The Big Midterm Election Winner: Voting and Election Reform

The Big Midterm Election Winner: Voting and Election Reform

The wrangling among parties, pundits, and the president over the size of the Blue Wave (not to mention the confusion sown by recounts in Florida and Georgia as well as the mixed result in the US Senate) obscured the real, hidden, and under-reported story of the midterm elections: the overwhelming popularity of progressive-leaning political reform initiatives across the country.  Question the Blue Wave if you will…but there is no doubt that there was a Progressive Reform Wave.

Overall, there were 16 total progressive political reform initiatives on the ballot in November (several states, including Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and North Dakota, had multiple measures). The measures instituted independent redistricting commissions, campaign finance system amendments, voting reform, voting rights, lobbying reforms, and state ethics commissions.

The hidden story of the election? 87 percent of those reforms passed.

During a moment of increasing distrust of government comingled with the current administration’s flouting of the rule of law and political norms, the breadth, scope, and success of the ballot initiatives illustrate the widespread public support for reform aimed at expanding voting rights and making elections more fair. The take-home message for pundits, party leaders, and activists is that this clear reaction to the current political climate is a sign that progressive political reform is not only necessary, but a winning issue politically.

The Popularity of Progressive Political Reform

How do we know that these kinds of reforms are such a winner?  First of all, the scoreboard: fourteen of sixteen reform measures passed. Second, the average win margin of 60 percent is a sign of overwhelming bipartisan support.  For example, look at the four states (Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah) that passed redistricting reform ballot measures. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis won the race for Governor with 52.3 percent of the vote while the redistricting amendment won with 71 percent.  In Missouri, Claire McCaskill lost her bid for re-election to the US Senate at 45 percent, while the redistricting initiative passed with 62 percent. In Utah, Democratic Senate Candidate Jenny Wilson received only 31 percent of the vote, but the redistricting initiative still eked out a victory.

Third, these initiatives won everywhere, even in purple or fully red states. In fact, ten of the measures were passed in states Donald Trump won in 2016, including Missouri (Trump won by more than 17 percentage points),  Utah (Trump by more than 18 percent), and North Dakota (Trump by more than 35 percent).

Fourth, there were a range of topics under the broader umbrella of making voting fairer and more accessible – and they were all popular.  State ballot measures in Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Maryland and Nevada took different approaches to expanding voting rights. The Florida Restoration of Voting Rights for Individuals with Felony Convictions Initiatives was a clear example: in a state where the gubernatorial and Senate elections are so closely contested, an initiative to give back voting rights to former inmates won, and with a strong 62 percent (the Michigan and Maryland expansion of voting rights initiatives were equally impressive, receiving 68 and 67 percent approval respectively).

Key Under-the Radar Wins

Not only were these kinds of initiatives broadly popular, but reformers also managed to pass or road-test some of their biggest ideas, the ones that may have the most impact long term if they can be implemented on a wider scale. Maine’s first use of Rank-Choice Voting and Denver, New York, and Portland’s approval of small donor funding programs or expansions represent core strategies for potential future political reform agendas.

In Maine, the new voting system went into effect in a federal election for the first time in our nation’s history. Rank-Choice Voting allows voters to rank all candidates from favorite to least favorite. If a candidate receives a majority of all votes, fifty percent plus one vote, that candidate wins outright. If no candidate receives a majority, then the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and the candidates’ votes go the voters’ second choices. Proponents believe that there are two big benefits to this system. One is that it lets voters choose their true preference without worrying about supporting a “spoiler candidate” because under this system, third-party candidates can’t be spoilers – they either win or votes for them get re-allocated. That means that winners represent a true majority preference.  Also, by giving candidates an incentive to appeal to a broader electorate (because now it matters if you are someone’s second or third choice), this system can make campaigns more positive and constructive.

Perhaps the most useful victories for reform were not at the state level, but at the city level: Baltimore, Denver and Portland, OR passed small donor public financing systems. The systems provide public matching funds for small donor donations: for example, Denver’s measure creates a public fund that matches political donations under $50 at a rate of 9 to 1.  The idea behind small donor matching is that it will entice more average citizens to make small campaign donations, increase the influence of average citizens compared with mega donors, and incentivize candidates to compete for small money donations and the support of average citizens. Proponents argue that given the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case ruling that restrictions on campaign donations are a violation of the first amendment right of free speech, small donor matching programs may represent the only chance to level the playing field and allow most Americans to have a significant influence in politics.

These city-level small donor public funding systems will be closely watched as a test-bed, as reformers consider various alternatives to combat the influence of big money in politics. US House Democrats have embraced the idea of small donor campaign finance systems in their vague agenda entitled A Better Deal. While no federal campaign finance changes are viable in the current political environment, a small donor campaign finance system may be a viable alternative in the near future to traditional campaign finance reform proposals that face first amendment challenges.

The Work Ahead

Reformers still have their work cut out for them. For one thing, while the vast majority of state political reforms sought expansion of voting rights, a handful of states sought to roll back rights. For example, North Carolina (56-44) and Arkansas (79-21) passed voter ID laws that disproportionately increase barriers to voting for older, lower income, and minority voters.

More broadly, the challenge is that as much as the 2018 midterm election state ballot initiatives illustrated widespread support for reforms, the total impact of these reforms is still limited, and the status quo is riddled with barriers to fair voting.  The proliferation of voter ID laws in recent years (as of 2018, 17 states require a photo ID to vote while another 17 require a non-photo ID) represents a challenge to making voting more fair and accessible. 37 states still empower their state legislature to draw congressional district lines and 35 to draw state legislative district lines. The vast majority of those states still suffer from gerrymandered districts. And at the federal level, the current makeup of Congress (and the president) make further reform all but impossible in the next two years.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming lesson of the 2018 election is that political reform that makes elections more fair, free, and accessible to voters is overwhelmingly popular and broadly achievable. Candidates should take notice, and reformers should take heart.

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