Organizer: R Street Institute
In the wake of the 2020 election, many ideas have been proposed to reform the electoral process, and some have actually passed via ballot measure. In Alaska, the "Top-Four Ranked-Choice Voting and Campaign Finance Laws Initiative, implemented multiple reforms to the state's primary and general election processes. But will this initiative make much of a difference? How might we expect legislators' behavior to change in response? And just what is the intellectual foundation that underlies ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries?
Join us as Jonathan Bydlak, head of R Street's Governance program, talks about the potentially significant changes set in motion by the initiative with Katherine Gehl, author of "The Politics Industry"and founder of The Institute for Political Innovation, and Scott Kendall, the creator of Alaska Ballot Measure 2.
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 ... ›
The premier of ranked-choice voting in New York City appears to have gone smoothly as exit polling shows most voters found the new system easy to use.
Voters in Queens used ranked ballots for the first time in last month's special elections for city council. Advocates for RCV are sure to lean on the voter survey, released Thursday, as they prepare for a far bigger test: the city's mayoral primaries in June.
Almost every voter surveyed said they found ranked-choice voting simple to use, with 80 percent indicating it was "very simple." (Critics of RCV say the system is too complicated.) Three-quarters of the voters said they were familiar with RCV before using it for the first time, indicating the Board of Elections ran a successful educational campaign in the run-up to the special elections.
Under this alternative voting system, voters choose 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.
While most voters ranked at least two candidates on their ballot, 39 percent of those surveyed only selected one candidate. The most common reason for this singular choice was "that was the only candidate I liked."
Asian voters were the most supportive of ranked-choice voting, with 77 percent approving of its continued use. Two-thirds of Black voters also favored the new voting system. But a slight majority of white voters (51 percent) were against using RCV. (The sample size of Latino voters was too small to achieve statistical significance for this question.)
The exit poll surveyed 635 in-person and absentee voters in the Feb. 2 and Feb. 23 special elections for city council districts in Queens. Voters were polled as they left the early voting or Election Day polling locations or, in the case of absentee voters, via email and phone. The survey, available in English and Spanish, was conducted by Edison Research for Rank the Vote NYC.
- As ranked-choice voting gains acceptance, critics push back - The ... ›
- NYC debut of ranked-choice voting faces resistance - The Fulcrum ›
- Momentum builds across country for ranked-choice voting - The ... ›
Feinstein is a co-founder of the Green Party of California. He was mayor of Santa Monica from 2000 to 2002 and an unsuccessful 2018 candidate for California secretary of state.
Last week the House voted 220-210 to pass HR 1, the Democratic majority's sweeping electoral reform bill intended to strengthen voting rights, enhance campaign finance reform, and address government ethics and corruption in politics. But the legislation also contains a poison pill designed to reduce political competition and voter choice, entrenching the polarizing duopoly electoral system that made Donald Trump's presidency possible.
In practice, the single-seat, winner-take-all system that controls American elections leads to only two electorally viable parties, forcing most voters into one of two large political camps. The "us versus them" mentality that results suppresses nuance and a respect for diversity — and exacerbates divisions in our society and politics, as the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 laid bare.
But instead of broadening and deepening our democracy, the provision labeled Section 502(a) would make it harder for minor parties and their presidential candidates to appear on the ballot. It would do so by raising the fundraising threshold required to earn presidential federal matching funds by 500 percent, and the minimum number of contributions to reach that threshold by 625 percent. Without these funds, minor party presidential nominees would have fewer resources to promote their messages, with the public seeing a narrower range of policy approaches and perspectives.
Onerous state laws passed by Democrats and Republicans also make it difficult for minor parties to gain and maintain ballot status. Minor party presidential candidates often have to qualify themselves and their parties on an election-by-election, state-by-state basis — requiring gathering large numbers of signatures in a short time.
These expensive petition drives are often financed by presidential matching funds earned during the primary season. So, without the money, minor parties and their candidates are unlikely to appear on the general election ballot in many states. In many states, being left off the top of the ballot consigns a party to political exile, so the same exclusion may befall many third-party candidates for Congress, and state positions and in many places such local offices as city council.
Since my party began organizing across the United States, voters have elected more than 1,200 Greens to municipal office and have cast millions of votes for Green candidates at all levels. The authors of HR 1 apparently believe the voices of citizens who've voted Green (and for other minor parties) don't matter.
Democrats ignored that when their presidential nominee Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes in 2000 — and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader gained 97,488 votes in the state — and more than 300,000 Democrats voted for Republican George W. Bush. Instead, Democrats blame the Green Party for their losses, consistently chanting "Vote Blue no matter who!"
But in 2016, with Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton the least popular major party candidates in modern U.S. polling history, "lesser-evilism" reached its nadir with the historic, "evil-of-two-lessers" presidency that has just ended. The message? Don't be surprised what voters will do when they feel deprived of meaningful and representative choice — or if they conclude the major parties offer no clear ideology or platform, but only represent a guaranteed spot on the ballot to be exploited.
Instead of trying to drive minor parties off the ballot, Democrats should put country over party, and support increased voter choice and representation, by promoting a viable multi-party democracy. They can do that by making ballot access easier, supporting ranked-choice voting for president (eliminating the vote-splitting "spoiler"' issue) and creating multimember districts with proportional representation for the House and state legislatures.
Legislation pending in the House would assign more than one member to each congressional district, and they would be chosen using ranked elections. It should be added to HR 1, which would make states create independent commissions to draw House district lines. The bill should also be altered to mandate a meaningful increase in the size of the House of Representatives, which has essentially been frozen at 435 members since 1911 — when the country's population was 94 million, compared to 330 million today.
These reforms would create a House that's truly representative of our demographic and political diversity. They would also eliminate the deeply problematic gerrymandering and lack of representation that comes from using single-member districts. By contrast, the half-measure HR 1 would still leave large numbers of losing voters in every district without representation reflecting their views — a recipe for voter alienation and blowback.
Millions are relieved our democracy appears to have survived the immediate existential threat posed by the Trump presidency. But the structural conditions that made his 2016 election possible remain in place, meaning a more competent authoritarian could end our democracy in the future.
"The biggest risk is not going too big," President Biden said when he unveiled his $1.9 trillion plan to combat the health and economic crises posed by the pandemic. "It's if we go too small."
In confronting our democracy crisis, HR 1 is going too small, by focusing on band-aids instead of wholesale transformation of our outdated electoral system, instead of transforming it. If we are going to truly meet the moment, Congress must transcend partisan self-interest and myopic, duopoly-based thinking.
To voting rights and good-government groups supporting the bill: Voting matters when your ballot can help elect someone who truly represents your view. We can't achieve that using single-member-district elections, regardless of what public matching funds are provided.
That's why HR 1 needs to be altered to promote proportional representation elections, and a viable and representative multi-party democracy overall. That would be genuinely seizing this historic moment for needed reform.
- Senate must end filibuster to pass democracy reform bills - The ... ›
- Will 2021 be defined by voting rights and electoral reform? - The ... ›
- End Citizens United makes proactive game plan to pass HR 1 - The ... ›
- With the For the People Act, organizing is paying off - The Fulcrum ›