Venhuizen has a point. Right now, independent candidates automatically make the general election ballot. Under Amendment V, they must fight for one of the two general election ballot spots in the open non-partisan primary. Given that independents almost never beat both of the major party candidates in the general election, it seems extremely unlikely that independents will survive the primary to compete in November.
But does that primary challenge make any worse end results for independents than the status quo? If Venhuizen’s reasoning is sound, Amendment V produces the same results as the status quo: darned few independents win public office. Amendment V solves other problems, like allowing everyone to vote for sheriff even when the only two candidates are Republicans; should the failure to change a separate problem really be considered a disadvantage?
It occurs to me that Amendment V might actually improve the odds for independent and third-party candidates to stand a fighting chance in the general election. Right now, candidates from outside the two major parties struggle to get attention in the general election. Even Larry Pressler, a three-term former Senator with great name recognition, only managed to win 17.1% of the vote. That’s well behind Republican Mike Rounds’s winning 50.4% and Democrat Rick Weiland’s 29.5%. But if we could replay that election, an ambitious non-R/D challenger has better odds of raising that 17% to 30% to beat Weiland than to 51% to beat Rounds. It may be easier for an independent to place second in a primary, especially a fractious primary with multiple Republicans splitting party loyalties, than for that same independent to place first in a general election.
Consider the numbers from the 2014 Senate elections:
- Votes cast in Senate general: 279,412.
- Votes required to win by majority: 139,707.
- Votes cast in GOP Senate primary: 74,490.
- Votes that would have been cast in an open, non-partisan primary if Democrats and others turned out in same proportion (31.5%) as Republicans: 160,172.
- Votes required to win by majority: 80,086.
- Votes Larry Rhoden won to place second in the GOP primary: 13,593.
- Votes needed to win a proportional second-place victory in our hypothetical open non-partisan primary: 29,228.
All sorts of math complicates that speculation—would Amendment V increase primary interest and turnout? how do extreme candidates temper their message to appeal to newly primary-enfranchised moderate voters, and how does that temperance affect vote counts? But any given candidate, including independents, stands a better chance of winning 29,228 votes in June than 139,707 votes in November. If an independent pulls off that surprising June second-place win, she rides all sorts of positive-surprise press into the general, sheds the “third-party can’t win, so why waste the vote?” stigma, and gets to be the only alternative in November for donors and voters who can’t stand the other gal.
In the current system, a non-major party candidate has to build a single-stage rocket to the Moon. Under Amendment V, that candidate just needs to reach orbit, where there are whole extra fuel caches for first and second place. Amendment V makes indy access to the general election ballot harder, but it may make their chances of ultimate victory easier.
Independent candidates will need to reach orbit in the spring rather than reaching the Moon in one big fast blast in the fall. They may also have to file their petitions sooner. Currently, the deadline for independents to submit their nominating petitions (this year, April 26) comes after the deadline for printing primary ballots (this year, April 20). To make the primary ballot (not to mention to allow citizens time to review and challenge their petitions), independents will have to submit their petitions by the same deadline as party candidates, a month earlier (this year, March 31).
Of course, if Amendment V passes, we could also move our state primary to July, August, or even September 13, the way they do in Delaware, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.