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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Trenton Miller: Candidate gamesmanship demonstrates need for election reform

Trenton Miller

For many of the citizens of Washington’s 4th Legislative District, the hour before this year’s candidate filing deadline may have felt like any other Friday afternoon. For the candidates who are hoping to represent these citizens, however, a shell game of strategic filings was playing out.

The bait and switch begins with Matt Shea, an embattled incumbent who currently holds the seat of State Representative Position 1. Prior to the filing deadline, he had resisted calls to resign, and had made no real public statements regarding plans to step down. Lining up to oppose him were ex-representative and fellow Republican Leonard Christian as well as Spokane Valley nurse practitioner and Democrat Lori Feagan. Running for the district’s State Representative Position 2 were incumbent and Shea ally Bob McCaslin and previous Spokane Valley City Council Candidate Lance Gurel. This was how things appeared to be at 3 p.m. that day.

By 4 p.m. however, the landscape had shifted completely. With 13 minutes left before the deadline, Bob McCaslin filed for Matt Shea’s position, presumably knowing that Shea did not intend to file for re-election. At roughly the same time, Rob Chase, former Spokane County Treasurer and another Shea ally, who up to this point had been publicly campaigning to run against Cathy McMorris Rodgers for Congress, instead filed for McCaslin’s old seat. Finally, with one minute left before the deadline, Leonard Christian dropped his filing for Position 1 and filed to run against Chase and Gurel for position 2.

Presumably, this was all carried out to strategically align candidates with the opponents they felt they had the best chance of beating. That’s fair game under our current political system; in fact, we invite candidates to behave this way, because current state law requires them to arbitrarily pick one of two posted positions when they file.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if the voters in Washington’s 4th Legislative District were free to just elect the two best candidates to represent them in Olympia? A simple change to state law can eliminate the requirement that candidates run by posted positions, and instead let voters use a ranked-choice ballot to elect two winners, no constitutional amendment needed. Voters would get a ballot listing all of the candidates running for House in District 4, and they would rank as many choices as they like. This would ensure a much more proportional outcome, and the two candidates with the broadest support would be elected.

What might the outcome of this look like? Well, in districts like the 4th District, which in recent years has exclusively been represented by Republicans, you might instead see an election outcome of one conservative Republican holding a position, and either a conservative Democrat or liberal Republican holding the other. Similarly, we might expect to see the Democratic stronghold of District 3 instead be represented by both a liberal Democrat and either a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat. This distinction may seem subtle, but it can go miles in ensuring citizens are adequately represented by their elected officials. Right now, if you are a conservative in the 3rd District, who can you rely upon to champion your cause? Similarly, if you are a liberal in the 4th, who can you expect to be an effective advocate for you?

Candidates would benefit from this kind of change as well. Rather needing to play political calculus about which seat is best to run for, they could instead be spending their time earning the votes of their presumed constituents.

This is called multiwinner Ranked Choice Voting, and it is a proven way to vote. It is used today for city councils in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Eastpointe, Michigan – and under consideration in several other jurisdictions, including Yakima County, Washington. It can be used for any elected body, such as a city or county council, a state legislature, and even the U.S. House of Representatives (check out the Fair Representation Act).

The flaw with our current winner take all system is that by simply gaining 51% of the vote share, we are handing representatives 100% of the power. Meanwhile, the other 49% of us are left to wait until the next election, hoping that maybe this time, we can finally get our opportunity to be represented.

Trenton Miller is a Spokane chapter lead of FairVote Washington, a statewide organization advocating for election reform and Ranked Choice Voting.

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