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Pundit Roundtable: Political Innovations and Michigan

By Melanie Barnett 

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Political strategists Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter claim that America’s political system is structured to serve the interests of the Democratic and Republican Parties, not the voters. They propose changing the way America elects politicians to eliminate party from the equation.   

Detroiter hosted a roundtable convening four Michigan-based political pundits in Lansing to dissect the possible implications of Gehl and Porter’s proposed changes to elections – ranked choice voting and open, nonpartisan primaries.   

At the table was John Sellek, founder and CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs; Adrian Hemond, partner and CEO of the public affairs firm Grassroots Midwest; and Sarah Hubbard, principal at the government affairs and creative firm Acuitas.   

Brad Williams, vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber, moderated the hour-long discussion on the political innovation being implemented around the country and the politics of elections. 


BW: First of all, I want to start out by asking you this question. Is our system actually broken? Is our government not working, or is there actually hope that we could work within the system that we have to solve these problems?  

SH: I can see why some people would think it’s broken, but I can’t think of a better way to do it. I do believe that our system is the best and that has resulted in a robust exchange of ideas, freedom of speech, elections that do vary. We elect Republicans and Democrats in our regular back and forth way over the years. Before we had President Trump, we had President Obama. I don’t necessarily buy into the fact that our entire system is broken, but I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea that there are always opportunities to look at improvements. I’m certainly happy to talk about the premise, but I don’t come at it that a dictatorship, for instance, is better.   

BW: That’s a real hot take, Sarah, not being pro-dictatorship.   

JS: I’ve always seen Sarah as a dictator.   

SH: I’d love to do it if anybody would elect me.  

[Everyone laughs.]  

JS: Things may move slowly and messily, but they keep us all very busy here in Lansing or Washington. And that means that not too many people are sitting around thinking long-term what are some of the changes that can be made. And the changes that these two proposed are pretty intense. They would be a big switch. Now they are starting to happen in certain parts of the country. They are a result of people being frustrated with our institutions of government right now and I think we need to move cautiously. 

AH: I’m going to completely disagree with both of you about this. Our electoral system and the structure under which we’re governed under the U.S. Constitution [were] built for an 18th century agrarian society and a very homogenous one where women and brown people didn’t vote. The electorate was essentially white dudes. And historically, if you look at simple plurality elections, which is what we have virtually everywhere in America, those only really work in exceptionally homogenous societies, and you’re starting to see some of the breakdown in that in other societies, as they become more diverse. As Great Britain continues to get more diverse, you’re starting to see a breakdown in their political system on that basis as well.   

BW: I am so excited that we got into British elections… [Laughs.] I thought we were going to get into the weeds, I didn’t think we’d get in this deep, this quickly. I wonder, though, if we get into an election where there’s not one Republican and one Democrat, are we going to be able to effectively discern who stands for what?  

JS: When you look at the list of places where [ranked choice voting] has been instituted, it’s in urban areas, it’s in cities. For example, in New York City, we’re not really talking about much of a partisan divide. We’re really just ranging from Democrat to communist with socialists and a couple of other things in between. It becomes very difficult to differentiate between all those folks. If we applied this open primary and then ranked choice voting to Michigan’s 2018 governor’s race – money and name ID are going to be the first considerations. We’d probably see more people jumping into the primary. I don’t think that they would have an effect on winning. So you could end up with a general election that is still essentially split by partisanship.  

AH: I want to follow up on something that you said about the potential for confusion at the ballot because… it points to a broader sort of problem that neither ranked choice voting or jungle primaries really solves, which is the utter ignorance of the American electorate. Structural reforms that you make are not going to cure that problem. The American electorate, by and large, does not have a clue [where] most of these people stand on policy, it’s why the partisan heuristic is so important, right? If you know nothing about politics and you feel compelled to vote for some reason, well, the D or the R next to a person’s name gives you a decent idea of, well, this person’s probably closer to me, so I’ll flop for them. There’s certainly an argument that the voters shouldn’t be challenged any further cause they can’t handle what they’ve got. But I’m not too sympathetic to that argument.  

SH: Detroit used to be electing city council all at large, and in the primary, you’d have hundreds of people on the ballot. In the general [election] you would pick the top four, depending on the cycle. There would be candidates who would run campaigns for plunking – “don’t vote for four, just vote for one,” which is not that different from what [Katherine Gehl] is suggesting because if you plunk, that would have a very similar effect to the ranking because, in effect, you’re not voting for those other three. You’re putting all your eggs in one. Is it just that [she] wants to do it on a larger scale rather than [individual] cities? I would think that still happens in a lot of big cities around the country where again, there’s not really any parts in differentiation. So, is there anything new in Hollywood? 

