This is the eighth installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, FairVote President and CEO Rob Richie answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization advocates for more equitable election methods and in recent years has led the fight for ranked-choice voting. Richie's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
As the long-time national leader on ranked-choice voting, it was remarkable for FairVote to experience its magnificent progress nationwide — with those gains often led by state leaders, but rooted in our analysis and direct support as needed. The movement's victories and momentum included the ballot measure win in Alaska to use RCV for all general elections, the historic use of RCV in five Democratic presidential primaries and three Republican state conventions, six city ballot measure wins, and at least 17 editorial-board endorsements.
Of course, nothing could quite top reaching the final of The Fulcrum's Democracy Madness!
And your biggest setback?
Ranked-choice voting lost on the ballot in Massachusetts. It feels different to win 45 percent of the vote rather than the 52 percent in the 2016 victory in Maine. But there was remarkable hope in that result, nevertheless: 80 percent of Massachusetts voters under 30 backed RCV. Even in this temporary setback, you can see the future coming.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
We need RCV to solve real problems we face today. More than 3.3 million presidential primary votes this year were "wasted" — they were cast for candidates who dropped out before election day. If we're going to expand early voting, we also need to protect voters with RCV.
We also know ranked-choice voting can win on the ballot — it's won 13 of 14 times in the past five years, including in two states. But ballot measures need good targeting and timing — and more broadly, can often be avoided. As more lawmakers learn RCV can be a win-win solution to problems in our politics, we expect a rapid uptick in legislative victories.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
We're excited to be in Year One of a new strategic plan that is governed by a holistic approach to how FairVote and our growing coalition of reform partners can win the Fair Representation Act in Congress and ranked-choice voting across all 50 states in the coming decade. For 2021, that means starting to engage with Congress on changes to advance RCV, expanding the national coalition of groups and thinkers ready to prioritize our reform goals, and supporting the RCV movement around the nation with educational products, media work and funding.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
It's hard to get things passed in Congress no matter who's in charge. That said, we have passionate congressional allies ready to help and we're deeply impressed by the organizing efforts behind legislation like HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We'll engage with those coalitions, while prioritizing bills that advance RCV with bipartisan support.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Our biggest challenge is what makes our work so compelling: Our elected leaders in Washington are disincentivized from enacting the very reforms that will heal our democracy. The state of our democracy is the single most urgent problem to fix, given its ripple effect across everything else. Because we want ranked-choice voting and ultimately the Fair Representation Act to win across all states, we need political leaders to trust that the fact that one party backed it in one state doesn't mean another party shouldn't back it elsewhere. We'll be transparent and uncompromising in our commitment to working with elected leaders of any party ready to support our reform vision.
The good news is that our elected leaders feel the same concerns for the future of our country — they want to live in a strong democracy where they are rewarded for representing their constituents. And validators from across the political spectrum are stepping up in support of ranked-choice voting in an unparalleled way. But we can't underestimate the gridlock in Washington, even when we see a way out of it.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
... face deepening partisan rancor and disputes over what fair elections even means — yet more beacons of hope will show the way forward for necessary structural reforms
- FairVote: millions of votes 'wasted' on also-ran candidates - The ... ›
- Momentum builds across country for ranked-choice voting - The ... ›
- Ranked-choice voting can help end polarization - The Fulcrum ›
- As ranked-choice voting gains acceptance, critics push back - The ... ›
As New York City prepares to use ranked-choice voting for the first time next week, momentum for the reform continues to build in other parts of the country.
The country's most populous city will use ranked-choice voting in at least four special elections for city council in the coming months, but the real test will be the hotly contested mayoral primaries in June.
Outside of the Big Apple, more than two dozen states have active campaigns advocating for ranked-choice elections. Following successes in Alaska and six cities across the country in 2020, more jurisdictions than ever before are considering making the switch to RCV.
