R.I. primary reform debate reemerges in 2023 legislative session

CALLS TO reform Rhode Island primaries have resurfaced in the 2023 legislative session after a series of crowded, competitive primaries in the fall. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MIKE SKORSKI PROVIDENCE

The series of crowded, September state and local primaries that crowned victors with less than 50% of the vote reignited calls for voting reform in Rhode Island.

But how to make Rhode Island elections more competitive and democratic, and when those changes should happen, depends who you ask.

Sen. Samuel Zurier, D-Providence, whose 2022 resolution recently kicked off the start of a special commission studying ways to improve Rhode Island state primaries, says more voter education and discussion is needed before making major changes. Zurier also introduced a bill last year to use ranked-choice voting for Rhode Island General Assembly primary races, but the proposal stalled in committee.

“It was clear to me last year that this is a new concept,” Zurier said. “You couldn’t expect legislation to be passed immediately without a lot of voter education.”

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But a bipartisan group of state leaders and political analysts are pushing to reform the state’s primaries now, ahead of the 2024 election. The People’s Primary group earlier this month published a white paper recommending several ways to make Rhode Island primaries more competitive and democratic. Specifically, the group suggested a nonpartisan primary in which the top two or top four vote-getters advance to the general election, with ranked-choice voting used in the top four scenario. The third option was open primaries, in which voters can participate in a party’s primary without being affiliated with that primary.

The paper does not specify which of the three reforms the group prefers.

“Our goal was to lay out options,” said Gary Sasse, a member and the executive director of Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership. “We see this as a beginning to the process to fix the system.”

But at the same time, Sasse expressed a “sense of urgency” in passing legislation this session, thinking there was a better chance of success in a nonelection year.

And making changes this year could ensure that the 2024 primaries avoid the pitfalls of elections past, including the 2022 elections, in which Gov. Daniel J. McKee and Mayor Brett Smiley won their primaries with 33% and 42% of the vote, respectively.

A similar scenario unfolded in Zurier’s first Senate victory; he won the five-way special primary election in October 2021 with 31% of the vote and only 17% turnout. The lack of consensus around his candidacy weighed heavily on him.

“More than two-thirds of voters preferred someone else, and I don’t think that’s a good exercise in democratic majority rule,” he said.

Zurier’s resolution to create the Senate study commission initially called for the seven-member group to report their findings to the Senate President by Feb. 1, 2023. But the group hasn’t started meeting. Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio announced appointees on Feb. 10.

Zurier said the work was delayed because of the 2022 election cycle, which kept lawmakers, himself included, busy campaigning.

The commission now has until Oct. 31 to report findings to the Senate under the amended resolution.

Zurier stressed the importance of more education, for lawmakers, voters and elections administrators, as a key part of the commission’s work and any future changes to state elections.

“I don’t think it’s impossible to educate voters but we have to keep in mind this is something new so we want to make sure they’re comfortable with the process and able to use their vote effectively,” he said.

Indeed, while voting reforms including ranked-choice voting have been adopted by a growing number of municipalities and states they’ve never been used in Rhode Island. Which is why R.I. Rep. Rebecca Kislak, D-Providence, wants to give people a chance to try it in a lower-stakes setting.

Kislak is organizing a ranked-choice voting election of favorite chocolates on Tuesday, using an online link distributed through her email newsletter and in-person event at the Statehouse. She also plans to introduce legislation this session for ranked-choice voting in presidential preference primaries, which she said is a good “first step” to seeing how Rhode Island voters respond to the alternative election method.

“There’s often a large field of candidates that changes quickly, even between when ballots are printed and voting closes,” she said of presidential primaries.

In ranked-choice elections, voters rank candidates from their most favorite to least favorite. If a candidate receives a majority of votes, they win, but if no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and that candidates’ supporters have their votes shifted to their second choice. The process repeats until a candidate gets a majority of votes.

As for state and local races, Kislak wants to see what the Senate study commission comes up with before proposing any changes.

Sasse, however, was gunning to have an election reform law passed this session, although the People’s Primary hasn’t teamed up with any lawmakers to introduce a bill based on their recommendations. Of the legislators his group has spoken with, he said “no one has discouraged us.”

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi in an emailed statement said he was “keeping an open mind” on potential bills. Ruggerio referred to his appointments to the Senate study commission when asked about his support for passing voting reform this session.

R.I. Secretary of State Gregg Amore is “aware of the discussion,” but more focused on increasing public participation and access to voting, according to spokesperson Faith Chybowski.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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