Spirit of political reform is true bipartisan force in the election

Spirit of political reform is true bipartisan force in the election
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Americans will go to the polls next week in one of the most important and rancorous midterm elections in memory, one infused with partisan anger over the recent confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court justice, further stoked by fears of an immigrant invasion and the tragedy of recent domestic terrorism. The tribal bases of the political parties are clashing along the seams of a deeply divided nation. In their respective echo chambers, both sides describe the stakes in nearly existential terms.

Yet there is a parallel midterm election underway that is driven not by cultural fear and partisan loathing, but rather by a bipartisan spirit of reform and national renewal. That campaign is being fought at the grassroots level. This hard fought contest pits the defenders of the uncivil and cynical status quo against reformers looking to change the incentive system that rewards politicians for pandering to the most extreme voters. Though rarely mentioned in media campaign coverage, this parallel midterm election and the very real possibility of a political “reform wave” may have the more profound and lasting impact on our democracy.


As part of the Commission on Civility and Effective Governance of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, we have tracked the grassroots efforts to reform our politics. The signs are unmistakable. There are campaign and election reform initiatives on the ballot in more than two dozen states and localities. Many would end the partisan gerrymandering that allows politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around, fueling the notion of a rigged system.

This is one remedy to address the vast majority of seats in the House of Representatives that are drawn specifically to reduce competition and result in increased polarization. Other reforms would establish open primary elections to limit the disproportionate power of extreme partisans in low turnout and closed primaries that disenfranchise political independents. Still others would impose much stricter ethics laws on politicians to reduce the outsized influence of money in politics.

Many of these reforms are building on past successes. California moved to a system that sends the top two vote getters in the primary to the general election regardless of party affiliation, breaking the Republican and Democratic “duopoly” of closed primaries in the state. Maine voters chose to become the first to use a ranked choice system statewide, where voters mark candidates by order of preference and can support their favorite candidates without worrying about the “spoiler” effect.

With the support of Republican Governor John Kasich, Ohio voters this year overwhelmingly chose to reform the state redistricting process to counter one of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation. Colorado also looks likely to pass redistricting reform with the support of Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper. The midterm ballots in Michigan, Missouri, and Utah will also include initiatives to counter gerrymandering. Major ethics reform measures could be approved by voters in North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Mexico next week. In total, tens of millions of American voters will have weighed in on reform measures this year.

Josh Silver, cofounder of Represent Us, a national organization trying to change the incentives in our increasingly dysfunctional politics, said in a recent interview, “I started Represent Us because polarization, gridlock, and corruption have increasingly come to define American politics. That is not a coincidence, but rather the direct result of failed campaign and election policies. That makes reforming those policies and fixing the system the quintessential public policy issue of our time.”

Represent Us supports grassroots efforts in states and helps them carry the reform issue successfully onto the national stage. “Along the way we are discovering that reforming what is widely perceived as a rigged system is popular with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. That explains why we have seen an unprecedented number of reform efforts really catch fire all across the country,” Silver added.

Predictably, those reform initiatives have provoked a fierce backlash by powerbrokers and stakeholders in the current system. In Michigan, establishment interests banded together to oppose a gerrymandering reform measure that was placed on the midterm ballot next week with 425,000 signatures. Oil and gas interests and the chamber of commerce in North Dakota are fighting a ballot initiative to create an ethics commission and require full disclosure of campaign contributions.

Nowhere were the retrograde forces more brazen than in Maine, which passed its ranked choice voting initiative by referendum in 2017, only to see the Republican governor and legislature, backed by a number of Democratic state lawmakers, repeal the initiative literally in the dead of night. Reformers worked through a cold winter to collect the signatures needed to resuscitate the initiative, which passed again this year.

“From the moment ranked choice originally passed, the political class in Maine did everything in its power to smother it,” said Cara Brown McCormick, who helped manage both successful campaigns to pass the initiative in the state. “But the people of Maine rose up and reclaimed the sovereign power the state constitution gives them to decide how to choose their leaders. We like to say that ranked choice voting lets you vote your hopes, and not your fears. For candidates it means you do not have to divide people to win. You have to bring them together.”

Imagine American politics inspired by hope rather than fear, and elected officials rewarded for uniting rather than dividing the nation. These are the stakes at play in the important parallel midterm election next week.

Former United States representative Glenn Nye is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.