election administration

ranked-choice voting

ranked choice voting

Ranked-choice voting is an alternative to plurality elections —  which are when whoever receives the most votes wins, even if they don’t earn a majority of all votes.

Bangor Daily News: “Voters can rank as many of the candidates as they wish as their first, second and third choices, and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of all votes cast, the last-place candidate is eliminated from contention. The ballots from voters who ranked that candidate first are re-examined and all of their second-choice votes are added to the first-round totals. This continues until a candidate receives a majority of all votes cast and is declared the winner.”

Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016 and the state released a cartoon explaining how it worked:

FairVote has a list of jurisdictions that currently use ranked-choice voting.

firehouse primary

fire house primary

A firehouse primary is a candidate nominating contest funded and overseen by a local party organization rather than public election officials.

Origins and History

A standard primary is operated by county and state election officials who are not affiliated with any party. Firehouse primaries are used to determine local, county, and state candidates for general elections in lieu of standard primaries and party conventions. Parties use this primary method to handle nominations without convention floor votes or debates. A firehouse primary allows the sponsoring party to experiment with voting methods and ensure compliance with party rules.

The firehouse primary is sometimes referred to as a mass canvass, a party canvass, or a firehouse caucus. This primary form takes place in a variety of locations including schools, fire stations, and churches.

William Safire detailed the origins of firehouse primary in a 2008 On Language article for the New York Times. Safire found a secondhand reference to the phrase dating to a 1975 article in The Washington Post. This reference mentioned the open aspect of this primary with voters casting ballots at tables instead of booths. Safire’s firsthand research discovered firehouse primary’s print debut in a Washington Times article from 1990.

The firehouse primary is most often associated with the state of Virginia. Google Trends shows that Virginia was the lone state to show search interest in the term between 2004 and 2020. The Republican Party of Virginia includes firehouse primaries as one of several nominating options in its Handbook for Mass Meetings, Conventions and Party Canvasses. The Democratic Party of Virginia featured sample rules for a firehouse primary in its 2016 local elections handbook including the following:

  • A four-hour window for votes starting at noon
  • Certification by each voter of voter and party registration along with a promise not to vote for a candidate outside of the party
  • Using a coin flip to resolve tied votes after canvassing

Virginia may have popularized firehouse primaries but at least one state adopted this method for its 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The rules for the firehouse caucus held by the North Dakota Democratic Party included a pledge of support for the party’s candidates. This caucus represented a significant switch from the 2016 caucuses that required multiple rounds of preference votes. State parties in Alaska and Kansas also adopted the firehouse caucus format for their 2020 presidential nominating contests.

Examples

Virginia Mercury (June 6, 2019): “The local Republican committee in Hanover decided to cancel a party convention in favor of a mass canvass, or firehouse primary.”

The Harrisonburg Citizen (April 27, 2019): “The firehouse primary finished off an eight-week sprint of a campaign for the trio of Republicans since Landes announced March 5 that he wouldn’t run.”

NBC 4 Washington (January 24, 2014): “Northern Virginia Republicans opted to run a firehouse primary to choose a nominee in the 10th Congressional District, where Republican Frank Wolf is retiring after 34 years.”

jungle primary

A primary election in which all candidates for elected office run in the same primary regardless of political party.

Also known as the “Nonpartisan Blanket Primary” or “Top Two Primary”, the top two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the next round, similar to a runoff election. However, there is no separate nomination process for candidates before the first round, and parties cannot narrow the field. In fact, it is entirely possible that two candidates of the same party could advance to the second round. For this reason, it’s not surprising that the parties haven’t rushed to embrace jungle primaries because they ultimately reduce their power.

dummymander

“Dummymander” is a play on the term “gerrymander,” and it refers to a redrawing of a district map that actually ends up benefiting the opposite party that was designed to help.

When a political party in power reshapes the map of a district to gain advantage in an election, this is called “gerrymandering.” ”Dummymandering” occurs when that map, over time, actually ends up benefiting the opposite party (hence the use of the term “dummy).” Simply put, it’s a gerrymander that backfires.

The term was coined by by Bernard Grofman and Thomas Brunell in their article, “The Art of the Dummymander.”

The risks of a gerrymander becoming a dummymander for either party are sometimes hard to measure. In a Washington Post article, political reporter John Gastil explains how GOP gerrymandering leading up to the 2016 election could have backfired: “That strategy created so many marginal Republican districts that if the GOP loses the bulk of the seats at or below R+2, it would also lose its congressional majority. A catastrophe that claimed every GOP seat at or below R+4 would bring the GOP caucus close to the size of today’s House Democrats.”

While the risk of dummymandering always exists, some political science experts argue that as techniques for redistricting improve, the odds of it happening are decreasing: “The ability to create the desired political effect increases every decade with advances in technology, making it easier for legislators and advocacy groups to target partisan precincts and predict their likely voting behavior for years to come. “Dummymanders”–sociologist Bernard Grofman’s term for overly greedy gerrymanders that backfire– have become increasingly rare as sophistication about redistricting grows.”

