February 2018 Column: Nonpartisan Registration and Election Systems
Fifty-five percent of Massachusetts voters are registered as nonpartisan (“Unenrolled” or independent). This week, I joined them by re-registering as nonpartisan myself. I did so because my existing political identity and style has always been nonpartisan in spirit, and I wanted that to be true in letter as well. I have long rejected the premise that there is such a thing as a spectrum of political ideology. I try to connect with humans of any political background.
My generation has lived almost entirely in a time when nationally, politicians have become more and more polarized and partisan, finally culminating in the election of Trump, an occurrence that could never have happened without the dysfunction of the current two-party system (in which more extreme views have undue influence in choosing party candidates and in which politicians feel obligated to support even an awful candidate rather than support a candidate outside their party). Yet, in Massachusetts we already legislate in a relatively nonpartisan manner. Why should we not be one of the first states to make that nonpartisan ideal a reality in our formal registrations, our election systems, and our influence on the country as a whole?
There is already one state legislature that is entirely nonpartisan – Nebraska’s. In August I was at an event for young state legislators from across the country and I found myself highly intrigued by what I heard from my counterparts in Nebraska, where the nonpartisan legislature seemed to be quite effective.
At the same time, I’ve been increasingly interested in the work of Voter Choice Massachusetts, a group dedicated to educating legislators and the public about Ranked Choice Voting. Again this is a system that one other state, Maine, has already enacted. With Ranked Choice Voting, instead of indicating your single top preference among available candidates, you get to indicate your full order of preferences; if your top choice candidate doesn’t get enough votes, that candidate is eliminated and your vote is transferred to your next choice, and so on until one candidate has a majority of votes. It’s a reform that eliminates the spoiler effect if third-party candidates choose to run despite not having a chance to win, and it could also help nonpartisan candidates compete more effectively in certain elections. In fact, it could allow Massachusetts to make all our state elections nonpartisan by eliminating the state primary and allowing all candidates who gather enough signatures to be on the ranked general election ballot. This would save millions of dollars in administrative costs, and increase turnout, by having only one election. I introduced a bill a year ago that included this reform.
This is the kind of systemic change I wish our legislature embraced more often. Part of the reason we need less partisanship in our country these days is that you usually find more agreement when you talk about the system level – when you get at the root of problems rather than treating symptoms. For instance, we can divide ourselves into camps and argue about whether we should have one additional charter school under the current system, but if we instead talked about changing the way all charter schools are funded we would find much more agreement. I know this is the case from my conversations with charter and district students, parents, and advocates. Furthermore, by solving problems at the system level, we could impact many more lives for the better.
I hope that becoming nonpartisan in letter as well as in spirit will give me a chance to amplify our district’s policy priorities with extra statewide attention. I’ve learned, more than anything over the last year, that it’s hard to get topics on the agenda for the Massachusetts legislature, and that bringing statewide attention to an issue is often crucial for big ideas to be taken up.
Finally, young people, who are considerably more likely to choose nonpartisan voter registration, are the least politically engaged that 18-to-29-year-olds have ever been in the U.S. If we want to guarantee the restored and continued health of our democracy, we need to show young people that politicians can work beyond the two-party system, that we can tackle system-level issues, and that we can get big things done. Everyone is looking for government systems to be effective. Massachusetts should do more to model effectiveness and productivity for the rest of the country, to move us beyond this time of partisan gridlock.