By Rob Richie
In my 23 years at FairVote, I’ve seen my share of advances and setbacks. I’ve gone from years of working from home to having a staff of more than ten, then twice seen our budget boom and bust. We’ve played lynchpin roles to introduce ideas like universal voter registration, a constitutional right to vote and the National Popular Vote plan, but making progress often has felt like two steps forward, one back.
That’s been particularly true of our core work on ranked choice voting (RCV, “instant runoff voting”) in both its winner-take-all and proportional representation (PR) form. From 2002-2008, RCV won 14 of 17 times on the ballot, peaking in 2006 with victories in measures to implement RCV in Minneapolis (MN), Oakland (CA), and Pierce County (WA) along with an advisory measure in support of the PR form of RCV in Davis (CA). We then had three years of mostly defeats, including by seven votes in Aspen (CO), by 4% in Burlington (VT), and, when seeking to win the PR version, by 5% in Cincinnati.
Greens know what it’s like, of course. Over these same years they’ve had their share of victories and defeats, times of elation and of frustration. Indeed, some have overlapped with ours at FairVote, as Green activists have played a key role in some of the most important campaigns for RCV. Throughout, the state of the world and our nation’s politics has provided a near-daily reminder of the urgent need for a politics where new voices can speak truth to power. Passively following the path of least resistance and the “lesser evil” is not an option in these complex times of war, ecological deterioration, inequality and economic uncertainty.
RCV represents a necessary step forward to a politics of pluralism and shared representation. When used to elect one person, it means that voters can rank their favorite candidates without any calculation of ‘wasted votes.” Instead, you rank the candidates, and if your first choice ends up in last, your ballot goes to your next choice until a candidate wins with a majority. When used to elect more than one person, the ranking is the same, but there’s a key new feature: the percentage of the vote needed to win declines in relation to the number of seats. When electing nine, as they do in Cambridge (MA), it takes just over 10% to win – as was key to the 2013 win in Cambridge by Nadeem Mazen, a then-29- year-old Arab American who went from being a spokesperson for Occupy Boston to city council in his first run for office.
For those seeking to crack the code of plurality, winner-takeall politics, I have good news: ranked choice voting is on the move. We’re gaining new allies, finding new opportunities and overcoming old forces of resistance. Embracing this movement Ranked Choice Voting: Embracing a move from margins to the mainstream for RCV to the mainstream does mean working with allies that reformers might have expected – but it’s essential to victory.
Let’s start with the drive to win RCV in Maine. Last fall, just days before the November elections, the Maine Secretary of State okayed the language of a petition to establish RCV for all primary and general elections for state and congressional elections, starting in 2018. A massive volunteer effort flowered, covering more than 100 polling places and collecting far more than half the signatures necessary to place RCV on the 2016 ballot.
The campaign that has developed is truly exciting. They’ve developed partnerships across the political spectrum and across the state, including leading Democrats, Republicans independents and Greens and community leaders from small rural towns to the bigger cities along the coast. The state’s leading newspapers have endorsed RCV, and it seems that it’s a rare day that some backer doesn’t have yet another letter in a local Maine paper making the case for RCV. (See RCVMaine.com)
We’ve also made giant strides in overcoming the frustrations we’ve experienced with our voting equipment industry – one dominated by for-profit vendors who are far more likely to see RCV as an opportunity to get more money from customers than problem-solve. Due to years of effort and pushing forward for implementation of RCV in cities adopting it, we’re reaching a tipping point where the major vendors will have ways to run RCV elections. That should only get better in just the next four years, to the point where consideration of RCV can entirely be a matter of policy debate, not logistics and associated costs.
That change is allowing serious talk of RCV in more cities, including Seattle, New York, Washington, D.C., and, on this year’s ballot, Duluth (MN). It also means looking for chances to go statewide, including with unlikely allies. For instance, most Greens hate the “Top Two primary,” which knocks out all but two candidates in low-turnout, unrepresentative primary electorates – and contributed to California having the greatest single decline in voter turnout of any state in the nation from 2010 to 2014. But a growing number of Top Two advocates are interested in ways of building RCV into their proposal – perhaps a “top four” proposal with RCV in both the primary and the general, or variations of the Louisiana system that get rid of a pre-general election contest entirely.
Look also for a new bill in Congress in the coming year to make a huge change: require all states with more than one House Member to use RCV in multi-winner districts, including wherever possible with five-seat districts and a victory threshold of 17% of the vote. The prospect of such legislation seemed remote just a few years ago, but now I see it as eminently winnable in the next decade. It provides a fluid way to elect more women, people of color and other kinds of diversity, and represents by far the best way to end gerrymandering, reduce polarization between the major parties, and eliminate today’s partisan skew that means Republicans can control the House with just 45% of the national vote, and in turn make them prisoner of their shrinking base rather than evolve with today’s changing electorate.
Many of those arguments aren’t of much interest to Greens, but each one brings to our reform drive a constituency that can help win change. We’ll be doing a lot of that in the years ahead, with growing chances to win change wherever you are and work with people you might never expected to be allies Keep in touch with us at FairVote.org for new wins and new ways to get involved with this reform drive in your community.
Rob Richie has directed FairVote since 1992. His office is in Takoma Park, Maryland. He is co-author of Whose Votes Count. He is a guest on many national media including NPR, C-SPAN, NBC News, CNN, and FOX. Rob has been a speaker at the American Political Science Association conventions, National Latino Congresso, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. He and his wife Cynthia Terrell live with their three children in Takoma Park.