RI Needs to Open Up Its Party System

I see a lot of political reforms suggested, but they almost all miss a key issue: one of the very first things that needs to be addressed is our party system and how parties are created and maintained. I’ve mentioned this before, but election law in RI is hostile to third parties, unfortunately very typical of the United States. Let’s take a look at the laws that govern party formation. Specifically, something I’ve talked about before: § 17-1-2(9):

“Political party” or “party” means: (i) any political organization which, at the next preceding general election for the election of general officers, nominated a candidate for governor, and whose candidate for governor at the election polled at least five percent (5%) of the entire vote cast in the state for governor, or (ii) any political organization which at the next preceding general election for the election of a president of the United States nominated a candidate for president and whose candidate for president at the election polled at least five percent (5%) of the entire vote cast in the state for president, or (iii) any political organization which, on petition forms provided to the chairperson of the organization by the state board of elections, obtains the signatures and addresses of that number of registered qualified voters equal to five percent (5%) of the entire vote cast in the state for governor or president in the immediately preceding general election. All the signatures must be obtained no earlier than January 1 of the year in which the political organization desires to place a candidate or candidates on any ballot as a “party” candidate. If the political organization wishes to select its nominees in a primary election, the petitions, bearing the requisite number of valid signatures, shall be presented to the appropriate local boards of canvassers no later than June 1 of the same year. If the petitions are validated by the local boards as containing the requisite number of valid signatures, the political organization shall be deemed to be a political party for all elections held during the year and may select its nominees in a primary election. If the political organization does not wish to select its nominees in a primary election, then the petitions need not be returned to local boards of canvassers until August 1 of the same year. An organization qualifying as a political party through the petition process shall qualify as a political party only during the year in which signatures are obtained unless the candidates for governor or president of the United States of the party at a general election held in the year, shall receive five percent (5%) of the vote as provided in this subdivision for either governor or president of the United States. If the candidates do not receive five percent (5%) of the vote, the organization shall no longer qualify as a political party unless and until it shall, in a subsequent year, once again qualify by the submission of petitions;

This law is the single biggest barrier to competitive elections in RI. It effectively ensures that any third party must spend resources on either the race for governor or the race for president of the United States (and win at least 5% of the vote), and collect a total number of signatures that equals 5% of one of those races.

This is our 5% threshold for ballot access, and while 5% seems like just a small amount of the vote to win, it’s actually quite a feat. Since the 1990s, only two parties have actually used this route to establish themselves as a party; the Moderate Party in the leadup to the 2010 gubernatorial election, and Americans Elect in the leadup to the to the 2012 presidential election (Americans Elect disbanded before the election). Three parties have been established using the similar § 17-12-15, which allows an independent candidate to establish a party after winning 5%, to establish themselves: the Cool Moose Party in 1994 after Bob Healey won 9.08% of the vote for governor, the Reform Party in 1996 after Ross Perot won 11.20% of the vote for president, and the Green Party in 2000 after Ralph Nader won 6.12% of the vote for president.

None of these parties kept their ballot line in their next election, except for the Moderate Party which managed to survive thanks to a combination of the nearly-memeified Healey replacing their nominee at the last moment and the unpopularity of the two major party nominees (and also a questionable intervention by the State Board of Elections to allow Healey on the ballot).

Down ballot, as best I can tell, only three people have ever been elected on a third party line in the state: two Cool Moose Party town councilors in Hopkinton in 1996 and David Segal to Providence City Council as a Green in 2002. Tony Jones (usually a Libertarian) served as the Moderate Party’s sole ever officeholder, after a resignation elevated him to North Kingstown School Committee.

So what does all this tell us? That creating and maintaining a formal party is incredibly difficult. The 5% threshold is deceptively low. Certainly, it’s not insurmountable, but it’s also not sustainable. §17-1-2(9) forces any potential third party into a race it is unlikely to have a realistic of chance of winning; that of governor or president. It means a third party can’t do the work of building up its bench by starting small in local races or attempting to bring a third force to the General Assembly, they have to go for a big race to keep their status. This is virtually a guarantee that no party other than the Republicans or Democrats (who have a national campaign infrastructure) will last more than a few cycles.

Worse is that it means at the municipal level, parties aren’t allowed to form to tackle the issues unique to the municipalities. What happens instead is that some towns form weird pseudo-parties, like the anti-tax Charlestown Citizens Alliance, the right-wing Tiverton Taxpayers Association, or the Independent Men in Scituate. But these don’t get to be formal parties, and whatever successes they have don’t go to support a broader political organization.

What’s to Be Done?

RI needs to rewrite what qualifies a group as a political party. The entire 5% threshold needs to be scrapped. One way to do this would be to follow the United Kingdom’s relatively simple process: appoint party officers, establish how your finances will be handled, have a constitution or by-laws for the party, and pay the processing fee. Rhode Island pretty much already requires these sorts of disclosures from political parties, so in our case it would be a relatively simple process of just checking the party name didn’t come into conflict with an existing party. Failing to contest elections with candidates can lead to the UK’s Electoral Commission deregistering the party, and I see no reason why RI couldn’t adopt a similar way of determining a party’s active status.

