Ranked choice voting may be the ultimate cure for extremist politics
Let me set the stage for my support of ranked choice voting with some personal history. I left a safe seat on the Idaho Supreme Court at the end of 2016, after having served 12 years, so that I could speak out on public affairs. I’d previously served as a Republican attorney general of the state for eight years (1983-1991). During the 1980s, Republicans and Democrats often had policy differences, but they also worked together to solve important problems facing the state. For example, I worked hand in glove with a Democratic governor to fend off an effort by Idaho’s most powerful electric utility to seize and maintain control of Snake River waters.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Idaho Republican Party took a page from the playbook of many other red states, implementing a strategy of taking over the party apparatus by electing rightwing precinct committeemen at the grass-roots level.
Idaho politics gradually became more divisive as the extremists’ grip on power tightened, thanks to filling the lowest level of the GOP structure with ultra-conservatives. That trend dramatically increased in 2012, when the GOP was able to impose a closed Republican Party upon the state.
Since then, Idaho has become a one-party red state where a minority of the Republican Party has been able to control the political agenda. As a result, the Idaho Legislature has gotten more extreme with every primary election.
With the capture of the legislature by political extremists, responsible Idahoans, including many reasonable, pragmatic Republicans, have had to contend with an onslaught of culture war legislation every year — for instance, a law criminalizing almost all abortions and a bill making it easier to carry guns where they don’t belong. The extremist legislators have exhibited no interest in working to solve real problems facing the state.
Each year, those interested in good governing have had to expend substantial energy in trying to bat down culture war proposals, which are primarily dumped into the legislative hopper to garner publicity for the sponsors. It has been exhausting.
Last year, I helped to organize a political action committee, Take Back Idaho, to defeat extremist GOP legislators and replace them with responsible pragmatists. Our organization was primarily composed of traditional Idaho Republicans who have been sickened by the party’s present-day extremism. We were largely successful in southern Idaho, but lost ground in the northern part of the state, which has become redder each year because of a large influx of extreme-right Republicans fleeing progressive states.
Efforts to combat creeping extremism have been further complicated by an influx of dark money into the state to support the most extreme candidates and to oppose candidates of either party who support responsible governing. This pattern has affected many conservative midwestern and southern states.
So, what do you do to counter the legislature of a state that has been captured by extremists? Instead of spinning your wheels trying to put out a myriad of culture war fires, it would make sense to attack the root cause of the problem — the method of selecting the people who orchestrate the divisiveness and chaos.
Alaska has demonstrated how Idahoans can achieve sensible reform of our electoral system. In 2020, Alaska voters approved an initiative establishing a ranked choice voting system. It provides for all candidates, regardless of party, to appear on a single primary ballot. The top four vote-getters move to the general election ballot for ranked choice selection.
The voters rate the candidates as their first, second, third and fourth choice. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and voters who put that candidate at the top of their list have their votes reallocated to their second-choice candidate, and so on, until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Alaskan voters say it is simple to use.
The 2022 general election in Alaska witnessed a dramatic move to the center by most of the candidates and a substantial reduction in divisive partisan posturing. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who would likely have lost her seat in a winner-take-all GOP primary, retained her seat, and a Democrat, Mary Peltola, won the state’s only House seat. The two endorsed each other in the general election — something that would never have happened under a typical party-controlled election system.
In 2022 the voters of Nevada, Idaho’s southern neighbor, approved a voter initiative to establish a ranked choice system in that state, despite opposition from both parties. And it is a certainty that Idaho voters will have an opportunity to vote upon a ranked choice system in the 2024 general election. The Idaho Legislature will mount a furious effort to oppose such an initiative. In 2021, legislators enacted a statute making it virtually impossible for the people to exercise their right to initiate legislation, but that legislation was struck down as violating Idaho’s Constitution.
The conflict merchants will do everything else under the sun to frustrate the effort to bring responsibility and pragmatism back to governing in Idaho, but they won’t succeed.
Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.
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