The facts tell us: M90 won't work

T.A. Barnhart

The claim: M90 – aka “Unified Primary” – will increase voter participation by giving all voters the same choices on the same ballot. No more partisan primaries; a single, unified primary where everyone votes for the same candidates, the Top 2 winners moving on to the general election.

Here’s the problem: We already do that, and it doesn’t work.

Some primaries are, of course, partisan: President, Congress, statewide offices (except BOLI Commissioner), and the Legislature. But many primaries are non-partisan: county, city, Metro, judges, ballot measures, school boards and most municipal boards. That means in almost every primary election, all voters do get a unified ballot. Regardless of party registration, every voter has the same choices, and the top two from that ballot move on to the general election.

And how has it worked? Not so hot. Here are turn-out numbers from Multnomah County for the past decade.

ElectionTurnout - allTurnout - DemTurnout - RepTurnout - non
May 201432.7%39.0%38.9%20.0%
May 201240.0%46.9%41.9%24.4%
May 201035.3%40.5%43.6%18.5%
May 200860.2%76.7%50.8%30.1%
May 200636.0%42.0%41.6%20.7%
May 200445.3%53.3%47.4%28.2%

Lesson #1: No one votes in primary elections. Only in 2008, with a presidential primary and no eligible incumbent, did turnout top 50%. Not even Democrats and Republicans, who supposedly have the range of choices that M90 tell us will lead to greater participation, turn in half their ballots. Why should we believe that non-affiliated voters will vote at rates that Ds and Rs do not?

Lesson #2: Because even though non-affiliated voters have a full, unified ballot when it comes to non-partisan races, they don’t use it. And many of these races are critical. Here’s a look at what we voted for in Multnomah County in recent primaries:

May 2014
Multnomah County Chair: Kafoury-Francesconi
Multnomah County Commission: Bailey-Wilson; Smith-Raiford

May 2012
Portland Mayor: Hales-Smith-Brady
Portland City Council: Fritz-Nolan
Multnomah County Library bond & 9 Portland measures

May 2010
Multnomah County Chair: Cogen-Darger
Multnomah County Commission: Smith-Collymore-7 others
Metro President: Hughes-Burkholder-Stacey
2 statewide measures

May 2008
Multnomah County Commission: Shiprack-Delmon; Piluso-McKeel
Portland Mayor: Adams-Dozono
Portland City Council: Fritz-Lewis-others; Fish-Middaugh-others

May 2006
Multnomah County Chair: Wheeler-Linn
Multnomah County Commission: Cogen-Frederick
Multnomah County Auditor: March-Griffin-Valade

May 2004
Multnomah County Commission: DeSteffey-Dugan, Naito-McCarthy-Burket, Roberts-Stout
Metro: Liberty-Monroe
Portland Mayor: Potter-Francesconi-others
Portland City Council: Adams-Fish, Leonard-others

Friends and neighbors, these are not insignificant offices. The top offices are not only critical to the region’s future, but they received considerable media coverage. Consider the Portland Mayor race in 2012: Approximately 2 million candidates, about 1,000 debates and forums, and intense media coverage. And the result?

Turnout in Portland was 42%. A unified ballot, and 42% of the voters even bothered to vote. And non-affiliateds voted at less than half that rate. Hell, if it weren’t for a Democratic turnout of 64%, the overall results would have been even worse. And it’s not like Dems had anything important on their ballot: the biggest primary choice across the Dem ballot was for Attorney General (Holton-Rosenblum) and there were over 14,000 Dems who didn’t even cast a vote in that – about 14% of Democratic voters. Democrats turned out to vote for Mayor — and no one else did.

Primary election after primary election, non-affiliateds get exactly the same ballot choice as Democrats and Republicans on some of the most important offices and issues, and they respond by exercising their right to let other people make their electoral decisions for them.

And if having the option to vote for candidates for partisan office were offered, and we were to expect the NAVs to vote as do Ds and Rs, that would still mean over half them wouldn’t be bothering. We’d still have an overall turnout below fifty percent in Multnomah County. If NAVs don’t vote now when they have what amounts to a unified ballot, how can anyone believe that giving them a few more offices to vote on is going to make any difference?

Recent voting history tells us: M90 won’t work.

The solution? Let’s not screw around with an election that is ignored by over half the electorate except in extraordinary circumstances. They cost us millions of dollars and result in outcomes decided by a minority of voters, whether it’s a partisan or non-partisan race. Let’s dump primaries and move to a true unified ballot: Instand Runoff Voting.

IRV was made for Oregon: paper ballots mailed out three weeks before the election and a nice, big voter’s guide that arrives even sooner. There are different ways to apply IRV, and from these methods we can likely develop a system that works with vote-by-mail. IRV + VBM = everyone with the same, exact ballot and only one election to be concerned with. And we know that voters turn out in good-for-democratic-outcomes numbers November. How much more so if that’s the only election in the year and everyone has a full slate of candidates to choose from?

But here’s the problem: If we pass M90, any further reforms will be impossible for the next decade. If M90 passes, the response to trying anything else will be, “Let’s give this a chance to work.” Real reform will be put off while we learn the sad lesson about Top 2 systems: they don’t work. In Oregon, we know M90 won’t work because we already do unified ballots, and those don’t work.

Let’s not get suckered by arguments built on fantasy – If you pass it, they will vote – which are easily refuted by actual facts. Let’s vote No on Measure 90 and then, in 2015, let’s begin the movement towards a real reform that will work in Oregon: Instant Runoff Voting.

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