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Special Edition: The Many Faces of Reform

Released September 15, 2009

A FairVote Innovative Analysis by Paul Fidalgo and Rob Richie

Fact in Focus:

  • Number of FairVote citations in New York Times editorials in the past month: two. Number of such citations based on our research and writing on our central reform areas: zero.

Today we take a break from our typical Innovative Analysis to explain why we see these writings as important, highlighting recent examples of their influence - and ask you to share your ideas with us.

FairVote's association with certain major reforms has shaped our identity in many people's minds. For some, we have always been and will always be "those guys (and gals) who want proportional representation." (We still do, of course.) To others, we're the ones behind instant runoff voting, or the group that got us thinking about universal voter registration or how to secure a national popular vote for president. All of those things are true--we are, in fact, "those guys." We have taken ideas that might once have seemed "exotic," even "fringe," and moved them into the mainstream of serious policy consideration, making apparent their potential and practicality.

This list of reforms to some can seem disparate and unrelated. But a closer look tells a different story. All of the broad, sweeping reforms we champion (like instant runoff voting, a national popular vote for president, proportional voting for legislatures and a universal right to vote) stem from a fundamental principle that we see as essential to a vibrant, healthy American democracy: we must respect every vote and every voice. That principle governs our proposals for fair access to participation, fair elections and fair representation. To achieve fairer elections, we support instant runoff voting to honor majority rule while accommodating more voices in political debate and back the National Popular Vote plan for president so that every vote for our highest office is equal. To achieve fairer representation, we advocate proportional voting systems that better reflect the political and social diversity of an electorate. To achieve fairer access to participation, we seek 100% voter registration and a right to vote enshrined in the Constitution.

But those three goals aren't limited to our "signature reforms." Other systemic changes--some expansive, some more technical--also flow naturally from our ideals, and they too demand our attention, analysis and labors because they serve democratic principles and can trigger meaningful improvements of our political process. We use our innovative analyses to highlight these ideas, not bound by a rigid focus on certain reforms that too often limits opportunities for needed debate about furthering our core principles. Here are examples of how FairVote has an impact on these issues - and the role of our Innovative Analysis series in serving our mission.

Elections to fill U.S. Senate vacancies: With the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy and the reality show-like corruption drama of Rod Blagojevich, an issue that may have seemed distant and abstract has been pushed to the forefront of national debate. FairVote was ahead of the pack. In 2007, South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson's health crisis led us to research how we fill Senate vacancies. We published commentary and an edition of Innovative Analysis on the case for abandoning the practice of allowing governors to appoint replacements when U.S. Senate seats became vacant - pointing out that governors had appointed nearly a quarter of all senators serving since the 1913 enactment of the 17th Amendment requiring direct elections. The editorial boards of the Washington Post and New York Times used our research in calling for elections to fill all vacancies after the 2008 vacancy scandal in Illinois. In 2009, we published op-eds in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun and the McClatchy News Service arguing our position, worked with Sen. Russ Feingold on his proposed constitutional amendment to require elections, testified before Congress in favor of the Feingold amendment and spurred legislation requiring special elections for Senate vacancies that was signed into law in Connecticut and passed both chambers in Rhode Island.

And just in time. With the appointment of Florida's newest senator (tapped by the man running for that very seat), and once other expected appointments are finalized in Texas and possibly Massachusetts, the portion of the U.S. population represented by unelected U.S. Senators will inch ever closer to 30 percent--a telling FairVote factoid cited recently by the likes of the New York Times and Associated Press.

Improving the presidential primary process: Among the chorus of voices calling for modest changes to a presidential nomination process that is universally understood as chaotic and unwieldy, FairVote has stood out among national reform groups in drawing attention to broad and substantive potential solutions. In 2005, we spotlighted and renamed the "American Plan," which subsequently earned the endorsement of the Young Democrats of America and the California Democratic Party. In 2007, we established Fixtheprimaries.com, an initiative that convened advocates of several different reform approaches behind the general goal of encouraging the major parties to work together to make improvements. The project led to a cover story in the Nation magazine and numerous television and radio appearances. Our spring 2008 Innovative Analysis on Delegating Democracy made both bold and practical proposals for reform of the primary process - including changes relating to schedule, suffrage rights and voting methods.

This year, we took our vision and our process a step further--in an op-ed and in testimony provided to both major party commissions considering reforms, we suggested even more sweeping change, including a state-by-state series of contests culminating in a final, decisive national primary election. In our official testimony and reports, we have also offered a bevy of other reforms, both large and small, focused on making the nomination contests more democratic, more accessible, and better constructed to allow for a substantive, meaningful vetting process for our highest office. Our August 2009 Innovative Analysis on turnout in the 2008 presidential primaries has drawn great interest.

"Public option" for voting equipment: Sometimes the obstacles to our reform efforts are themselves indicators of the need for other necessary changes. We have gained important insights into our broken election administration regime through how our voting equipment industry has had such difficulty implementing ranked choice voting methods despite it being a technically straightforward task.

Looking at election administration through that lens has helped us broaden our perspective and develop a position including several changes: a government-owned "public option" (not to be confused with the flashpoint of the health care debate) that would always be available to jurisdictions needing trustworthy, open source equipment; a publicly owned process in general, including public subsidy of the certification process in exchange for much greater transparency and public control; and "modularity" for components of a vote-counting system such that they can each be independently tested and verified, thereby making elections more easily auditable and increase flexibility for improvements. FairVote's Rob Richie explained several suggestions in a recent blog post in the wake of troubling news that our country's dominant voting equipment manufacturer ES&S was buying the voting equipment operations of its main rival Diebold.

FairVote analyst Terry Bouricius last month released a report on a particular example of the trouble with "closed" election equipment platforms. In Aspen's 2009 citywide elections, Terry found that the machines (made by one of the largest election machine manufacturers in the country) entirely missed an alarming 0.4% of votes, votes only rediscovered thanks to the use of a more transparent, open process using commercially available machines. Though this was Aspen's first use of instant runoff voting (in an election with record turnout), IRV had nothing whatsoever to do with the uncounted ballots by the major manufacturer.

Our call for public control of the process has now been amplified greatly by the editorial page of the New York Times, which cited FairVote's leadership in an editorial on September 9.

How it all fits - and an invitation: The way we hold elections touches every area of public policy, and therefore it affects all of us. Our core reform areas are necessary for fundamentally altering the political landscape so that elections are fairer and to realize a political environment in which our leaders and representatives are more accountable and more likely to act in voters' best interests. But as you can see, the work doesn't--and can't--stop there. American democracy is a large and complex system, full of potential and good intentions, but also rife with flaws and areas calling out for improvement. FairVote is devoted to understanding the difference between what works and what doesn't, and helping to bring about real, meaningful change. With that goal in mind, we invite you to send us ideas that you think deserve the spotlight of a FairVote review--and a future Innovative Analysis.

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Other notable news:

  • The Motion Picture Academy knows a good thing when it sees it, and has adopted instant runoff voting to choose its winner for Best Picture. See our news release here.
  • IRV will be put to the voters of St. Paul (MN) this November, and local restaurants are getting into the act to drum up business and get voters educated. See the news report here.

  • A recent column in the Seattle Times makes an enthusiastic case for IRV in King County (WA).

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Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, communications director: paul(at)fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616