and independents are shut out almost entirely.”
Their solution, introduced to the Legislature last year, is ranked choice voting (RCV). Rather than checking a box for just one candidate, voters rank all candidates in order of preference. If a candidate earns a majority of the votes, he or she wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and his or her ballots get redistributed to whomever those voters ranked second. If another round is needed, the process continues, eliminating the candidate with the next fewest votes, until one candidate has a majority.
Ranked choice voting would certainly inject more lasting dynamism into races like the 40th LD, where Democrats could substantially move the needle on public issues well into the fall.
Ranked choice voting favors no party, and in that capacity may appeal to that mercurial cohort of young, independent voters. If the strategy of Democrats is to increase voter participation in the confidence that those voters will lean toward a more progressive agenda, Democrats should champion RCV.