These two election reforms could moderate our increasingly toxic politics

October 20, 2021 10:44 am

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Americans value independent thinking. Competition. Healthy debate. A marketplace of ideas.

Or do we?

If social media is a gauge of what we cherish, I’d say the opposite is true.

These past few years, I’ve watched friends cut ties with family members because they subscribe to different political beliefs.

I’ve seen candidates and elected officials block constituents on Twitter and Facebook for the crime of expressing a different viewpoint.

More and more, politicians are shunning town halls and tough questions, and when they’re called out for falsehoods or inaccuracies, they scream “fake news” in an attempt to discredit anything unflattering.

Even within the two political parties, it seems it’s more difficult than ever for people to have dissenting views about, well, anything.

Our politics are toxic, and doing things the same way while expecting different outcomes is an exercise in foolishness. We need to reform our elections.

I don’t believe we’ll ever fully detoxify the system until we remove the biggest pollutant: money. But absent a movement to completely overhaul our campaign finance system and make it impossible for a handful of special interests or billionaires to buy politicians, there are a few other significant reforms that can help clean up the process.

Terry Goddard’s Stop Dark Money initiative, which would force disclosure of all campaign donations in excess of $5,000, is one of those common-sense initiatives voters would likely approve if it ended up on the ballot.

So far, this all-volunteer effort has garnered 100,000 signatures, but it needs another 200,000 to give it enough of a cushion to survive a signature challenge (something opponents will certainly do to keep the initiative — and their anonymous Benjamins — in the dark).

I’m hopeful 2022 will be a year of sunshine for the dark money initiative, and Arizona voters will finally have a chance to force transparency.

Another reform that’s still in the planning phase and promises more competition and less ideology is ranked-choice voting.

In ranked-choice voting (RCV), voters do not simply choose their top candidate for office. Instead, they rank candidates in order of preference (first, second, third, etc.). This is often referred to as “instant run-off voting” because if no candidate receives more than 50%, the last-place candidate is eliminated and votes are redistributed to those voters’ second-choice candidates. The process continues until a single candidate receives a majority.

Proponents argue this reform offers voters more and better choices — and is a more precise reflection of the will of the majority.

I spoke with Ken Clark, a former state legislator and an advisory board member with Voter Choice Arizona, the nonprofit working to bring RCV to Arizona.

Clark worked on a campaign in Australia, where ranked-choice voting has been in effect for a century. He said RCV created more opportunities for conversations around policy issues, noting candidates “don’t get locked into party ideology.” He also said he saw less trashing of opponents because candidates needed their second-choice votes.

Ranked-choice voting isn’t a new concept in this country. Two states — Alaska and Maine — have implemented it. So have dozens of cities, most notably New York City, with dozens more considering the reform in their next election.

Arizona could end up on that list, though volunteers with Voter Choice Arizona tell me they will likely target some of the state’s cities first to give voters an opportunity to understand the concept.

Opponents of ranked-choice voting have two main criticisms: that this is nothing more than procedural tinkering and that voters don’t have the time or the desire to rank a series of candidates.

The second criticism suggests voters just aren’t smart enough, nor can they be trusted, to handle RCV. This is an argument ripped from the playbook used by opponents of direct democracy, that We The People should not have the power to create or thwart policy through citizens’ initiatives or referendums.

I vehemently disagree and would guess the millions of Arizonans who have voted for or worked on initiative and referendum campaigns feel the same way. We want more of a say in our government, not less.

And while no single election reform is a panacea for what ails this country’s toxic political climate, RCV and Stop Dark Money offer several significant benefits, including more competition and transparency and less ideology, which is much more than “procedural tinkering.”

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.