We regularly see both Republicans and Democrats complaining that our elections are administered unfairly and poorly. This is a dangerous state of affairs; when the public is not confident about election fairness, something is wrong.
The Arkansas General Assembly should respond in two ways.
First, we should set high standards for fairness in the drawing of districts. There are currently no formal rules that prevent those who draw election districts from favoring one candidate over others. The current redistricting process regularly produces angry claims about bias; sometimes it produces lawsuits.
The best way to reduce the influence of politics over redistricting is to remove it from elected officials' hands. Instead of giving the job to elected officials, the redistricting process should be changed to require the appointment of neutral personnel to a redistricting commission.
The resulting commission could then draw district lines in accordance with neutral rules and values, such as population equality, respect for geographical and political divisions (such as rivers and city or county lines), and compactness. Those recently involved in politics would be barred from appointment to the commission, and appointees would be barred from involvement in politics in the next two years. Notably, the commission could not take political factors into account, such as how the new lines would affect incumbents or any partisan data.
In the past, several members of the Arkansas Legislature (including me) have introduced a constitutional amendment that would have accomplished these goals. Those proposals have preserved the structure of the current redistricting process by requiring state-level constitutional officers to appoint the commission members.
Putting aside the benefits of reducing corruption or the appearance of corruption, another benefit from ending elected officials' involvement in redistricting is that it frees up their time to focus on more important matters. The next round of redistricting is almost a decade away, and so 2023 would be the perfect time to pass these reforms.
Second, the General Assembly should also establish instant runoff voting in primaries. This method of voting allows for a more accurate measurement of voter sentiment. It allows voters to make simultaneous choices for primary elections and for runoff elections.
Under instant runoff voting, voters use ballots that allow them to express their choices in more detail than customary primary and runoff ballots do. When a primary election contains more than two candidates running for a seat, voters would rank the candidates on their ballots: that is, the primary election voter will mark the most-favored candidate with a "1", the second-most-favored candidate with a "2", and so forth.
Allowing voters to express this additional information on their ballot makes runoff elections unnecessary: that is, voters only have to cast one ballot in order to choose party nominees. In effect, the use of such ballots allows primary and runoff elections to be conducted almost simultaneously.
Because this reform allows the combining of primary and runoff elections, it would save at least $1 million of taxpayer money every election year. Notably, we already have this system in place for overseas members of the military.
Besides budget savings and better measurement of voter choices, instant runoff voting would also improve the tone of elections. It is commonplace to see more negative campaigning in runoff elections than in primary elections: the head-to-head nature of runoff elections tends to produce attacks that are intended to dampen the political support that the opposing candidate receives.
In contrast, the nature of instant runoff voting discourages negative campaigning. Candidates who run down their rivals will risk alienating that candidate's supporters. Under instant runoff voting, candidates are more likely to discuss the merits of their own candidacies than to attack their rivals.
If we wrote the above two reforms into law, it would have all sorts of positive effects.
A recent Arkansas Poll revealed that many Arkansas residents are dissatisfied with the professionalism and integrity of their state government. Nearly half of Arkansans believe that substantial parts of their own government are doing a mediocre job--or worse.
Addressing the distrust and cynicism with which many Arkansans view their elected officials is imperative. Making campaigns and elections more fair, more neutral, and more positive would be a good way to help restore that trust.
Dan Greenberg is a former member of the state House of Representatives and the author of the Advance Arkansas Institute's forthcoming study "How to Protect Elections in Arkansas."