FairVote chair Krist Novoselic makes key point about rights of association in candidacy

by Rob Richie // Published June 17, 2009
One of the great pleasures for me at FairVote is working with our board chair Krist Novoselic. Krist was introduced to most Americans through his work as a bassist in the band Nirvana, but I've known him through his actions and writing as a committed, thoughtful reformer. He still enjoys and plays music (witness his recent role as a bassist in Flipper), but spends most of his time engaging in political work and in writing and speaking about fair elections and ranked choice voting (aka instant runoff voting and choice voting). His 2004 book Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy makes a terrific case for reforming our poltics -- it's a great read for the beach and classroom.

(And, ahem, I also highly recommend Krist's letter co-authored with me about how every new donor to FairVote will have their donation doubled if made by July 4th, Independence Day -- check it out!)

This month, Krist pursued a brilliant strategy to draw attention to flaws in Washington State's new "top two" system (one mistakenly called by some "open primary" system when in fact it is an unconditional runoff with a preliminary round followed by a final vote among the two  top finishers in the preliminaries). In the wake of a 2004 ballot measure and a 2008 Supreme Court ruling upholding the measure, the Washington State legislature has become a nonpartisan body. As candidates, its representatives were able to share with voters their link to a private association (typically one of the political parties in the form of something like "prefers Republican Party," although Republican Dino Rossi in 2008 decided to say "prefers GOP party," likely in order to obscure to some his identity as a Republican), but the association doesn't have any say in whether that candidate speaks for them. In other words, a modern-day Adolf Hitler could come to Washington and choose to run as a Democrat, and the Democrats couldn't legally do anything about it even if he won office in their name.

Emphasizing the point that Washington's political parties are now empty vessels, when a seat becomes vacant in the Washington state legislature, the parties no longer have the power to fill it because they have no legal connection to the vacating legislator. As I argued in a post earlier this year, Washington's top two system as currently constructed is particularly problematic in how it narrows the field to two for every seat nearly three months before the general election -- and typically keeps all independents and candidates associated with third parties off the November ballot. Indeed all candidates associated with one of the major parties can be kept off the November ballot, as happened a few years ago in Louisiana in what otherwise would  have been a highly competitive congressional election between major party candidates. (As an aside, I would be open to a top two system in which parties maintained their rights as associations and runoffs were very close to the first round, essentially making both rounds like a general election as in France, but hope other states do not follow Washington's flawed model.)

Three weeks ago Krist filed to run for clerk in his home of Wahkiakum County, choosing as his association "prefers Grange Party." The Grange is an influential organization in Washington with a respected identity -- and one that is firmly nonpartisan and doesn't endorse candidates. But as his local Grangemaster, Krist chose to highlight his connection - even though he could have expressed the same preference without having any connection whatsoever to the Grange.

Washington State media and some national press feasted on the story, with thoughtful discussions of Krist's candidacy in such publications as the Seattle Times, Spokane Spokesman Review and The Olympian and news coverage from the Associated Press and various state publications. Paul Jacob zeroed in on Krist's candidacy in his syndicated commentary in Town Hall. Krist himself covered his candidacy comprehensively with six posts at his Seattle Weekly blog.

With his point made, Krist last week removed himself from the race. He cares about local government, but is focused on reforming the rules to respect every vote and every voice -- and the rights of every association.