Deliberating Electoral System Reform: Notes from a League of Women Voters Consensus Meeting

Photo source: Google Images (photographer unknown)

Context

The Pensacola Bay Area chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) held a “consensus meeting” on February 18, 2017 at the Tryon Library in Pensacola to build consensus on several aspects of Florida’s current primary electoral system. The meeting was part of a larger coordinated effort with about twenty other local Florida LWV branches who would go through a similar deliberative process, and later convene at the annual LWV meeting in May to establish a shared set of reform objectives to be advanced in the months ahead.

The meeting, moderated by LWV member Ray Hudkins (referred to as “Ray” below), began at about 10:45 AM. Several deliberative rules were emphasized in Ray’s power-point slides: “Be collegial”, “Don’t interrupt”, “No filibustering”, and “Have fun.” Ray also shared a quote from former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” To encourage participation, it was also stressed that silence would be interpreted as tacit agreement with the group. What follows are some notes from the group’s deliberation over the nine statements/topics.


1. The Florida primary system hinders voter turnout

Florida uses a closed primary system, meaning that only voters registered with a particular party can participate in selecting the general election candidate for that party. Ray presented a graph showing that Florida voter turnout was comparatively low among other states in the U.S. (17.6% in 2014) and stated that one reason for the meeting was to advance ideas to increase voter participation in the state.

One of the meeting participants asked what some of the arguments against an open primary system are, to which Ray responded that it could weaken the parties. Ray also cited a recently conducted survey carried out by the Haas Center at the University of West Florida which found that about 70% of millennials in Pensacola would prefer an open primary in Florida. A poll worker at the meeting also noted that many independent voters were angry that they could not participate in the primaries. In the end, the group agreed with the statement.

2. Independents and minor party voters should have an opportunity to vote in the primary

At this point, several questions were asked about minor parties in the state. Among other things, Ray pointed out that independent voters (i.e., those who declare “No Party Affiliation”) should not be confused with voters from the Independence Party or the Independent Party. Without much need for discussion, the group agreed on this point.

3. Electoral system for the Florida (legislative) primaries

This part of the meeting was dedicated to, first, establishing some facts about four potential electoral systems for the Florida (legislative) primaries:

  • Closed system (the status quo)
  • Open primary
  • Top-Two system (e.g., used in California)
  • Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

The second aim was to build a consensus in the group on which one they would prefer. The criteria used to evaluate the systems was: simplicity, ability to verify the results, competitiveness, minimizing potential for manipulation, demographic representativeness, technical feasibility, and majoritarianism (vs. simply plurality). With regards to the group preference, it was “basically a toss up” between IRV and the Top-Two system, according to Ray. However, but leaning towards the Top-Two system. (Despite the lack of a clear group preference on this item, votes were not recorded at the meeting). The open primary system came in a distant third place followed by the status quo closed primary system with just one supporter.

4. Electoral system for the Florida (presidential) primaries

Deliberation on no. 4 was similar to that on no. 3 (e.g., the same electoral system choices were considered). However, at this point the group focused on the presidential rather than the legislative primary. Thus, the Top-Two system was excluded because it does not narrow it down to a single candidate. The group ended up agreeing on an open primary for presidential elections.

5. Closing the write-in candidate loophole

Although Florida has a closed primary system, the voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1998 which opens up specific primary contests to all voters if only one party was selecting a candidate for that position. However, a loophole allows write-in candidates to re-close such primaries by simply getting on the ballot. Currently, there are very low barriers to entry (write-ins do not have to pay a fee, there is no signature requirement, and there is no drop-out penalty). The LWV proposal, as Ray put it, was to “get some skin in the game”, for example, by introducing a filing fee for write-ins.

Banning write-ins altogether might be too drastic, according to Ray, as this would prohibit serious write-in candidates from entering the race. Ray cited the example of Lisa Murkowski, a U.S. Senator from Alaska, who became the second ever U.S. Senator to win via write-in in U.S. history in 2010 (Strom Thurmond was the first in 1954). Ultimately, the group agreed with the idea of closing the write-in loophole.

6a. Automatic registration of eligible voters

There was one participant who disagreed with this proposal on the grounds that having to voluntarily register is a good indication that someone is interested enough in public affairs to make informed choices on the ballot. However, this individual’s statement provoked strongly worded rebuttals from at least two of the group’s participants. The group ultimately endorsed the idea of automatic registration.

6b. Exclusive Vote-By-Mail

One of the benefits of exclusive vote-by-mail (VBM) noted by Ray was that in states such as Oregon where VBM is used there has been an increase in voter turnout. However, one individual stated that she didn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service and said that voters such as herself should therefore be allowed to vote in-person. Another participant opposed the idea on the grounds that voting in-person was important for civic reasons. VBM was ultimately rejected by the group.

6c. Election Voting Centers

With regards to Election Voting Centers (EVC), used in Colorado for example, Ray pointed out that these are already used for primary elections, and bullet-pointed a few anticipated benefits such as convenience, cost reduction, and increased voter turnout. One individual feared that it would be more costly for some individuals to reach a voting center (since these would be fewer and farer between than precinct voting locations). Another individual expressed concern that the choice of EVC location could be biased against certain groups of voters. Despite these admonitions, the group was ultimately okay with the idea of the EVC.

6d. Election Day Registration

This LWV proposal was to reduce the time voter registration books close from 29 days before the election to 0 days. One participant (who also voiced concern about automatic registration) expressed concern that Election Day Registration (EDR) would give rise to haphazard voting and possibly voter fraud, again provoking rebuttals from the group. In response, Ray stated that the LWV aims to “open up all avenues [for voting] that are legitimate” Ultimately, the idea of EDR generated supermajority support within the group.

What’s next?

By the end of the meeting at about 12:40 PM (two hours total), the Pensacola Bay Area chapter of the LWV had endorsed the following proposals:

  • Top-Two system for legislative primaries
  • Open primaries for presidential elections
  • Closing the write-in candidate loophole
  • Automatic Voter Registration
  • Election Voting Centers
  • Election Day Registration

About twenty other local Florida LWV branches have already or will be going through a similar deliberative process before representatives from the various branches convene at the League’s annual meeting in May at which point local branch representatives will draft a set of reform objectives regarding Florida’s primary system. Afterwards, these objectives will be advanced either through the Florida legislature, direct ballot initiative, or via some other channel.