Sara Swann is a staff writer covering campaign finance and other reform issues. She previously reported on local and state government for The Daily Times on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She has also done money in politics reporting for the Center for Responsive Politics. Sara is an alumna of Syracuse University.
American democracy needs an intervention, and you could help facilitate it.
Stanford University is calling for ideas on how to improve Americans' commitment to democratic principles as part of its Strengthening Democracy Challenge. The contest aims to use "collaboration, cooperation and crowdsourcing" to identify and test ways to curb extreme partisanship.
The Strengthening Democracy Challenge is open to all — academics, practitioners, industry experts and everyday citizens. Submissions are being accepted until Oct. 1.
Stanford is emphasizing short-term programming in this competition. The competition is focused on interventions that people can experience online in under eight minutes that "will reduce Americans' anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence and/or partisan animosity."
The interventions could ask participants to do one or more of the following: read, write, watch, listen or respond. Submissions must also be ethical, online, scalable, short, comprehensible in English, costless and aligned.
A multidisciplinary team of political scientists, psychologists, sociologists and economists from Stanford, MIT, Northwestern University and Columbia University will evaluate the submissions and choose up to 25 of the most promising ideas. Each of those selected interventions will then be tested in separate groups of 1,000 participants (500 Republicans and 500 Democrats). There will also be a control group of 5,000 participants.
Up to $45,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the teams submitting interventions that most reduce anti-democratic attitudes, partisan animosity and support for partisan violence. Winners will also receive authorship in the primary publication resulting from the challenge and recognition at a virtual conference following the challenge.
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Runoff elections often come at a high cost to taxpayers, but yield some of the lowest voter turnouts of any political contest, a new report found.
The report, released Thursday by the center-left Third Way and nonpartisan FairVote, analyzed recent runoff elections in Texas and Louisiana. In both states, an additional round of voting cost taxpayers millions of dollars, while only attracting a small share of the electorate.
The two good-government organizations suggest implementing ranked-choice voting in states that hold runoff elections in order to lessen the financial burden and preserve voter engagement.
Runoff elections were first implemented around the start of the 20th century as a tool for white Southern Democrats to unite their factions going into general elections and maintain power over Republicans. Ten states, mostly in the South, still hold runoffs if no candidate reaches the required threshold for victory — usually a majority of the vote — in the primary. Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states that also hold runoffs for general elections.
Third Way and FairVote, using public records requests, gathered data on the election expenses for seven of Texas' most populous counties, as well as for two statewide contests in Louisiana.
In 2018 and 2020, runoff elections in Harris, Dallas, Travis, Bexar, Collin, Tarrant and Fort Bend counties cost taxpayers nearly $5.5 million on top of the $11 million spent on primaries in those same jurisdictions.
On average, voter turnout in those 2018 and 2020 contests dropped a whopping 51 percent from the primaries to their subsequent runoffs. This data shows the "strong disincentive for voters to return to the polls and vote again for the same office," the report states.
In Louisiana, the nominating contests are known as "jungle primaries." They are nonpartisan, meaning all candidates run on one initial ballot. Any candidate who captures a majority of the vote wins the race. Runoffs are therefore treated more like a general election. Still, the election spending data shows a similar problem.
The 2016 Senate primary cost taxpayers just over $6 million. Then one month later, the state spent almost the same amount (more than $5 million) on the runoff for that contest. The 2019 gubernatorial primary and subsequent runoff cost nearly the same amounts.
While turnout in the 2016 Senate runoff dropped 54 percent from the primary, voter participation actually increased by 12 percent from the 2019 gubernatorial primary to the runoff. The report says turnout was helped by the gubernatorial runoff being competitive and held in November, when voters are more likely to expect elections. As a result, the researchers recommend states schedule runoffs in November whenever possible to bolster turnout.
But the best solution, according to Third Way and FairVote, is ranked-choice voting, which is one of the core tenets of FairVote's work. In an RCV election, voters rank their preferred candidate. If no one receives a majority of first-position votes, an "instant runoff" ensues and the ballots cast for the candidate with the fewest first choices are then distributed to voters' second options. The process continues until someone has a majority.
The two groups argue RCV would reduce election costs, improve the voting experience and bolster the campaigns of women and people of color.
"States across the South are burdening voters with runoff elections by making people set aside time out of their busy days to vote in an extra round. And to kick them while they are down, in several instances, governments are using precious taxpayer dollars for this inconvenience," said David de la Fuente, senior political analyst at Third Way and one of the authors of the report.
"Ranked-choice voting would enshrine the majority rule voters want for a healthy democracy while saving their time and dime," he said.
Ranked-choice voting is currently used in 30 jurisdictions across the country, as well as statewide in Maine. Alaska will also use it statewide starting next year. In May, two dozen cities in Utah opted to use RCV for municipal elections this fall.
New York City used ranked-choice voting for citywide primaries for the first time this year, and it appears to have resulted in women being poised to dominate the city council for the first time. Advocates point to RCV as a big reason for the shift in representation.
Another alternative to plurality voting that has gained momentum in recent years is approval voting. Under that system, voters choose any number of candidates they "approve" of, and the candidate chosen the most wins. St. Louis, Mo., joined Fargo, N.D., this year as the first cities to use approval voting.
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More than halfway into the year, and with most state legislative sessions concluded, the full scope of voting changes spurred by the 2020 election is coming into view.
As of last week, 18 states have enacted 30 laws that limit voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School that has been tracking state voting legislation. At the same time, 25 states have signed into law 54 measures that expand access to the ballot box.
And more voting changes are sure to come. Thirteen state legislatures are still in session, and additional states, like Texas, may convene for special sessions.
Since the start of the year, more than 400 bills tightening voting rules have been introduced across nearly every state. This wave of restrictions is "the most aggressive" the Brennan Center has seen in more than a decade of tracking such laws. And the proposed changes are in large part motivated by false claims of voter fraud in last year's election.
Arkansas and Montana, with four new laws each, are tied for enacting the most voting restrictions this year. Arizona is a close second with three new laws.
Most of the restrictive voting measures approved this year focus on rolling back mail voting access by limiting the availability of drop boxes, shortening the time voters have to apply for an absentee ballot and limiting who can return another voter's mailed ballot. Other laws impose new identification requirements and increase maintenance of voter rolls, which could lead to the unintended removal of eligible voters.
In half the states where voting easements have been approved, those laws have mostly been focused on expanding access to early in-person and mail voting, as well as voter registration. A handful of states have also taken steps to restore voting rights to people with past felony convictions.
"Many of the states in which voting is already comparatively more accessible are the same as those enacting policies to further strengthen voting access, deepening a national divide such that the promise of the right to vote depends increasingly on where Americans happen to live," the Brennan Center wrote in its report.
Once again, the good-government organization urged Congress to take action to mitigate these voting restrictions by passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Since House Democrats passed the For the People Act in March, the sweeping democracy reform legislation has been stuck in the evenly split Senate with no clear path forward. The VRAA has yet to be introduced in this Congress.
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