In fact, campaigns were just announced in two more states. Better Ballot South Carolina kicked off this week, and Better Ballot Alabama will officially start in mid-February. Both are being advised by the national nonprofit Rank the Vote, which launched last year and has pro-RCV affiliates in 18 other states.
"Our mission is really to help people learn how to effectively organize themselves to educate other folks in their state about ranked-choice voting and build a community of people that are excited about the reform," said Nathan Lockwood, managing director of Rank the Vote.
Under this alternative voting system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In the case that no candidate receives majority support, the election goes into an instant runoff in which the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that person's support is redistributed to voters' second choices. This continues until one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold.
Supporters of RCV say the voting reform will deter negative campaigning and bolster more consensus-driven politics, while also boosting the election prospects of women and people of color. Opponents argue the system is confusing and doesn't necessarily lead to better representation.
Ahead of RCV's debut in New York, members of the City Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus and other community organizations sued to delay its implementation, arguing city officials didn't have enough time to educate voters about the new system. But a state judge ruled last month the city could move forward with ranked-choice voting because a delay would disenfranchise military voters.
Rob Richie, CEO of FairVote, one of the leading ranked-choice voting advocacy organizations, said the voter education campaign in New York has been really robust, both among RCV advocates and the city government. It will likely take a few weeks for the results of NYC's upcoming elections to finalize, though, due to the state's process for counting absentee ballots.
"That's always nerve-wracking when you're trying to introduce a new system," Richie said. "But I am impressed by the local folks on the ground." He added that FairVote is partnering with Common Cause's New York chapter to conduct exit surveys on voters' experiences using ranked-choice voting.
RCV will premier in another state in 2022: Alaska. In last year's election, a narrow majority of voters approved a sweeping democracy reform ballot measure that included adopting RCV for all statewide elections — making Alaska the second state to do so after Maine. Massachusetts had a similar ballot measure last year, but it failed to garner enough support.
Now, following the 2020 election and with state legislative sessions starting, advocates are gearing up to push for ranked-choice voting in several other states.
In Utah, a Republican lawmaker is sponsoring legislation to adopt RCV for primary elections with more than two candidates. In Vermont, former Gov. Howard Dean is leading a campaign to bring the voting reform to Burlington, the state's largest city. And in Austin, Texas, voters may get the chance to decide whether RCV should be used for future mayoral and city council elections.
And on the federal level, advocates are hoping to get more momentum behind legislation that would promote the use of ranked-choice voting, such as the sweeping democracy reform bill known as HR 1. Another bill, dubbed the Fair Representation Act, would go further by requiring all elections for the House of Representatives to use RCV. That bill, introduced in 2019 but not yet in this Congress, would also establish multi-member districts in each state.
Richie said he thinks the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is evidence of the country's deep polarization and will spur more conversations about voting reform this year.
"I think it's really got people thinking about why representatives act the way they do," he said. "And a lot of that is baked into the current ways we vote and the current ways we pick winners and the incentives that are created by that."
- Ranked-choice voting wins Democracy Madness regional title - The ... ›
- NYC allowed to move ahead with ranked-choice election - The ... ›
- Alaska decides to switch to open primaries and ranked elections ›
- Ranked elections rejected in Massachusetts and likely Alaska - The ... ›
- Worcester, Mass., hit with voting rights lawsuit - The Fulcrum ›
- Ranked-choice voting poised to return to Burlington, Vt. - The Fulcrum ›
- NYC voters found ranked voting easy to use, polls show - The Fulcrum ›
- FairVote begins ambitious, nationwide RCV campaign - The Fulcrum ›
It's double Senate election day in Georgia. And all eyes are on the outcome of a monstrously high-stakes, titanic struggle for the heart and soul of the nation — and the unfathomable resources, both emotional and financial, spent to influence the results.
