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Will Oregon Answer Gehl's Call to Action?
It is hard to imagine that we could avoid a revolt if the average voter understood the fact that public money perpetuates the duopoly primary system.
Political commentators Ben Bowman and Alex Titus recently had a conversation with one of the nation’s most important thought leaders on their Oregon Bridge Podcast. Getting to spend significant time with Katherine Gehl was a laudable feat for these young Oregonians. Gehl partnered with Harvard professor Michael Porter to write on the failure of the two-party system to allow for healthy competition, resulting in a lack of good governance and policy successes. Their white paper, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America,” is a worthwhile read for anyone looking for a better democracy. The fact that Gehl spent time with this Oregon 360 podcast gives me hope that Oregon can continue to attract attention and resources as a lab for better governance.
It’s worth diving deeper into the work of Gehl to understand the growing support for bold reforms. Gehl and Porter added to their scholarship and call for democratic innovation by publishing “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.” Then, Gehl took her work beyond the page and started the Institute for Political Innovation (IPI), where she serves as Executive Director and Chief Spokesperson. IPI and Gehl are presently advocating for a Final Five open primary system by launching grassroots campaigns in states around the nation. As someone interested in reform, I was pleased to see Bowman and Titus share Gehl’s work through an Oregon platform.
In their book, Gehl and Porter argue that the American political system is working exactly how it is designed to work, and it isn't designed or optimized today to work to produce good policy and law. While many believe that our political system is a public institution with high-minded principles and impartial rules derived from the Constitution, in reality, it has become a private industry dominated by a textbook duopoly—the Democrats and the Republicans—and plagued and perverted by unhealthy competition between those two players. Tragically, our democracy has therefore become incapable of delivering solutions to America's key economic and social challenges. In fact, there's virtually no connection between our political leaders solving problems and getting reelected, the necessary goal of every politician. Gehl and Porter outline this argument in more detail, so be sure to give the podcast a listen and their book a read.
Using the business competition lens that Porter first developed at Harvard, Gehl and Porter clearly illustrate how we are failing to get good results as a byproduct of both an unfair election system and a set of rules determining how our legislators operate, encouraging loyalty over thoughtfulness. Not only do the duo nail describing the problem, they also offer several ways forward. What’s more, their bracing assessment and practical recommendations cut through the endless debate about various proposed fixes. Gehl and Porter acknowledge the appeal of term limits and campaign finance reform, but point out that these sorts of solutions cannot be expected to work unless we adopt true electoral and operational change.
Bowman and Titus, who openly operate from opposite sides of the liberal/conservative divide, respectively, did a good job of challenging Gehl in their podcast as to whether her advocacy for political innovation was just another cry for “moderation,” which in their view may simply result in conversations in the “squishy middle,” where no bold radical ideas are likely to emerge. Gehl, however, did an equally good job of explaining that innovation actually arises from the fringe, and by creating more political competition, nuanced reforms can challenge the mainstream of both parties and therefore gain traction.
Gehl’s group is currently focused on opening elections to all voters and all politicians. This is a long overdue call to action. Non-affiliated now outnumber members of either party in most jurisdictions, and those voters are essentially left out of choosing our leaders. That’s why Gehl’s prioritization of electoral reform makes sense. Essentially the IPI’s proposal is that all elections should start with an open primary that narrows the field to five and using some form of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in the general election.
By preventing the two major parties from evading meaningful competition thanks to closed primaries, Final Five voting can eventually build entire legislatures of officials forced to change their voting behavior. Breaking the back of the partisan caucuses does not necessarily eliminate parties, nor should it, but the process by which leadership of legislative bodies are chosen, and the likelihood of true, thoughtful, nuanced policy work would be greatly enhanced by forcing elected officials through a more representative vetting process. It is hard to imagine that we could avoid a revolt if the average voter understood the fact that public money perpetuates the duopoly primary system, and that our tax dollars fund “caucuses” that exist almost exclusively to ensure that their members get re-elected.
With successful electoral innovation happening in such diverse places as the City of New York, the state of Alaska, and even 24 cities in Utah, all of which have open primary RCV processes as examples of successful citizen initiatives, perhaps it is time that Oregon once again steps up as a leader of good governance with its own recognition that more than 1/3 of us are currently left out of the democratic process.
Rich Vial is a former Oregon State Legislator, former Deputy Secretary of State and founder of the law firm Vial-Fotheringham, LLC. He provided legal assistance to hundreds of Homeowner Associations throughout the West for four decades and has always had a passion for how communities organize and govern effectively.