This was reinforced by Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan, as reported by New York Magazine: She observed: “Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses, sometimes led to so-called dummymanders — gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world. Mapmakers now have access to more granular data about party preference and voting behavior than ever before. County-level voting data has given way to precinct-level or city-block-level data; and increasingly, mapmakers avail themselves of data sets providing wide ranging information about even individual voters.”

Still, with more and more gerrymandering comes the risk of more and more dummymandering. In a 2015 Politico article that argued the merits of gerrymandering, the author acknowledges: “To be sure, gerrymandering schemes rarely create a statewide plan that is as competitive as it could be; the risk of dummymandering is too high.” The author goes on: “This happens when parties spread their voters just a little too thin, turning a gerrymander into a ‘dummymander.’ When an unfavorable political tide sweeps through, dummymandered districts switch parties, undoing the advantage the gerrymandering party had supposedly engineered for itself.”

by-election

A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections. It’s also frequently referred to as a special election.

Typically, a by-election occurs when the incumbent has resigned or died, but it may also occur in the case of a recall or as a result of election results being invalidated by voting irregularities.

Election Administrator’s Prayer

“Please, please, please let the winners win big.” or “Lord, let this election not be close.”

Doug Lewis, Executive Director of the National Association of Election Officials, was quoted by USA Today using another variation in November 2000: “God, please let the winner win in a landslide.”

Election law professor Rick Hasen used the phrase in an op-ed for Australia’s Canberra Times in 2008 noting how the American electoral system “remains haunted by the ghost of the democratic meltdown of 2000, which culminated in a US Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to George W. Bush…”

“The main bulwark against this kind of problem is not the American political establishment, which has proven itself incapable of enacting a fair and nonpartisan electoral system befitting a mature democracy. Instead, we put our faith in the law of numbers. We should all utter the US election administrator’s prayer: “Lord, let this election not be close.”

petitioning

A phase in a campaign where organizers collect signatures to put a candidate’s name on the ballot. How many signatures are needed depends on the jurisdiction and the office sought; some states allow candidates to pay a fee instead of submitting signatures. In areas with popular initiatives, signatures are needed to put a measure on a ballot.

open primary

A primary election that allows voters to select candidates on one party’s ballot without declaring their own party affiliation.

It’s not to be confused with a blanket primary, in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest voted candidates proceed to the runoff, regardless of party affiliation.

blanket primary

A blanket primary is a primary election whereby each voter can select one candidate per office regardless of party. This primary is different from open or closed primaries, which require each ballot to only feature votes for candidates from one party.

Origins and History

In a blanket partisan primary, one candidate from each ballot-qualified party is guaranteed a spot in the general election. The terms blanket primary and jungle primary are often conflated; however, a jungle primary guarantees general election spots to the top two candidates of any party.

Supporters of the blanket primary suggest that it reduces partisanship by allowing voters to avoid party registration. Voters in a blanket primary can stay independent, nonpartisan, or unaffiliated without sacrificing their say in elections. Blanket primaries also allow voters from one party to select candidates from opposing parties as protests or out of concern about candidate qualifications.

Opponents of the blanket primary argue that primaries are selection processes dictated by parties rather than state governments. Parties are also concerned that protest voters warp the selection process, undermining voter options in the general election.

As of February 2020, no states used the blanket primary system. Three states – Alaska, California, and Washington – used this system In the 20th century. Alaska voters approved the blanket primary in 1947. In 1996, Californians approved a switch from a closed primary to a blanket primary through Proposition 198. The Washington State Legislature approved a legislatively-referred initiative authorizing the blanket primary in 1935.

The California Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom Parties sued the state to overturn Proposition 198. In 2000, a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the blanket primary was unconstitutional in California Democratic Primary v. Jones. The majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia argued that state government should not influence the intraparty selection of candidates.

Alaska abided by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, converting its 2000 primary election into a primary determined by each party. The Alaska Supreme Court previously ruled in 1996 that the blanket primary was constitutional, which was not heard by the highest court in the country. This system was briefly replaced by open primaries from 1960 to 1967 and 1992 to 1996.

The Washington State Democratic Party sued to overturn its state’s blanket primary after the California decision. A federal appeals court ruled in 2003 that the primary system was unconstitutional in compliance with California Democratic Primary v. Jones. California and Washington later moved to top-two jungle primaries for state and federal elections.

Examples

Las Vegas Review-Journal (February 4, 2020): “The proposal, which was submitted to the Nevada secretary of state’s office Friday by state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, would create a blanket primary system for partisan races in which all candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, would appear on the ballot.”

The Brookings Institution (October 10, 2014): “A central argument in favor of the blanket primary system is that it gives third-party candidates more of a chance to make it to Congress.”

The Spokesman-Review (October 22, 2004): “The majority of voters seemed peeved that the old blanket primary had been dumped, but predictions of a low turnout were overblown.”

absentee ballot

An absentee ballot is a vote cast by someone who is unable to visit the official polling place on Election Day. This type of vote is normally submitted by mail.

Increasing the ease of access to absentee ballots are seen by many as one way to improve voter turnout, though some jurisdictions require that a valid reason, such as sickness or travel, be given before a voter can participate in an absentee ballot.

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