Fisher is deputy director of Unite America, which works to enact and helps finance political reform efforts and candidates "who put people over party." (It is a donor to The Fulcrum.)
Our Unite America Institute has just graded each state on the status of four key electoral reforms: voting at home, independent redistricting commissions, ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan or open primaries. This was our second annual report, and it finds incremental improvements since last summer, as eight states notched higher marks.
Yet nine states still have failing grades. — and another 21 have earned a D. (California leads the country with an A-.)
Only a few states have improved their standing from a year ago.
Within the last year, two states (Virginia and Nevada) established permanent absentee voting lists, which allow voters to voluntarily opt in to a system that automatically mails them a ballot for all future elections. Virginia's reform was complemented by a switch to no-excuse absentee voting and an extension of the deadline to mail ballots. Assembly Bill 345 in Nevada also included provisions expanding poll location options, and allowing for online and same-day registration.
Five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, and Wyoming) earned points, because the Democratic Party in those states used ranked-choice voting for their presidential primaries. By all accounts, the process was a success that allowed voters to share their full preferences and the states also showed an increase in voter participation. Utah picked up a point, as well, with both parties using ranked-choice voting for their state and federal nominating caucuses.
Four cities (Palm Desert, Calif., Easthampton, Mass., Eastpoint, Mich., and New York) also passed measures to adopt ranked-choice voting. In New York alone, where 74 percent of voters said the system should be used for city council and mayoral races, the reform will eventually triple the number of voters using RCV nationwide, and will save the city more than $10 million each election cycle.
Democracy reform progress over the past decade.Unite America
If the last year saw electoral reform policies inch forward, the next year offers an opportunity to leap ahead.
Ongoing ballot measure campaigns in three states would end the practice of partisan gerrymandering by turning over the map drawing process to an ethics board in North Dakota, to a redistricting commission in Virginia and to an independent commission in Arkansas.
Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, and North Dakota will have the chance to approve final-four voting — a powerful combination of nonpartisan primaries with ranked-choice voting for the top four finishers in the fall — for state and federal elections. RCV is also looking to be on the ballot in Massachusetts, where more than 2,000 volunteers recently successfully completed the first online petition gathering drive to qualify for a ballot in the country's history. Florida could improve its standing, too, where voters will be asked to approve a top-two nonpartisan primary system.
While transitioning to 100 percent vote-at-home systems ahead of this November's elections is an unattainable goal for most states, the current coronavirus crisis has elevated the importance of implementing more permanent policy over the long-term, like Utah and Colorado have done. The 2021 legislative session will likely bring a flurry of legislation to empower all voters to cast more secure, informed and cost-efficient ballots. States like Arizona (where 79 percent of 2018 votes were cast by mail), Montana (72 percent) and New Mexico (63 percent) are leading candidates for making the switch.
Measuring the progress of the movement to put voters first is an important practice, as our community must demonstrate how quickly we are advancing policies that put voters first.
Progress on many important issues — from women's suffrage to gay marriage — has often started slowly, and then happened all at once. This year promises to serve as a potential inflection point that can begin to rapidly accelerate the progress being made. With some new wins on the board, we could be on the precipice of repeating a scale of meaningful change to our democracy not seen since the progressive era.
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Had "Did Not Vote" been a candidate for president in 2016, they would have won handedly. With 41.3 percent of the vote, this block of the electorate significantly outpaced the share of all voters who chose Hillary Clinton (28.5 percent) or Donald Trump (27.3 percent).
Despite the best efforts of both parties to turn out citizens to the polls, voter apathy remains a well-documented reality of American politics. It's an especially alarming reality when compared to our peers. Of the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents the world's 32 richest and most developed countries, the United States ranks 26th in voter turnout by eligible citizens.
American nonvoters are the subject of recently released research, The 100 Million Project, commissioned by the Knight Foundation and the centerpiece for a Tuesday online forum on civic engagement sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Informed by a survey of 4,000 persistent non-voters nationwide and 8,000 persistent non-voters in 10 battleground states, the research is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of why many Americans don't exercise their civic duty.
