PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A bipartisan group of prominent Rhode Islanders announced Wednesday a new push to change how the state conducts its primary elections for statewide races.
The leaders of the initiative — dubbed “People’s Primary” — argue the present primary system isn’t effective or democratic in an era when Democrats win every general election for federal and statewide office, usually comfortably. Republicans haven’t won a federal or statewide office in Rhode Island since then-Gov. Don Carcieri’s re-election in 2006.
In last year’s gubernatorial election, Democrat Dan McKee secured his party’s nomination by winning about 37,000 votes, equal to just 5% of Rhode Island’s 713,000 registered voters. And like all of Rhode Island’s major 2022 contests, the Democratic primary for governor was decisive in choosing the eventual winner of the office.
Members of the People’s Primary effort include Gary Sasse, Guy Dufault, David Preston, Ray Mathieu, Robert G. Flanders Jr., Robert Whitcomb, Anne Szostak, Emily K. Lynch, Timothy Duffy, Scott Gibbs, John Opdycke, and Marie Langlois.
Sasse, executive director of Bryant University’s Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership, said the group began discussions last year due to shared concerns over the lack of competition in Rhode Island elections and the significant number of contests where the winner receives less than 50% of the vote.
He also pointed out that nearly half of General Assembly seats have been uncontested in the November election in recent years.
Dufault, a former leader of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, said he used to oppose changing the primary system because he felt Democrats should be picking their nominees and Republicans should be picking theirs. But he said his view has changed.
“Over the years I’ve seen a real degradation of the primary process — less and less people getting involved, not as many voters coming to the polls, and the whole system really just starting to rely on the primary system rather than the general election,” Dufault said.
While acknowledging that Rhode Island’s current elected leaders have all won their offices under the existing system, Dufault said conversations he’s had with key figures have left him optimistic about the appetite for change.
As part of Wednesday’s rollout, the group released a white paper in a bid to spur discussion, offering three proposals for alternative primary systems.
• Top-two nonpartisan primary: This is the system used in California since 2010 and in Nebraska since 1936. All candidates, no matter their party, are on the same ballot in the primary election. The two who win the most votes in the primary go on to face off in the November election, even if they’re both Democrats (or both Republicans).
• Top-four primary with ranked choice: This is the system used in Maine and Alaska. All candidates, no matter their party, are on the same ballot in the primary election. The four who win the most votes in the primary go on to face off in the November election, regardless of their party. In both rounds, voters rank their candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins 50% outright on first-place votes, the worst-performing candidate is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the candidates who were ranked second on those ballots. The process continues until a candidate crosses 50%.
• Open primary: This is the system Rhode Island used before 1977. Registered voters can choose either political party’s ballot in the primary election, regardless of the voter’s personal registration status. Unlike the current system, a registered Republican could vote in the Democratic primary and vice-versa. Additionally, and again unlike the current system, an unaffiliated voter would not have to temporarily register with either party to vote in that party’s primary.
There is already an active discussion taking place on Smith Hill about potential changes to the state’s election system.
State Rep. Arthur “Doc” Corvese, D-North Providence, put forward a bill last year that would switch the state to open primaries. State Sen. Sam Zurier, D-Providence, is set to lead a commission that will study ranked-choice voting and other possible changes.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook