Posted by Madeline Brown on July 17, 2017
When I was 14, I had my first experience with ranked choice voting (RCV). I was a freshman in high school in San Francisco, and we used it to elect my student body representatives. Given the city of San Francisco had been using RCV for every city election for nearly nine years, I was excited to be using it for our school elections. I saw it as a fair system that ensured the winners would have to appeal to larger portions of the student body in order to get elected. At the time, I was sure it would only be a few years before RCV was adopted in cities and states all over the US.
After graduating from high school, I moved to Georgia to attend Emory University, and knew that the state and the South, in general, had a history of voter suppression but I was optimistic that the progress made in recent decades would be significant. When I worked on my first campaign in 2014, it became quickly evident that unlike my hometown, systematic reforms like RCV were not in discussion in Atlanta and even more starkly there were still many people (mostly women, young people, and people of color) who were being denied the right to vote either via registration challenges or directly at the polls.
I spent two years registering hundreds of voters, working for groups that were challenging the Secretary of State’s office, and ultimately writing a thesis on the impact of Georgia registration procedures on minority applicants. My findings confirmed what I had been seeing first hand: under a particular verification system, applicants of color were nine times more likely to be rejected than white applicants.
Also, I noticed that Georgia had other issues. Turnout in most elections was low -- in midterms, it was worse. In the midterm Senate race I worked on in 2014, only 38% of eligible voters made it to the polls. Runoffs were cumbersome in Georgia, as each one costs more than the last and leaves voters more worn and disinterested in politics. Furthermore, turnout was so low in runoffs that it seemed these elections were a far cry from the democracy I had learned about in my American politics classes.
But the issue was not and is not only with Georgia. In that same 2014 midterm election, Georgia’s 38% turnout was actually above the national average of 36%. And when I worked on voting rights for people with disabilities in Seattle for Disability Rights Washington, I found a state with few voter suppression issues but many unrepresented people. The state in the 2016 gubernatorial election had 54/46 split leaning blue. While the US Congressional seats are split about 60/40, the state has not had a Republican senator since before 2000, has not had a Republican governor since 1985, and currently, both houses of the State Legislature are controlled by Democrats. These facts and the knowledge that a similar phenomenon occurs in my home state of California broadened my questions.
Even if Georgia had everyone registered, is the system used to elect U.S. Representatives the fairest one possible? Why even in states that champion voter accessibility are there still so many people who feel unrepresented and trapped?
I came to FairVote because I want to tackle these big questions. I am excited to be working with a team of people who are concerned about the structural inequities in our electoral system and are working to fix them. Every person deserves to be represented and to have their vote counted fairly. I look forward to contributing to FairVote’s work through my role as a research fellow, and learning from individuals on the research team who have been addressing issues of fair representation and advocating for voters.