A bill now being considered in the Washington State Legislature is aimed at allowing local jurisdictions the ability to decide how they would conduct primary elections. The “Local Options Bill” would allow cities, counties, etc. to use ranked choice voting for a single general election, doing away the need for primary balloting.
It’s a bill that points to the advantages of RCV: giving voters more voice with their ballots, cost savings to taxpayers, removing the need for “strategic” voting, candidates running positive, issue-driven campaigns. The proposal also would allow the implementation of proportional representation, leading to elected officials that better represent their constituencies, countering the need for partisan gerrymandering and deflecting the influence of money that is soiling our politics.
Communities of color are notoriously under-represented in most state governments and the Local Options Bill would have a positive effect on how these communities are represented in Olympia. Recently, George Cheung and Colin Cole from More Equitable Democracy – a Washington state-based nonprofit – paid a visit to FairVote’s offices, where they brought us up to speed on their outreach work. The Q&A that follows was edited from a longer interview.
Rich Robinson: Before we get into the Local Options Bill, tell us a little bit about More Equitable Democracy and what you guys have been up to.
George Cheung: Sure. More Equitable Democracy is a nonprofit advocacy organization. We’re really working at the intersection of racial equity and democracy reform, so I think starting with election reform is really; it makes a lot of sense. We all know that the census is coming up and it doesn’t look great. There’s a lot of cutbacks and a lot of changes to the census, and so it’s going to have a lot of serious implications particularly for communities of color and for political representation. And so we’re looking at starting to engage people where they're at as we’re talking about and getting ready for our full census count and then starting to pivot around redistricting and redistricting reform. We tend to not take the frame of just redistricting reform because there are so many other things than just who draws the lines. It’s really about how the whole system of elections is created to either lift up voices or create some significant barriers, so we’re really interested in starting to test out some of these ways of engaging people who are reformers and particularly people of color to make sure that we can build strong coalitions to really transform our democracy.
Robinson: How does that translate to outreach in the field?
Cheung: A lot of what we’re trying to do is kind of twofold, and I’ll let Colin talk about some of the work with building a base of electoral reform supporters, but I’m really interested in working in communities of color to help develop long term democracy reform agendas, and at its core, I think electoral reform needs to be very central. But there's other issues like fair courts and election administration – a lot of things from soup to nuts that if we apply the racial equity lens to it, I think that a lot of organizations and leaders of color will come to conclusions that a lot of our systems in democracy need to be changed and these changes need to be led by those most impacted by those systems.
And so starting with building and analysis and providing the tools for these let’s say immigrant rights organizations or other African-American groups so that they understand what's at stake and that they can lead. That’s really where we want to start.
So in Oregon for instance, we’ve participated in the planning process led by the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon about what their top priorities are for reforming democracy, and they’ve landed on three things. The first is creating a pipeline, a leadership pipeline for candidates of color to get prepared and otherwise ready to run successfully for office, and that has been clear to them for a long time. So this has been a commitment that they’ve carried. Second is money in politics. Oregon actually doesn't have any contribution limits and is only starting to rebuild a public financing system in the city of Portland which have been approved and taken away before, so they’re starting over again. And the third thing is really around elections reform electoral systems reform looking at ranked choice voting and multi-member districts and proportional representation as a path to political empowerment. They’ve called this collectively their holy trinity of reforms that really as taken as a whole has really great promise of really transforming their system so that the voices in their communities truly are heard in the political system.
Robinson: Colin what has your role been as an organizer?
Colin Cole: I’ve been working in campaign side of things on issue campaigns or candidate campaigns and then around legislative advocacy, making sure that folks are showing up at hearings to testify on behalf of bills, making sure folks are aware of what’s being discussed in our state capital Olympia, and just generally helping keep folks informed. I’m trying to help us connect with our local communities and advocacy organizations and get folks really up to speed on some of the issues here which aren’t as complex as it might seem on their surface. And so once you start diving in, it’s a lot easier to get folks engaged.
Robinson: Where have you been spending your time?
Cole: A little bit more time up in Bellingham and Whatcom County in general, which on the subject of electoral reform is actually really interesting. They’ve gone through a few changes in the last couple years. Back in 2015, the Whatcom County Council was looking to switch from how they elect their county councilors, which is currently or was then all at-large. Everybody just ran countywide, but that wasn’t very popular for a lot of the folks.
Bellingham is a really dense city and they were sort of winning all the elections and folks up there didn’t find that was a very representative system. Now what’s interesting is some of the County Councilors up there were interested in looking to a proportional representation-type system, a multi-winner district or having two multi-winner districts that elected in different ways, but they found they were blocked by Washington State law, which currently prohibits experimenting with local jurisdictions and how they run their electoral system. So currently, you must run by position and you must elect to the top two in the primary which takes a lot of the electoral reforms that we’re talking about like ranked choice voting and multi-winner districts. It really kind of cuts them off at the knees.
