Time for Real Choices at the Ballot Box

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published November 12 by Grand Junction Free Press.

If you think our Senate race was exciting — and we were surprised that Ken Buck lost despite his series of gaffes and oddball positions — just consider the drama in Alaska.

Lisa Murkowski held the Senate seat as a Republican, yet Joe Miller beat her in the primary. So Murkowski launched a write-in campaign, and the election remained under review as we submitted this column.

A November 3 AP story by Becky Bohrer explains the scope of the problem. Murkowski “was among 160 qualified candidates,” and “write-ins held 41 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting,” compared to Miller’s 34 percent.

And consider this bizarre twist: Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell told the AP “that since Miller’s name isn’t on the official list of write-in candidates, any ballots with ‘Joe Miller’ written in won’t be credited to” Miller. Campbell changed his tune the next day, and a follow-up AP story reported that write-ins for “Joe Miller” would count for Miller, after all.

The Alaska Senate election is a mess. But nobody ever promised that representative government would be easy. If we want tidy and easy then we should have a king or a dictator.

Even before the Seventeenth Amendment passed in 1913, changing election of Senators from state legislatures to the popular vote, the legislatures themselves were popularly elected. Members of the House always faced a popular vote.

Some years ago your senior author Linn lived in New Mexico and got involved in another important write-in campaign, this one for Joe Skeen.

Politics in New Mexico makes politics in Colorado and Alaska seem calm and peaceful. Many voters live on reservations, which largely retain sovereignty. Spanish culture remains strong in parts of New Mexico, and in the 1960s and 70s land grants protected by old U.S treaty fell under heated dispute.

Quite a few people from New York and New Jersey settled towns like Rio Rancho. Occasionally their friends and relatives from back home would ask if they used American money or had to exchange dollars for pesos. Those friends would have to be reminded that parts of New Mexico were culturally vibrant long before the British colonies took off.

Party lines often didn’t mean as much in New Mexico. Republicans often worked with Democrats. A lot of people were what Coloradans might think of as “Texas Democrats” — fiscal conservatives who would make some of the local Mesa County “conservatives” seem like flaming liberals.

Wikipedia offers a good summary of Skeen’s write-in campaign for Congress: “Throughout the 1970s, five-term Democratic Congressman Harold Runnels had been so popular that the GOP didn’t even put up a candidate against him in 1978 or 1980. Then, on August 5, 1980, Runnels died of cancer at the age of fifty-six. The state attorney general, a Democrat, announced that the Democrats could replace Runnels on the ballot but that it was too late for the Republicans to [add a candidate]. Republicans were outraged and rallied behind a write-in effort by Skeen, while the Democrats selected Governor Bruce King’s nephew, David King, over Runnels’ widow, Dorothy Runnels.”

Those critical of Governor King called his political move “nephewism” rather than nepotism.

After Dorothy Runnels launched her own write-in campaign, Skeen won the split vote with 38 percent of the total. Wikipedia adds that Skeen, buoyed by the popularity of Ronald Reagan, “was only the third person in U.S. history to be elected to Congress as a write-in candidate.” He served until announcing his retirement in 2002.

For those who fought for Skeen, this was a joyous and triumphant victory.

This year Colorado ballots offered the ability to write in candidates only for a few offices, and then only among officially recognized candidates. In many races voters could “choose” only a single candidate.

Statute 1-4-1102 specifies that an affidavit for a write-in candidate must be filed “by the close of business on the seventieth day before any other election” besides a primary. That’s ridiculous. What if an illness, death, or major scandal occurs within that time? What if, for instance, the Republican candidate for governor had imploded closer to the election?

On November 3, Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post reported that Kathleen Curry, a write-in candidate for House District 61 who previously held the seat as a Democrat, challenged a preliminary finding that she came in second. She claimed that voters who wrote in her name but didn’t check the nearby box would put her ahead if properly counted.

If we’re serious about letting voters select the candidates of their choice, we will let people easily file as write-in candidates right up to the election. And we will ensure those votes are properly tallied, even if it takes longer. Do we want speed and convenience, or do we want to let people vote their conscience?