Katherine Gregg for the The Providence Journal
PROVIDENCE - A new year, a familiar question: Should Rhode Island scrap its Republican and Democratic primaries?
This year the question is being asked by one group urging "serious consideration" by state lawmakers of alternatives to the status quo, such as this:
Have a single ballot, "non-partisan primary election" where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. The candidate who receives the majority of votes in the general election is elected.
The group pushing for reforms includes former R.I. Supreme Court Justice and GOP activist Robert Flanders; the former head of the state Democratic Party, Guy Dufault; University of Rhode Island Political Science Prof. Maureen Moakley; Gary Sasse, the founding director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, and one-time Journal editorial writer Robert Whitcomb, among others.
Their hope and belief?
"Party affiliations may become less relevant, and voters may have less incentives to affiliate with political parties. This in turn may mitigate the hyper partisanship that plagues today’s political system," the group said in a report out Wednesday afternoon.
What does the report say?
Their report — titled the "People's Primary" — begins with this premise: Rhode Island's current Republican and Democratic primary system is a problem that needs to be fixed.
"Since there is no such thing as a “perfect” election system, reforms must be weighed with the understanding that principled trade-offs may be necessary," they state.
The most basic problem in their eyes: the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter how small a slice of the vote he or she may have in a multi-candidate race.
"This is problematic in any state dominated by one party, where a candidate in a multi-field primary can effectively win public office with 35% of the votes, or less, and then not face a competitive opponent in the general election," their report says.
Among their observations:
"Although turnout can vary from year-to-year depending upon factors such as the timing of presidential and statewide primaries or the retirement of an incumbent, participation in the Ocean State primary elections is generally dismal.
"In 2020, for instance, 521,185 ballots were cast in the statewide general election while only 93,033 voters, or 17.9% of those who participated in the general election, cast a vote in the statewide primary."
How does RI's election system work now?
The Rhode Island Constitution says: "In all elections held by the people for state, city, town, ward or district officers, the person or candidate receiving the largest number of votes cast shall be declared elected."
According to John Marion, the executive director of the citizens' group Common Cause:
"Our current system, sometimes called first past the post ... was put into our Constitution in the 1880s after five consecutive gubernatorial elections failed to produce a majority winner and therefore resulted in the General Assembly picking the governor."
The Constitution does not, however, dictate how the Republican and Democratic parties conduct their own primary elections to choose nominees for the November general election.
The way it works now: unaffiliated voters − also called independents − represent the largest bloc of voters, and they can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary on primary day, and disaffiliate again on their way out the door.
As recently as 2021, state Rep. Arthur Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, led a fight for change.
At that point, 10 states already required a candidate to win a primary with a majority of the votes. When that doesn't happen, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont require runoff elections under differing circumstances.
Under Corvese's proposal: There would be a preliminary election "for all state and municipal offices ... to determine the candidates that qualify to run in the general election." The top two vote-getters for each office would then compete against each other in the general election, regardless of their party affiliations.
Steve Frias, the state's National Republican Committeeman, voiced the GOP's concerns: "In a state like Rhode Island where the number of registered Democrats far exceeds the number of registered Republicans, the two candidates in the general election would likely be Democrats ... [and] a large segment of voters who vote for Republicans in November would be denied of a real choice in the general election."
State Chairwoman Sue Cienki predicted: "Third party or independents almost would never appear on the November ballot."
Corvese's bill went nowhere. The report out Wednesday revives the debate that is also the subject of a Senate study. And Dufault, the long-time Democratic strategist and consultant, told reporters on a Zoom call:
"We all know the definition of insanity and the Republican Party has just not thrived... In fact, they've starved in the present system. I think quite frankly it will be such an improvement to the system, it will raise the vote of the Republicans and quite frankly, raise the amount of people participating in the process."
"If anybody should be upset, it's probably the Democrats," he said, "because... they're the ones who have been the beneficiaries of a system that's been broken in their favor."
What are the proposed alternatives for primary elections in Rhode Island?
OPTION 1: The top two vote-getters in a non-partisan primary move on to the general election.
The report cites a public opinion poll conducted for the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership inMay 2022 that found that 59% of Rhode Island’s registered voters favored adopting a single primary,while 27% opposed it.
The group said this option should "be given serious consideration'' by state lawmakers this year at least, in part, because "Rhode Island’s [current] semi-closed primary system is not 'user friendly' ... [in that it requires] unaffiliated voters (who are over 40% of registered voters in our state) ... to register as a party member in order to vote in a partisan primary."
"Proponents [of a non-partisan primary] believe the top two system will entice candidates who are less partisan, less ideologically rigid and more 'pragmatic' to run because they will see the format as giving them a better chance to compete. Skeptics counter that this may not occur because it will remain difficult to encourage such candidates to run."
OPTION 2: The four top vote-getters in an "initial round" advance to the general election, with the winner determined by "ranked choice," which would require the tabulation of voters' first, second, third and fourth place preferences until one of the candidates amasses a majority.
After listing the potential benefits, the authors of the report acknowledge: ranked choice voting is more complicated than voting for one candidate and "There are concerns that the voting populace will not be properly educated about the new system," which could in turn "bring into question potential participation inequities."
They also cited the 2010 mayoral race in Oakland, California as a caution. It took 10 rounds of tallying to declare a winner. The ultimate winner received less than a quarter of first-place votes with a 1.9% margin of victory.
OPTION 3: Move to "open primaries" where voters can choose "one party’s ballot and vote in that party’s primary without being affiliated with the party."
The authors suggest: "An open primary may be more consistent with today’s political realities, particularly in Rhode Island, where unaffiliated or independent voters predominate in what is effectively a strong one-party state."
The arguments for and against: "Politically, open primaries could also moderate political choices by allowing centrists in one party an opportunity to vote for a candidate in another party’s primary that they find to be more acceptable. [But] skeptics contend that open primaries weaken political parties, and leaves the nominating process vulnerable to manipulation by permitting partisans to vote for the other party’s weaker candidate (as pundits say happened in Rhode Island in 1976)."