JS: When I was a kid and I made a list of my top 10 Christmas presents, if I ended up with number four, I really wasn’t that happy. The idea that this will make everybody feel whole, who normally felt disenfranchised or frustrated or mad about who they were having to vote for, it’s not the reality. I don’t think we’ll meet the dreamscape that’s being painted on that front. I don’t think they’ll be happy. I think [voters will] be less unhappy. Nobody’s ever happy in politics.  

BW: A few years back, I was at a dinner with Debbie Dingell, Congresswoman from Dearborn, and this topic came up. Her fear was that if we move to a system like this where we have an open [nonpartisan] primary system, it would neuter the ability of political parties to have any sort of influence in the state. Is that a bad thing? If in fact that is true, and I think maybe it is, does the endorsement of the democratic socialists of America all of a sudden become something that is more coveted on the left? On the right, [does] the endorsement of the tea party become more coveted?   

SH: So you want to build a coalition government?  

BW: I guess that’s what I’m asking, right?  

SH: Is that where it takes us? I’d say, does the party matter at that point? Well, I think you’d see a lot of candidates trying to change their middle name to Republican or Democrat so it’s clear to the voters what their party is. I think you’d also see parties still communicate to their voters on who their preferred candidate is. So, parties would continue to matter. I think people are looking for something better by changing how people are elected or [by] changing governance. And I’m a strong believer that a change in governance by itself or a change in process by itself doesn’t change what people fundamentally think.  

AH: When you create unwinnable districts, people just start to check out, right? That’s what you see from partisans in these extremely safe districts in Michigan right now where when you’re electing a single member, you’re electing people based purely on the partisan heuristic and who they are. There are a whole bunch of people that know their vote doesn’t matter and they behave accordingly. The argument that I think these folks are trying to make is that you’re never going to get citizens to engage, to try to see the changes that they want to see in their government if they know that their vote doesn’t matter.  

JS: At least up until the current president, parties performed an important structure of filtering out and easing off on the extreme. Wildcard candidates couldn’t make it through if a well-organized party, whether it was at the county level, the state level, or the national level handled that. That’s why we had presidents like George W. Bush after we had the first George Bush and so on. What this proposal seeks to do is to blame the party structure for progress, quote unquote, being hamstrung.  

BW: I want to transition now to a “what-if” scenario. If we look back just two years ago… we had a primary election. The 13th Congressional District, that is primarily the city of Detroit, but also including some downriver suburbs, currently held by Rashida Tlaib. Is there a possibility that the general election would have been different [with ranked choice]?  

AH: I think it’s virtually impossible that she could have won [with ranked choice]. If you’re a Republican in that district, in the general election, under the current electoral system, your vote does not matter. If you have a choice of Rashida Tlaib, Brenda Jones, and Bill Wild, hey — that’s a choice. I’m a Democrat and I wouldn’t have voted for Rashida in that situation. I don’t know any Republicans that would have – you probably plunked for Bill Wild or Brenda Jones as the least-worst option. And functionally, from the perspective of a conservative, you’re absolutely correct. [Are] either of those people going to be a conservative in Congress? No, but they’re going to be a lot more conservative than Rashida.  

JS: I think [ranked choice] doesn’t anticipate what would happen as you got into agenda –  

SH: How they throw it at each other.   

JS: Right. Could the others get so annoyed with number one that they bind together to cut a deal…? 

SH: Or could number one cut a deal with the others so that they go away? The premise of what [Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter], are saying is the system is broken and this is the solution to fixing it. I don’t know how anybody could agree that that’s true. Their fix makes this more complicated, way less predictable.   

AH: Each voter’s ranking the candidates one through four on their individual ballot. The people who prefer Rashida number one are going to put Rashida down as number one, and the people who don’t are going to put somebody else as number one. Whoever comes in fourth place gets knocked off and all of their second-choice votes get a word in their first. The coordination between campaigns [doesn’t matter] all that much. 

JS: I’m not necessarily advocating for it, but something that would expand voter involvement in the way that we select our officials here…the nominating convention process, at least for the secretary of state and the attorney general, could be put out as primaries. We do it above them, but then all of our state senators and state representatives are all done at primaries and they’re going to have wider audiences. So that would be something more immediate that can be done here, or at least debated.  

AH: I think it’s a capital idea as long as the parties have to pay for them along with all the other ones. I don’t have a problem with partisan primaries under our current electoral system, they make all the sense in the world. I just have a problem with taxpayers being owed for it. 

Melanie Barnett is the editor of Detroiter magazine. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.