The methodology used is unique in today's political industry. Almost always, pollsters terminate public opinion surveys as soon as respondents indicate they are unlikely to, or will not, vote in the next election. The result is an entire swath of the electorate whose attitudes and preferences go under analyzed and untold.
There are many reasons citizens don't vote, according to the research.
First and foremost, non-voters report a scarcity of candidates who truly motivate and inspire them to participate.
Second, they lack faith in the system; 48 percent of non-voters do not believe the results of elections represent the will of the people, and they are more likely than regular voters to believe election results are not reported accurately.
Third, non-voters are less likely to believe the actions of the president and other elected officials have an impact on their life.
And finally, news is viewed 25 percent less often by non-voters compared to voters, suggesting they are less informed.
There also remain simple reasons that dictate why voters don't participate, including high barriers to entry in our antiquated electoral systems.
We can help engage non-voters by making it easier to cast a ballot. Proactively mailing every voter a ballot — which is what will happen in just five states this year — could boost participation by up to 9 percent, according to new research. And the gains are equal across party affiliation and most likely to benefit constituencies that tend to vote less frequently — including young people, minorities and the poor.
To overcome the top reason why voters don't vote — a dearth of options they actually believe in — we should consider reforms that could lead to a multiparty democracy. Lee Drutman's recent book, "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop," argues that a combination of ranked-choice voting and multimember districts would open our system up to new competition, and likely give more Americans more reason to vote.
But perhaps non-voters will change behavior on their own. Surprisingly, 71 percent of the non-voters surveyed say they plan to vote in this year's presidential election, with 78 percent of those respondents saying they were absolutely certain. This seems to be because 57 percent believe the 2020 contest is more important than previous elections and only 33 percent believe the country is on the right track.
Of course, the political science literature is littered with consensus that the fact voters say they're going to vote is a terrible indicator for if they actually will.
Candidates, political consultants and organizations who often consume themselves with only engaging the most likely to vote should consider whether — by engaging America's largest political constituency — they take the lead in creating a more representative and functional government.
Visit IVN.us for more coverage from Independent Voter News.
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Fisher is deputy director of reforms and partnerships at Unite America, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to "enacting structural political reforms and electing candidates who put people over party."
More than 1 million ballots were spoiled on candidates who had already left the presidential race when 14 states voted on Super Tuesday. Three major candidates had ended their bids following the South Carolina primary that was held three days earlier — but early voters and those participating by mail had no way to change their vote in most states.
In-person early voting and vote by mail are common sense reforms that increase voter turnout, especially in primary elections; we encourage these types of reforms that expand the electorate by reducing barriers to participation -- but we can make the system better.
The answer is a simple change to how we vote: ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference, from favorite to least favorite. In a presidential primary, if a candidate does not reach the 15 percent viability threshold, voters who cast first place votes for that candidate have their second place vote counted.
Unite America research
Under the reform, an early-voting supporter of Pete Buttigieg whose second favorite candidate was Joe Biden would have had their vote counted. Likewise, someone casting a vote from home for Amy Klobachar whose second preference was Elizabeth Warren could have had their voice heard after Klobuchar dropped out Monday morning; if Warren did not meet the 15 percent viability threshold on election night, the voter's third choice would have counted.
In the three days between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobachar all ended their presidential bids. These candidates alone accounted for over 800,000 wasted votes.
Nevada already successfully used ranked-choice voting in 2020 for voters participating early. Nearly 75,000 voters cast ranked-choice ballots while only 30,000 participated at in-person caucuses. All Democratic primary voters in Alaska, Kansas, Wyoming and Hawaii will use the system.
Unite America research
RCV is not a partisan issue, though. On Tuesday, over 100,000 spoiled votes were cast for former Rep. Joe Walsh, who dropped his primary bid against President Trump weeks ago. In 2016, hundreds of thousands of votes in the Republican primary were similarly spoiled as candidates dropped out of the race.
As states like Massachusetts and Alaska consider joining Maine in conducting their general elections with ranked-choice voting, both the Republican and Democratic parties should consider upgrading their elections to a system that puts voters first by giving them more voice, choice and power in the process.
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