If your complaint is that that sort of process is too easy, that’s kind of the point. The goal is to allow parties to form. The current law was clearly written entirely with the goal of preventing that basic facet of democracy: the emergence of parties. It ensconces both the Republican and Democratic Parties, not by the virtues of their governing program and its popularity at the state level, but as a result of having a massive national apparatus.

If your complaint is that this would allow small parties to potentially siphon votes away from larger parties and create a spoiler effect, yes this is a valid fear. However, this has to be a price we’re willing to pay; the argument that people shouldn’t be able to vote for whatever party they want because it could mean another party loses the election is an inherently undemocratic argument – it’s sacrificing freedom for a particular strategic interest. But I think this fear of a spoiler effect is also somewhat overblown.

Rather than spoilers, what is more likely to occur is that many of our elected officials will face opposition in the general election, and new electoral formations will arise. For instance, there is no inherent reason that northern Rhode Island couldn’t see a centrist party form with a strong focus on regional matters. You could imagine a similar party forming in South County. And you can imagine those parties entering into an electoral pact to win statewide.

Likewise, we could see explicitly socialist and left-wing parties arising in the state’s cities (and some progressive communities), providing an alternative to the domination of the Democratic Party. It’s possible that within our Bay communities, a Green program could also see some electoral gains. We can then imagine a Red-Green alliance start contesting seats across the state.

This wouldn’t happen overnight, but right now the process towards building up to those sorts of developments is prevented outright by §17-1-2(9).

This Must Be Accompanied by X Other Reform…

When I suggest this reform to people with more power or influence than I have, they usually say something like “well, but only with such-and-such an electoral system.” So I need to speak to this and say, that viewpoint is wrong. This reform is entirely standalone. You don’t need to do anything else. Fusion voting, proportional representation, instant runoffs, regular runoffs… none of these are necessary for this reform to be done.

I am a well-documented supporter of electoral reform. But party legalization is far more important, and doesn’t need the former to be effective. People need the option right now to vote for other parties, regardless of how they do it. Instant runoff and proportional systems cannot guarantee a multiparty democracy as long as the threshold interferes, and the lack of more than two parties would render those reforms nearly pointless.

This should be a small and relatively unimportant change; it seems like it should be uncontroversial to do so. The very fact that it’s not suggests to me that a lot of powerful people instinctually understand how important this law is for the maintenance of power. I can’t imagine most voters care a lick how parties are created and stay on the ballot. But parties care quite a lot, and the current system benefits the existing parties tremendously.

Why This First?

A key part of any democracy is the transfer of power. But a transfer of power can only really occur when parties can rise and fall. § 17-1-2(9) effectively eliminates the threat that any third party will rise for very long, and effectively eliminates the threat that the Democratic and Republican Parties can fall. This has resulted in a ossified political system. Change in policy doesn’t necessarily come because of political outcomes at the ballot box, it comes from internal maneuvering within the Democratic Party.

Case in point, the defeat of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello ushered in a flurry of more progressive legislating under his successor. Now, you might argue that this proves that, in fact, our leaders do respond to electoral politics. But if that was the case, the result would not have been progressive legislation. The defeat of the incumbent de facto party leader by a Republican should’ve been more likely to prevent progressive legislation. The change was that the new Speaker Joseph Shekarchi is simply a more liberal person than Mattiello is. This is personality-driven change in policymaking, not an electorally-driven one.

Voters under the existing system are not asked to vote on parties’ proposed policies. They are asked to vote on individual candidates. But this doesn’t mean parties don’t matter; indeed, the critique is that many voters blindly vote for Democrats regardless of the candidate’s policy positions; when they have a choice at all. This is partly true, and instead of portraying this as a flaw on the part of voters we should instead acknowledge it as a structural flaw with our political system. Parties provide a much-needed shorthand for voters, and really, what is the point of learning about your representative or senator’s policy positions if they face no primary and no general election?

Allowing other parties to form and contest elections in November would help voters make real choices about the direction of the state’s policymaking. Faced with a choice in their vote, they would have to decide about what sort of policies they support at both the party level and individual candidate level. Most voters would likely stick with what they know. But not all would, and it wouldn’t take a lot to have serious policy impacts; with the current party balance in the General Assembly, only nine Senate seats or sixteen House seats are needed to prevent passage of a budget. That’s a workable goal for parties of the left or the center trying to win policy concessions.

Finally, legalizing parties isn’t just good for choice in a democracy, it helps us think about other systems of election and whether we are best served by the current system. As this a new party system builds up steam, as parties begin to make their impact, it may well become apparent that a plurality election system presents too many problems for us (as more parties contest the general election, it will make voting take longer, and the spoiler effect will start to become real). We may want to shift towards a proportional electoral system or a run-off one. We may start seeing municipalities revise their charters first.

We misdiagnose the issues of our state’s democracy when we focus entirely on how we elect people, and not who we are electing. We need to first fix this fatal flaw in the foundation of our state’s democracy.

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