Major election years should not be the only time we think deeply about the election process in North Dakota. I am not saying campaigns should consume our attention every single year. Rather, I think off-years are good times to evaluate our election process, as we’re not in the thick of campaigns.
There are valid critiques of North Dakotan elections, but there is much to compliment as well. Two great features of our elections are our lack of voter registration and, relatedly, our uniquely open primary elections.
Folks from out of state have a hard time understanding that we don’t have voter registration. Since every other state in the union has it, many U.S. citizens take voter registration for granted. Many don’t see voter registration for the unnecessary layer of bureaucracy (and violation of privacy) that it is, but we do.
When citizens in other states wish to vote, they first must register with their state as a voter. This process takes a variety of forms, some of them automated and some of them tedious. In many states, registering to vote can involve declaring political party membership (or independence from any party, as the case may be). This is how some states manage to have “closed” primary elections in which only self-declared partisans participate. Primary elections are a means of political parties narrowing down their candidates prior to the general election. In closed primaries, only self-declared party members may participate in accordance with their voter registration information. In many cases, such voter registration information is considered public record.
Meanwhile, North Dakotans avoid such hassles altogether. It isn’t simply that we’re never required to declare a political party to vote in primary elections, as that is true of some other states. It’s that we don’t bother with voter registration at all, better protecting voters’ privacy. This also helps us keep our government lean where it counts.
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However, North Dakota’s approach is not without challenges. North Dakota secretary of state 2018 candidate Michael Coachman described the problem of primary election “cross-voting” during Prairie Public’s live-streamed September debate. Coachman is referring to an issue with our all-party primary election ballots. North Dakotan primary voters receive the same ballot regardless of which party’s primary they participate in. Voters must focus their partisan votes on one (and only one) party’s column on our primaries’ ballots.
Typically, three parties in our state offer candidates for partisan statewide and district races. This gives us three party-specific columns on our primary ballots. These parties are generally the Republican Party, the Democratic-Nonpartisan League and the Libertarian Party. Primary ballots are nullified if/when voters engage in cross-voting in which they select candidates from more than one party’s column. In a general election it is perfectly acceptable to vote for, say, a mix of both Republicans and Dem-NPL candidates. However, that is not the case with primary elections.
Based on conversations from the campaign trail, Coachman came to believe we should do away with our all-party ballots and should opt instead for party-specific ballots. In order words, he sought to make cross-voting impossible by offering voters party-specific ballots.
I am sympathetic toward voters who find elections confusing. However, civic education and community conversation are the solution. Party-specific ballots – and party-based voter registration that often coincides with them – aren’t the right path for North Dakota. We should focus on reducing voter confusion directly rather than by redesigning our electoral processes to be less private and more bureaucratic.