New York City shows us how to rank civility over extremism
Johnson is executive director of the Election Reformers Network, an organization of election experts advancing nonpartisan reforms to American democratic institutions.
Americans have been long talking about different reforms to our election system, but it's a young upstart — ranked-choice voting — that is rocketing to center stage.
In New York City, most people had never heard of ranked-choice voting when the city's Charter Commission announced in April that the reform would be on the November ballot. Yet a week ago, nearly three-quarters of city voters embraced the reform, despite opposition from the NAACP and the City Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. The result tripled the number of Americans living in jurisdictions using RCV to more than 12 million, with many more likely to follow.
In part the appeal of ranked-choice voting is practical; it is a simple, intuitive change that gives citizens more choice and more impact, and ensures election results reflect the will of the majority. In places like New York that rely on runoffs, it also saves taxpayers' money.
But practicalities don't propel popular movements; ranked-choice voting is on the rise across the country because it offers hope, hope to citizens who are fed up with polarization, who want civility and consensus in an era dominated by divisiveness and discord.
The election system in the United States is now the most extreme version of winner-take-all in the world, with a set of rules and incentives that force us to fight win-at-all-cost battles every cycle. Our voting rules, and our campaign finance system, conspire to under represent the majority and to prevent policies supported by vast majorities from becoming law. Ranked-choice voting can't fix the whole mess, and indeed there is a risk that too much hope is being pinned on this reform. But it can certainly help.
Simple plurality voting (where the candidate with the most votes wins even if opposed by the majority) is our norm not because this system is in the Constitution or endorsed by the Founders; instead it was simply all the available technology could manage when we started voting in the 1600s. Countries coming later to democracy have leap-frogged us with innovations that use the moment of voting to learn more about what voters want. And as in so many other areas of life, more data on what people want will mean better outcomes from our elections and our government.
Ranked-choice voting is a needed response to the grassroots mobilization that has significantly increased the number of candidates running for office and the number of crowded races. In 2018, 146 U.S. House primaries had five or more candidates, by the far the most in history, and more than twice the amount of the next closest year; 212 primaries had four or more candidates that year.
This context makes it certain some members of Congress are elected with support of only a fraction of the electorate. Our research found that, on average, members who entered the House after winning a primary with less than 35 percent are significantly more partisan than those who win with majority support. In other words, the mechanics of how we vote help create the growing extremism we all decry.
Following Maine's ground-breaking referendum for RCV in 2016, Massachusetts and Alaska will likely be the next states to vote on this system, in 2020. The reform is also gaining ground in cities and counties in states like Colorado and Utah that passed laws providing for it at the municipal level. And a recently introduced bill in Congress puts RCV elections on the horizon for all House and Senate primary and general elections.
Another Election Day result last week should put an end to the mistaken assumption among Republicans that RCV is not for them. In Kentucky, the GOP would almost certainly still control the governorship if RCV had been in place. Instead, Libertarian John Hicks was able to play the classic spoiler role, watching in amusement as his 28,000 votes tipped the election to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear over incumbent Matt Bevin by 5,000 votes. A Hicks Facebook post boasted of his spoiler role and mocked the GOP for not supporting the RCV system that would have given them the win.
Other Republicans who have seen first-hand how a divided primary can hurt the party are leading the charge for this reform.
After losing a three-way primary to the more conservative Corey Stewart, who was then soundly beaten in the general election, Virginia GOP Senate candidate Nick Freitas became the lead sponsor of RCV legislation in the Virginia Legislature. And former Massachusetts GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Nassour is now a vocal RCV advocate after watching her party primary pick the least electable of three challengers to Elizabeth Warren.
At Election Reformers Network, we have seen overseas how reforming election rules can reduce this polarization, while increasing voter confidence and improving public policy. This perspective gives us faith that Americans are not irretrievably divided — faith that reforms like ranked-choice voting can lead us to a better politics.
Ranked-choice voting used to be a "nice to have" favored by academics and small liberal cities. In an atmosphere of increasing political extremism, and in the context of much more crowded elections, ranked-choice voting is now a "need to have" for both parties and for our country.
- Ranked-choice voting in New York boosted by Michael Douglas ... ›
- New York City will decide if ranked-choice voting will make it there ... ›
- Ranked-choice voting backers eye momentum from NYC victory ... ›
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.