Contrary to the deep divisions and diversity of interests burbling at the surface, the winning side (if one party takes both seats) will declare that "the people of Georgia" believe what their candidates believe, regardless of how razor-thin their victories. This party will crow about having the superior get-out-the-vote ground game — as if that were equivalent to having better policy proposals or values, or an agenda more meaningfully representative of voters' real interests. Should there be a split decision, the losers' personal flaws will be dissected to explain the anomaly.
At its core, though each election is a runoff where two people survived for a second round, Georgia highlights the absurdity of winner-take-all elections — especially when so many Americans are already frustrated by limited choices. Anticipating some delicious democracy in the Peach State, we got a democracy demolition derby instead.
Republicans' vaunted voter suppression of Black votes has been linked to the closeness of elections in the demographically evolving state. Every crime has three elements, and voter suppression is no exception. Racism is the motive. Control of the levers of government has provided the means. But the opportunity has derived from winner-take-all elections themselves. Close races in a changing state are exactly where voter suppression can be expected to pay the greatest dividends.
Around the world, the antidote for American winner-take-all insanity — seen so vividly in Georgia's Senate races as well as its super-close presidential outcome — is the measured rationality and true majority rule offered by proportional representation.
Yes, elections for president and the Senate must have single winners, because when there's only one person getting the job then the races must be winner-take-all.
But the House, state legislatures, and county or city councils could all be redesigned for proportional elections, and it's clear they should be.
The outsized importance, scorched earth tactics and exclusionary results endemic to such electoral battlegrounds as Georgia shouldn't be the way we determine the "soul of our nation." Duels between individual gladiators in the electoral arena are not the way to conclusively determine what America really stands for.
That's because what America stands for — or should stand for — is pluralism. The traditional national motto, after all, is "E pluribus unum," Latin for "Out of many, one." And that's one nation, not one winner.
What we need are proportional "participation trophies" for all voters and their preferred representatives. Fairly representing the interests of all voters tends towards coalition governance and true majority rule. Winner-take-all leads to polarization, even the arrival in the House this week of a Georgian who supports QAnon conspiracies — flying under cover of winning a "majority" election.
A shift of a mere 43,000 presidential votes — the cumulative margins of victory in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin — would have created a tectonic shift in national policy by giving Donald Trump a second term. Several Senate races had outcomes almost as close, and had the Democrats won two of them then the stakes in Georgia would not be very high right now. Is it possible the future of our nation was determined by a North Carolina candidate's amorous text messages? For want of that nail, our nation might have lost its soul?
Close elections may be more thrilling (just ask the spectators in ancient arenas, we suppose) but they are not inherently more democratic. For voters unable to elect a representative of their choice, losing with 49 percent is no more democratic than getting a mere 30 percent.
Tossup winner-take-all races down ballot in Georgia were no prettier this year. The horror of the half-billion-dollar twin Senate contests was nearly matched by the relative cost of the contest in state House District 132, a politically purple area southeast of Atlanta. It's home to just one in every 180 Georgians, but the national Republican state legislative campaign organization, alone, invested $1 million to help defeat the House's Democratic minority leader by 666 votes with ads linking him (unfairly) to rioters and anarchists.
To be sure, the Democrats spent heavily on targeted races, too, and succeeded in defeating the GOP chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee in an evolving area of suburban Gwinnett County.
Both races beg the question: Why not just have a system that flexibly adapts to such demographic and political changes, and is able to represent all voters?
The key to breaking the winner-take-all stranglehold is adopting a fair proportional method to elect representatives from districts with multiple members. (There are several possible systems in use across the globe.) With more seats to be filled, more voters can successfully elect a representative of choice — so long as a proportional system is deployed.
Averting your gaze from the Senate election for a moment, consider October's elections in "the other Georgia," the country half a world away. In their parallel system — split between winner-take-all, with majority-required runoffs, and proportional party seats — the ruling party won 75 percent of the seats in Parliament with just 48 percent voter support.
