Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics Broken Primaries: Why Thad Cochran’s Win in Mississippi Should Inspire Alaskans to...

Broken Primaries: Why Thad Cochran’s Win in Mississippi Should Inspire Alaskans to Adopt Approval Voting

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Photo of Sen. Thad Cochran courtesy USAG- Humphreys, Flikr. Creative Commons License.
Photo of Sen. Thad Cochran courtesy USAG- Humphreys, Flikr. Creative Commons License.

On the night of June 3rd, the staff of longtime Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran found itself in dire straits, dejected as their candidate headed for a primary run-off against Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel. Cochran was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and hasn’t faced a serious challenge since his first reelection bid in 1984. But McDaniel pulled 155,040 primary votes, depriving Cochran of the simple majority he needed to win outright.

His campaign staff was quick to develop an innovative response, as it prepared for the one-on-one run-off to take place three weeks later. As the Fix’s Philip Bump noted:

[R]unoff turnout in the 24 counties with a black population of 50 percent or more was up almost 40 percent from the primary. In all other counties, turnout was up just 16 percent…. Cochran’s ability to convince a strongly Democratic constituency to be for him — despite the fact that every Democratic consultant believed McDaniel gave the party a better chance to win the seat in the fall — is simply remarkable.

The county with “the largest share of black voters in the entire country,” Jefferson County, had a 91 percent increase in voter turnout. This, despite the NAACP affording Cochran just a four percent rating on issues affecting African-American voters.

And it was a difference maker. Cochran’s vote count in the run-off jumped 36,468 votes — a 19 percent increase. He overcame McDaniel by a slim margin of 6,693 votes.

Cochran gamed the system by running two completely different campaigns simultaneously. As Alec MacGillis wrote for New Republic, “Cochran supporters… stumbled on the brilliant strategy of touting Cochran’s opposition to Obama in white neighborhoods while touting his support for historically black colleges in African-American neighborhoods.”

Black Mississippians were confronted with the likelihood that whichever Republican won the primary would beat the Democrat in the general. Then, they were introduced to the prospect of that Republican candidate being Chris McDaniel, who enjoys photo ops with Confederate flags and touted his candidacy as “a peek back to a better time.”

McDaniel unintentionally designed a constituency for Cochran to tap, thinking that it wouldn’t have an influence on the primary. Boy howdy, did it. The electorate expanded 17 percent.

Primaries are exploitable. In a lot of different ways. Joe Miller taught Alaskans in the 2010 primary that an aggressive voter turnout effort among conservatives can overcome an incumbent. The Cochran campaign, alternatively, figured out that they could scare enough Democrats and first-time voters, especially minorities, into voting for Cochran as the lesser of two evils. An electoral panic button.

In Alaska, the state GOP has taken measures to prevent what happened in Mississippi by closing their primary. Only voters registered as Republican, Undeclared, or Nonpartisan have access to the party ballot. The Alaska Democratic, Libertarian, and Alaskan Independence parties are all open, meaning anyone can vote on their party ballots.

But relying on party exclusivity as a cure for primary politicking may not be a wise long term strategy. The state Democratic Party has also been adapting to primary exploits. Competition within the party — contested seats in state legislative races — has dropped dramatically since 2000, when there were nine. This year, there are just three, in stark contrast to the GOP’s eleven. One party is increasingly politically competitive, while the other is dropping off the charts, discouraging primary contests and conserving their resources for the general.

In response, many Democratic voters may look to change party affiliation and weigh in on some of the contested primaries within the Republican Party. This happened, to some extent, during the 2010 U.S. Senate race, as Miller was seen as an easier target to beat in the general. As reasons to vote on the Democratic Party primary ballot decrease, the temptation to influence external races seems natural.

But primary shenanigans corrode a democratic system already suffering from waning participation. In the past ten years, while an average of 57 percent of registered voters take part in general elections, just 33 percent show up to the primaries. For the Republican Party, this means — as Miller can attest — it’s easier to turn a small and motivated support base into a party nomination. Regardless of whether or not a given candidate accurately depicts the broader electorate. And Democrats — with less registered voters and financial backing — have discouraged internal political competition.

Compounding the primary voter drain is the distrust. Since Republicans can vote in the Democratic Primary, and Democrats can re-register as Republican or Undeclared to vote in the GOP Primary, no one’s quite sure if contested primaries accurately reflect the will of party loyalists.

And all that confusion and declining participation comes with a fat biennial price tag, billed to the state.

There’s a better, simpler, cheaper way that would encourage more political competition while affording a broader electorate more options. It’s called Approval Voting, and it’s been begging our attention for years. We should start listening. A small shift in how we conduct democratic elections would save us all a lot of time, grief, and money while likely producing better elected officials. We could use all those things, yes?

Dale Sheldon-Hess has been advocating Approval voting extensively on his blog, The Least of All Evils, and wrote about it for Alaska Commons last year. He used the easily digestible metaphor of ordering a pizza.

Under our current primary system, we are told to order pizza and given a limited number of options in the form of toppings. Two or three, generally, if you’re ordering a Republican pizza. Rarely more than a single topping for a Democratic pizza. You sit down with your friends and discuss your different dietary likes and dislikes. Ultimately, you take a vote and pepperoni wins the day. If you happen to be a vegetarian, um, sorry?

That’s not generally how groups of friends order pizza. Generally speaking, a group polls its members and attempts to figure out which toppings seem most amenable to everyone. Thus goes approval voting.

First off, ditch the primary. The entire concept of using public money to run an election to secure nominees from our state’s private political clubs seems a tad ridiculous. It’s not Constitutionally required and would take only a simple act of the legislature. People don’t normally require two phone calls to order a pizza. Why should it be any different with elected office? Imagine all the toppings that have found their way to the menu — or, in the case of elections, all the candidates who have gathered the required signatures to appear on a ballot. Rather than choose between one or the other, one simply indicates whether or not he or she approves of each. At the end of the day, the candidate who most people approve of wins.

So, let’s put this in the context of a hypothetical state house race where three candidates are running. You like two of them and find the third detestable. Your preferred candidate is a newcomer with little chance of winning. Your second favorite, who you mostly agree with but not with the same passion as the first, has a lot of party backing and support and is heavily favored. In our current system, you have to pick one. And that selection includes the very real risk that a vote for your first choice could ultimately take a vote away from your second favorite pick and aid the third candidate you abhor. Thus, you likely penalize yourself by siding with the safe bet — opting to not vote for the person you believe to be the best choice — to prevent the third candidate from getting elected.

That seems silly.

As Hess wrote: “You shouldn’t have to distort your opinions in order to vote effectively. Instead, you could use a voting system which collects more information about the voters’ opinions on the options, and incorporates as much of that as possible into the process.”

Opponents of Approval Voting cite the method’s vulnerability to “strategic voting.” Because we totally don’t have strategic voting under our current system. Ask Thad Cochran’s staff. Or Miller’s 2010 team. Or Bill Walker’s current campaign for governor. Walker has opted to run as an independent — not because he isn’t a Republican, but likely because he sees no path to victory within the party’s primary.

Primaries have become nothing more than an unpopular, strategic, and expensive opportunity for small political factions and special interest groups to exploit and take control of who the broader electorate ends up choosing between come the General Election. When those choices end up being less aspirational and more frustratingly predictable, people become disenfranchised and tune out altogether. If we wish to encourage new candidates, fresh ideas, and a challenge to the status quo government with approval ratings flirting with single digits, why not try something different; something logical?

At this point, what do we stand to lose?