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When Barack Obama Was a Leader in Seeking Fair Voting Systems

by Rob Richie // Published December 20, 2012
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President Barack Obama has a lot on his mind these days - fiscal cliff negotiations, gun control, cabinet appointments and spurring job creation, to name a few. But the state of our democracy also matters, as he briefly addressed in his election night speech when saying about long lines "We need to fix that." Our problems go deeper than long lines, of course - with the core of the problem being winner-take-all voting rules that divide America, marginalize voters, distort representation and  make governance more difficult.

We haven't had a president as informed about good ideas for taking on electoral reform since James Madison and the founding generation. Take, for example, the fact that on October 15, 2001, Obama - then a junior state senator in Illinois - reached across the aisle to introduce a bill with Republican Tom Walsh that would, if passed, put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to elect the Illinois House of Representatives by fair voting: three-seat districts, elected by voters given cumulative voting rights.

A year later, Obama introduced a bill that would have required that partisan primaries for congressional office be conducted by instant runoff voting (IRV, also called ranked choice voting) and allows local jurisdictions to use IRV elect their officers. As a law professor at the University of Chicago, Obama had taught Election Law using a textbook co-authored by Samuel Issacharoff, Pamela Karlan, and Richard Pildes, that includes a chapter dedicated to different electoral systems. One of FairVote's former staffers, Dan Johnson, was a student of Obama and has attested to his understanding of a full range of reform ideas.

Fair voting may have been unfamiliar to most Americans in 2001, but not to those in Illinois. In fact, Illinois elected its House of Representatives by fair voting for more than a hundred years. Illinois adopted fair voting in 1870 to alleviate polarization between northern and southern Illinois grounded in those regions' divided loyalties during the Civil War. Republicans dominated northern Illinois and Democrats southern Illinois, but fair voting allowed moderate Democrats and Republicans to be elected from all parts of the state, opening the door to cross-party coalition-building, independence from party leaders and effective governance even in the face of polarization.

Over the years, fair voting achieved its goals. Consistently, voters in all regions of the state - from Democratic strongholds in Chicago to rock-solid Republicans counties - elected representatives of both parties. Sharing constituents meant more legislation in common and meant that caucuses meeting separately represented the entire state, not just their strongholds. African Americans in the 1950s were elected from numerous white-majority districts, and women did better than they had under other systems.

After being repealed in 1980 in a populist drive to reduce the size of the Illinois house by a third, the legislature became far more polarized, with few competitive districts and one-party dominance. That change contributed to a commission led by former Republican governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Congressman and White House Counsel Abner Mikva calling for the return of cumulative voting.

Instant runoff voting was a newer idea in Illinois when Obama proposed it for Illinois congressional primaries in 2002, although that year it also earned the backing of future presidential opponent, John McCain. Since that time, IRV has been adopted in a number of jurisdictions nationwide, including California cities like San Francisco and Oakland and the largest cities in Maine, Minnesota and Tennessee.

IRV allows such jurisdictions to uphold majority rule without having to hold a second election, and the system seems to have done particularly well at promoting racial minority candidacies who benefit from holding decisive elections with greater turnout and less polarizing rhetoric. IRV allows broad choices on the ballot, as the ranking of candidates and rounds of counting ensure that vote-splitting will not result in a less popular plurality candidate winning because that candidate's votes were siphoned off by a similar candidate. This has special importance in partisan primaries, where often a number of similar candidates run against each other. In that context, IRV can ensure that the general election involves a contest between candidates who really represent a majority of voters in their parties.

The issues that led Obama to introduce fair voting and instant runoff voting in Illinois have never had greater relevance at the national scale than they do today. Congress is sharply divided and horribly unrepresentative of its constituencies. And the case for reform includes elections at all levels of government where voters have inadequate choices on the ballot as alternative voices are kept out for fear of splitting the vote.

In the Democratic convention speech in 2004 that introduced him to many Americans, President Obama said:

"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

We at FairVote, like most Americans, embrace that vision. But that is not the politics and representation that comes from winner-take-all voting rules. It is because of winner-take-all rules that the president did not bother campaigning in over 40 states during the fall campaign and why he has taken part in 19 events as president in North Carolina, but not one in South Carolina.

It's also why the U.S. House can be so rigid in its opposition to his policies, as a majority of voters in 2012 could vote for Democrats for the House, but only elect 46% of seats in districts so distorted by where voters live that Mitt Romney carried 228 of them compared to only 207 for Obama, despite losing the popular vote by over four-million votes. It's why New England doesn't have a single Republican House Member and why Democrats couldn't win a single House seat this year in a string of states running from Arkansas to eastern Washington.

As a president who has said he will never run for political office again, President Obama has a unique opportunity to address the dangers of our winner-take-all, all-or-nothing voting rules. Grounded in his knowledge of reform options, in his state's history with fair voting and in the commitment of his 2004 speech, the president has a remarkable opportunity to trigger a real dialogue about ways of reshaping American politics in his second term.