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Believe in Democracy, But Don't Be Complacent

Lee Rasch | Published on 11/27/2022

The 2022 midterm election cycle in Wisconsin is completed. For many, it has been an exhausting stretch of political attack ads on traditional and social media, to say nothing about the campaign flyers that fill our mailbox. Having had an opportunity to reflect, here are a few takeaways from the 2022 midterm elections.

In an election that had many worried about vigilante poll monitors and the potential for danger for election workers, voting in Wisconsin on election day seems to have gone off without any major incidents. Some of the races were decided by a very slim margin, yet no challenges alleging fraud have been made.

Many of the ads in this election cycle warned of the dire consequences if the other political party wins. Despite the intense “party versus party” attack ads, there is solid evidence that many people spilt their votes between candidates of both major political parties. For example, consider the results in Wisconsin’s major statewide races. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) had 1,336,870 votes compared with 1,268,203 for gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels (R). Likewise, senate candidate Mandela Barnes (D) had 1,310,416 votes compared with 1,358,662 for Gov. Tony Evers (D).

n other words, a number of people split their ballot and voted for Johnson and Evers. A similar pattern was evident for statewide positions in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Georgia. Voters were able to discern their beliefs regarding what they felt was best. Whether you agree or disagree with the outcomes, American democratic practices were being challenged in 2022, and they withstood the challenge.

Of course, the threats to our democratic principles have not gone away and are likely to be stronger in 2024. Consider the impact of growing misinformation and dramatic increases in unregulated campaign spending. 2022 was by far the most expensive election ever held in Wisconsin. And the majority of the expenditures on ads were divisive.

Leading up to the November 2022 election, Wisconsin had 3,534,794 people registered. This compared to 3,252,407 people registered in the last midterm election in 2018 … an increase of nearly 300,000 people. Yet the total number of Wisconsinites who actually voted in 2022 decreased from 2018. It raises the question whether the relentless negative advertising was a turn off for a number of voters … a form of voter suppression.

The data appears to support this possibility. In 2021, Pew Research conducted a study on the political typology of Americans. They determined that 15% of American voters can be described as “stressed sideliners.” The people in this group may “lean” Republican or “lean” Democrat. What they hold in common is their frustration with the political process. This is the group most likely to stay home on Election Day, which is apparently what happened in Wisconsin. With this in mind, the expensive divisiveness of the long campaign season should not be considered to be the “price of democracy.” It is actually the cost of the erosion of democracy.

At the national level, one bright spot in this election involved the electoral process reforms in Alaska and Nevada. In Final Five Voting (FFV), partisan primaries are replaced by a single-ballot open primary in which the top five finishers from the primary advance to the general election. This process significantly reduces the prospect of an incumbent being “primaried.” With FFV, legislators are accountable to the majority of the November electorate, rather than the small sample of voters who participate in party primaries. In the FFV general election process, an instant runoff is used to narrow the field of five until one candidate with majority support wins.

In places where the instant runoff approach is in place, it has served as a deterrent to excessive attack ads since candidates now need people to vote for them, not just against the one other candidate. With the Final Five Voting model in place, legislators are incentivized to work across the aisle … a process that is needed in addressing the most serious and complex issues of today.

On Nov. 8, the citizens in Nevada voted in support of a ballot issue, Yes on 3, to use Final Five Voting for state and federal elections. By state law, if this ballot issue is approved again in 2024, it will become part of the state’s constitution. Note that leaders in both political parties initially opposed this issue, a sign that many political leaders are primarily interested in protecting the current process … one that is not working for citizens.

Meanwhile, Alaska used this process (they call it Final-Four Voting) for the first time in 2022. The attempt to “primary” Sen. Murkowski in retaliation for her vote to impeach Donald Trump did not succeed in the primary election. And at the state level, a member of the problem-solving governing majority in the state legislature was able to win back her seat, after being primaried last cycle for compromising too often.

These events should be encouraging. Voters from around the country are taking action for electoral process reform. In Wisconsin, bipartisan legislation to approve Final Five Voting for federal positions was introduced in 2021. A hearing was held but the issue did not come up for a vote.

So here’s where we, as citizens, can step in. Final Five Voting will not solve all of the problems we face in our political process. But it is a serious step forward.

We should not sit on the sidelines with this issue. The Final Five Voting bill will be re-introduced (and publicly announced) in early 2023. At that point, our voice will play a critical role in bringing this legislation up for a vote, starting with a call to our state senator and Assembly representative.

If this re-introduced legislation passes both the Senate and the Assembly, and is signed by the governor, it will become law. We can help to make that happen, to give our legislators the freedom to do the difficult work of governing.

Business leader Katherine Gehl of the Final Five Voting Fund states, “The Yes on 3 campaign was an effort by Nevadans, for Nevadans. Credit goes to the in-state team who have been working since 2021 to build a winning coalition, against all odds.” In Nevada, the citizens’ views prevailed.