So instead, Whatcom County switched to a district support system and they’ve had seven county council districts now since 2015, but that’s not very popular right now either because a lot of folks are still finding sort of the same problems where folks are packed into districts, or districts don’t fully represent their actual communities. And so again, there is interest in looking at something different but we really need to start looking at changing state law out in Washington before these local jurisdictions have the freedom to be able to experiment in self-governance.
Robinson: Which leads us to the Local Options Bill that’s been introduced.
Cole: Yes, correct. The Local Options Bill was sort of the self-evident solution to some of these problems we’re facing where state law really restricts your ability to experiment with alternate voting systems. It exists to allow local jurisdictions, if they would like, to develop alternative systems to our top two primary system or to running by position and engaging in multi-winner districts. And if it should be kind of a slam dunk, because it really isn't impacting any change on its own. It’s simply opening the door to let local jurisdictions that are interested in experimenting with these systems engage again in self-governance. And we're moving along in both the House and the Senate and it should be coming before a committee here soon.
Robinson: In your travels around the state, in conversations with folks in various jurisdictions, do you feel that there is an appetite for these kinds of changes that these municipalities could be making?
Cheung: I’d say tentatively yes. Because sometimes I feel like a lot of people just have never had this conversation before. So we’re in uncharted territory. And so sometimes it’s a bit of a learning curve to talk about that which they’ve lived with for their whole lives, and that the fact that they are needing to think “oh this isn’t the way it has to be.” So starting from that point, there’s a lot of education to do.
I will say that one of the major challenges has been really only one short flirtation with ranked choice voting in Washington state. That was in Pierce County about 10 years ago. And there were some major challenges. We used to have a blanket primary system where you could jump from “I want to vote for a Democrat for governor,” “I want to vote for a Republican for secretary of state,” and so on. That was ruled unconstitutional. And so even though we had it for many generations, it was taken away. So there was a period of time in Pierce County where there was the pick a party primary which generally voters did not like, they did not want to be boxed in to identifying with one party.
And so the Grange, a political organization, moved a statewide ballot initiative to move to top two. That was legally challenged, and so for a while that was not available either. And so Pierce County as they were going through this charter review process was thinking “Ok, our only two options at this point are pick a party primary and ranked choice voting. We know that voters hate pick a party, so the only thing left is ranked choice voting so I guess we should try it.” So begrudgingly they recommended ranked choice voting. They implemented it and it was challenging on many fronts.
Robinson: We’ve seen ranked choice voting very successfully used, particularly in the last election in Minneapolis and St. Paul. How valuable are those kind of stories when you’re talking to folks in Washington state?
Cheung: Well, I've been working in LGBT advocacy for a long time as well, and so to have two transgender people of color get elected is just astounding. And I feel like for some people who have never thought about electoral reform before, are now woke to the idea that, “Hey rules do matter,” and if you take out the primary which, you know, essentially you’re doubling the work of candidates you have to raise a lot of money – if you remove that artificial barrier then you have a really exciting general election where if you have strong movement building candidates who can really engage, knock on doors, and the dynamics of staying positive and asking for a second vote under ranked choice voting, to have the first African-American mayor elected in St. Paul, it’s really just very heartening and I think it’s a great opportunity to educate particularly people of color who have never thought about electoral systems reform before that elections have consequences. Yes, the rules matter. So I think this is a great opportunity and I’m really excited about the work that particularly Minnesota has done.
Cole: Another strength of these stories is really to engage voters that, like George, hadn't really thought about these issues before. Math and election nerds might already know some of the numbers, about how alternate voting systems can work or how the different breakdowns can increase representation. But that can be a little hard to get into if you’re not a numbers person. Meanwhile, having these personal stories of real outcomes, real elections, and real results. That’s a lot easier for people to wrap their heads around, and once you can kind of breakthrough that initial unfamiliarity with the subject, it becomes a much easier conversation to have, and folks I think are often much more enthusiastic.
Robinson: What is 2018 going to mean for your work?
Cheung: I think that there’s a lot of great promise, especially working to help build the coalitions for electoral reform, working with immigrant rights groups and other people of color-lead organizations to build their own democracy reform agenda.
Cole: I’ll just say that it seems like alternative voting systems in general aren’t so much of a weird niche issue anymore, that only get brought up in the extreme groups of any political organization. We saw that back in 2016 when Maine passed it statewide. We’ve seen an increasing number of jurisdictions and localities from cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Benton County, Oregon adopting these systems. And I think as we have more and more localities that are interested in these systems – whether or not they’re able to engage in them, like they may be blocked by state law as is the case in Washington – we’re going to start seeing a watershed moment as more and more organizations and communities are interested in these alternatives, and what they can mean for our representation. And I think the voice is only going to get louder and that this change is going to start really spinning up here faster and faster the more we go on.