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SC Forwardists in the News About Electoral Reform

The State, 
June 6, 2024

Opinion: Four election reforms that would expand voter choice and chip away at incumbency


Elected officials always seem happy to deal with voting reform — the systems and processes through which we cast votes. But they avoid electoral reform. Legislators just don’t want to deal with the issue of who we get to vote for — a far more important matter.

Once elected, officials mostly want to stay elected. And they do, most of the time, because the electoral systems in most states and nationally favor incumbents.

The Council of State Governments studied incumbency after the 2022 elections. Of the winners, 67% were incumbents; only 4% of incumbents lost a competitive race. Party didn’t matter. Republican incumbents won 85% of their races, Democratic incumbents 83%. Incumbent independents won 75% of their races, and incumbents won in a whopping 91% of nonpartisan contests.

This has been the case overwhelmingly in Congress dating back to at least 1964, according to Once you’re in, you’re in.

Why is incumbency such an advantage? Political party backing, name recognition and fundraising. But the most significant edge is the redistricting process: In most of the U.S., officeholders get to choose their voters instead of the other way around.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more independent commissions and courts drew congressional districts than ever before in the latest redistricting cycle, but congressional districts were drawn wholly or mostly along party lines in 26 states, providing great opportunity for political bias and gerrymandering across the U.S.

Redistricting, while the largest factor, is not the only thing protecting incumbency. The dominance of two primary political parties carries huge weight, mostly by restricting voter choice. Open primaries, in which voters vote for candidates regardless of party, have been effective in broadening choice somewhat. While generally slow to adopt reforms, South Carolina is ahead of the pack, permitting voters to cast a vote in any party’s primary. But nationally, only 20 states permit open primaries for congressional and state-level offices.

Third parties are another alternative, but only a few qualify for ballot access. To qualify for ballot placement, a party must typically meet stringent requirements set by state legislatures. The roadblocks — legislatively inspired — are significant.

Reforms would expand voter choice and perhaps chip away at the granite wall of incumbency.

Instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked choice voting) has the potential to attract a wider swath of candidates, and the ability to limit the power of narrow-base candidates. It allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference: first, second, third and so forth. That produces greater choice for voters, provides for more representative outcomes and serves to discourage negative campaigning. There is also an economic benefit since it eliminates the need for runoff elections and their associated costs.

None of these alternatives — independent redistricting, open primaries, third parties or instant-runoff voting — have received much support by those who get to decide. But the tide may be changing. Is South Carolina shifting with it?

Last October, the Forward Party of SC qualified for ballot access; the relatively new third party has also qualified in Colorado, Florida and Utah and hopes to be on ballots in all 50 states by 2025. And while the SC House didn’t act on it, lawmakers held a hearing last session on H.4022, which would have allowed municipal instant-runoff voting.

A tally on Ballotpedia shows 17 states use some form of instant-runoff voting and another state authorizes it but does not use it while 10 ban it and 22 don’t address it with any laws. The savings of using instant-runoff voting could be substantial. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates the savings in New York City alone would be $13 million.

There is the potential for a great deal more political change. The time is right. According to Gallup, more voters have identified as independents than as either Republicans or Democrats since 2012. In April, 45% of those polled identified as independents, 27% as Republicans and 25% as Democrats.

Will our legislators respond at last?

Newton is a Realtor. Hooper is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and a retired businessman. Both are members of the Beaufort County Committee of the Forward Party; Newton chairs it.

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