But that's not the main story. After even more unbalanced results in 2016, the government violently suppressed protests demanding greater proportionality. The United States condemned the crackdown and supported the demands, and American diplomats then played a critical role in brokering an agreement that will bring full proportionality to Georgia in three years.
Now it's time to watch the final battle of the four senatorial gladiators in the state of Georgia. Only two will be left standing. It would be nice to say the same about our democracy, but that's not certain. Perhaps the U.S. embassy in the other Georgia can help promote proportional democracy back home.
- Late rush to register young Georgians for Senate runoffs - The Fulcrum ›
- Georgia runoff elections will be the next test for democracy - The ... ›
- Georgia smashes record for most expensive Senate election - The ... ›
- Georgia panel gives counties 'souls to the polls' options - The Fulcrum ›
- The right's 'traditional way of life' is a goner - The Fulcrum ›
Griffiths is the editor of Independent Voter News, where a version of this story first appeared.
A new report reinforces something political reform advocates and experts have been saying for years: Partisan identity is becoming the primary determinant in nearly every election.
The "Monopoly Politics" study, a biennial project of the electoral reform advocacy group FairVote, predicts the results of all 435 seats in the House long before Election Day. The 2020 version, released last week, predicted 357 "high confidence seats" with a 99.7 percent accuracy rate. The group bases its predictions on prior voting patterns, not on polling results, a methodology that has worked since FairVote began the project in 1997.
The predictions were made fully two years ahead of time, in November 2018, a startling reminder of how little competition there is in congressional contests and the consequence this has on the nation's politics. The authors say a central takeaway is the increasing role partisanship plays in the outcome of such elections.
FairVote uses a metric it calls the "incumbency bump" to gauge performance of incumbents and so-called "crossover candidates," members of Congress who represent districts that supported the other party's presidential candidate in the previous election.
In other words, it is widely assumed there is an inherent advantage to being an incumbent. FairVote measures the strength of this advantage for Democrats and Republicans who were elected in areas that traditionally vote for the "other side."
According to the report, this advantage is shrinking, which means all the things that used to give incumbents a leg up on the opposition — money, name recognition, experience, etc — do not mean as much as the partisan-leanings of local voters.
After the 2018 midterm, 38 Democrats and just three Republicans were crossover members. And 29 of them won again this year, a further decline in an incumbency bump that has gradually dropped since peaking in 2000.
"An increase in the predictability of partisanship at the expense of incumbency advantage, even for incumbents who maintained moderate voting records, means something troubling: the identity of candidates and their campaigns are mattering less and less," the report states.
Many know the adage that "all politics is local." This means politics is more consequential to a person's daily life the closer it gets to home. It also used to also mean local values and issues shaped how voters selected candidates.
To various extents, that still holds true. But for several years now, the divide between Republicans and Democrats at the national level has seeped down to shape trends at a local level.
This nationalization of politics is another warning sign that, as the divide between the parties expands, the state of elections will worsen: more candidates favoring divisive behavior to the detriment of their constituents and the country, and a further reduction in the number of candidates pledged to bipartisanship and moderation.
"If Americans feel as if they are split into red and blue camps more than ever, or that there's no room for cross-partisan dialogue, there's a very clear systemic reason for that," said FairVote President and CEO Rob Richie. "Our elections fundamentally reward partisanship. We will not be able to clear this hurdle and come together as a nation until we are able to enact the reforms ... that ensure Americans are more truly represented."
He pointed to legislation that's a top goal of his group, which has so far gone nowhere in Congress. Dubbed the Fair Representation Act, it seeks to end hyper-polarization in Congress by remaking the way the House is constituted: five or six members each representing a fewer number of congressional districts, and chosen in ranked-choice elections.
"Multi-winner districts allow more voters to participate in meaningfully competitive elections, and the vast majority of voters of both parties would be able to help elect candidates from their districts who share their views," FairVote states. "This change would roughly triple the number of voters able to participate in competitive House elections."
Visit IVN.us for more coverage from Independent Voter News.
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