I’m a little dismayed to see anti-democratic arguments from Prof. Maureen Moakley and Scott Mackay. Here’s the quote from Moakley on Friday’s Political Roundtable (starts at around the 6:24 mark)
…I wonder… you know we should have a more restrictive system so that people can’t just jump in as independents. I think it creates an issue.
MacKay says something similar in his most recent Commentary, but also mixes in a second argument about candidates earning less than 50% of the vote:
Some argue that multi-candidate elections are good because they give voters a spectrum of choices. But there is a downside to allowing anyone with a pulse to run. The last two governors –Chafee and Raimondo—both won with less than 41 percent. Maybe it’ [sic] time to tighten the requirements for competing for governor.
That second argument echoes what he said on Political Roundtable:
Well, one of things we’re gonna see in this gubernatorial campaign is very simple: there’s so many players right now you need a program and the good news is you give everybody a choice that way. And everybody gets their say. The downside is, of course, yet another governor – the possibility of yet another governor elected with far less than 50% of the vote and no real consensus among voters.
Both MacKay and Moakley have been in their fields longer than I have been alive, so I fully bow to their expertise. But an argument to make the requirements for joining the race for governor more stringent seems to be treating the symptom rather than tackling the underlying problem.
First, I can’t see how you can justify targeting only independents under Moakley’s proposal without opening yourself up to a First Amendment challenge that you’re restricting candidates’ freedom of association.
MacKay is somewhat vaguer about what restrictions he would like to see, so I wonder what he finds is too loose about the current system. To run for governor, you must be a qualified elector, not currently be serving a felony sentence or a misdemeanor sentence of over six months of jail time (if you have, you need to be 3 years past the end of your parole or probation), and collect 1000 signatures from voters. This may not seem like much, but it’s the most stringent requirement to serve in Rhode Island’s state or federal offices (tied with the requirements for U.S. Senator).
So let’s talk about the other side of this, MacKay’s argument that voters lack consensus with large fields of general election candidates and that there is somehow a “downside” of that.
MacKay appears to be referencing voter mandates, which is (roughly) the idea that a large enough win suggests the winning candidate has the support of voters to do what they want. The problem is, as Prof. Julia Azari points out, is that mandates (at least at the national level) are ephemeral at best, lasting maybe a month or so before evaporating.
There’s no evidence that Gov. Raimondo is behaving any differently than she would’ve had she won 50% of the vote or even 80%. Indeed, given the recent poll numbers, she would seem to have shifted neither left nor right to gain support. And to be honest, it does not seem to have affected how she has crafted budgets or managed her administration – or how legislators have treated her administration.
The graph above shows that recent years aren’t particularly exceptional. Yes, if all the parties with a ballot line each run a candidate, and all the independents currently expressing interest in the race stay in until November, it is theoretically possible to win with something like 16.7% of the vote. But in reality, voters are going to largely stick with the big two parties that have a national presence. How much Matt Brown and Joe Trillo and Luis-Daniel Muñoz and even the eventual Moderate Party nominee matter will probably effect somewhere between 10% and 30% of the vote; enough to make a difference, but not enough to say that the major parties don’t have a lock over the lion’s share of the voters.
If you are concerned about mandates, or at least about ensuring that the candidate elected receives votes from the majority of voters, then the obvious thing to do is support state Rep. Blake Fillippi’s constitutional amendment to institute instant-runoff voting (IRV). While I have a long history of supporting IRV, I’m also not blind to its flaws. However, in this specific instance, it’s very good at solving this specific issue.
But it makes no sense to me to suggest restricting how many candidates can reach the ballot. Such suggestions don’t seem like turning back the clock to the 1990s or the 1960s, so much as the 1840s when Rhode Island remained a bastion of the property requirement for voting.
There are two things the preponderance of candidates signals to me. First, that both Raimondo and Fung are not the best candidates their parties could be producing (if they were quality candidates, one or both would be running over 45%), and if they are, well, that brings me to my second point. Rhode Island is not being well-served by its major parties. There is room beyond them, to both the Democrats’ left and the Republicans’ right and possibly in-between and in directions that are not well served by the left-right spectrum. Rhode Island’s leaders in both parties should take steps to recognize this, because at some point, that reality is going to sweep them away.