The FairVote Reformer: February 14, 2011
A healthy democracy matters more than ever
FairVote's first FairVote Reformer of 2011 comes at a momentous time in the worldwide movement for more democratic, participatory governance. The street protests in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab nations underscore the modern human drive to uphold the principle that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." No protection is more fundamental than ensuring a nation's citizens have a right to vote for their leaders in elections with real choices, free-flowing information and fair access to voting and representation.
Democracy as a whole in the United States is of course far more developed than in Egypt, yet our elections fall well short of the ideal. Most American voters can be safely ignored by candidates for federal office due to our electoral laws, millions of votes every election are lost due to outdated administrative processes, the complexity of our views and interests typically boil down to "either/or," and our leaders rarely debate our nation's great challenges with the substance and candor our complex times demand.
FairVote's research and analysis ground our case for electoral reforms designed to respect every vote and every voice. Some of our proposals initially may have seemed "unrealistic", but we've made terrific headway - and democracy based on consent of the governed demands nothing less. My special thanks go out to our loyal donors who make our work possible.
I'm excited about our advances and the promise of a new year. Progress cannot be taken for granted, of course. Basic access to voting is under attack in many states, and we can expect redistricting to underscore how far too many elected officials are willing to put partisan and incumbent interests over doing what's best for voters. This year we plan to increase attention to two longstanding goals: establishing an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution to stop voting rights from being another political football and establishing forms of proportional voting to give all voters equal opportunity to earn fair representation regardless of how redistricting lines are drawn. Look for new research and analysis to provide the intellectual grounding for these goals and our other major proposals such as the national popular vote plan for president, instant runoff voting and universal voter registration - each of which already is the subject of viable legislation moving in states.
Stay tuned, enjoy the latest newsletter, and, for a lighthearted exercise in democracy, please rank your choices at our new OscarVotes123 poll for Best Picture of the year!
Instant runoff voting (IRV, also known as "alternative vote", "ranked choice voting" and "preferential voting") is designed to accommodate increased voter choice and uphold majority rule. It simulates a "same day runoff", essentially, between the two strongest candidates, with the winner being the one who is ranked ahead of the other on more ballots. Used for decades to elect top offices in Australia (see a fun Aussie video about it here), Ireland and many private organizations, IRV has surged in use around the world in the past decade, including victories in ballot measures in the United States on every November election day since 2004. That support is grounded in voters' growing dissatisfaction with choices being limited to two and, in the words of a recent report by an influential international think tank, a plurality voting system that fails as "the worst of both possible worlds."
On May 5th the United Kingdom is expected to vote on IRV in the second national referendum in its history. Yes to Fairer Votes is leading the charge; leading papers back the change, The Independent, Guardian, and Financial Times among them. Voters in Fort Collins (CO) will also vote on IRV this April in an initiative effort led by a broad coalition, with Red Wing (MN) voting on IRV in 2012. This November IRV will be used for the first time in St Paul (MN), Portland (ME) and Telluride (CO) and for a hotly contested open seat race for mayor in San Francisco -- across the Bay from Oakland, where 2010 mayoral election winner Jean Quan was outspent by some four-to-one, but was victorious due to more grassroots campaigning and reaching out to backers of trailing candidates. One of those candidates, council woman Rebecca Kaplan, recently touted the value of IRV in that election.
There aren't many opportunities to be like Matt Damon or Julia Roberts. But this month, they and their fellow Hollywood stars are voting for the Best Picture Oscar with instant runoff voting -- and you can too at FairVote's OscarVotes123.com. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a long history of using innovative voting systems: Since 1934, nominations have been elected with the choice voting method of proportional voting that FairVote recommends for legislative elections, as highlighted last month by Slate's Timothy Noah
FairVote has created OscarVotes123.com to explain IRV and choice voting and address questions about the system -- it currently features an IRV poll. We applaud famed election analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com fame for his fascinating analysis in which he explains IRV and shows who would win Best Picture if the nation's critics were the voters.
The National Popular Vote plan would guarantee that the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. would be elected president. It is advancing in several states around the nation, building on its remarkable progress of passing at least one chamber in 21 states and being signed into law in six states and the District of Columbia. It has an opportunity to govern the 2012 election, with states representing a majority of the Electoral College needing to adopt it by July 2012. Recent media coverage of state bills includes an Alaska Public Radio story, an editorial in Glens Falls (NY) and in Connecticut News Junkie.
FairVote's Rob Richie is a co-author of Every Vote Equal, recently updated in a third edition that will soon be available at www.everyvoteequal.com. We also have our own website resources, including our Presidential Election Inequality report, soon to be out in a second edition. Richie joined with Matt Morris in aHuffington Post article on the potential of an Electoral College failure in 2012 where no candidate wins an Electoral College majority, putting Congress in charge of picking the president. Matt also explains on the FairVote blog just how low a percentage of the popular vote could have been necessary to win the 2008 election - the winner could have lost the popular vote by 40%.
States and cities have the power to enact much of what we support, which is why we historically have focused our policy proposals and strategic action at those levels of government -- see 2011-12 state legislation and ways you can take action to support reform. At the same time, we believe Congress should take action to enact national minimum standards in several areas in elections and, ultimately, take bolder action to advance reforms in areas like instant runoff voting and proportional voting. Here is a review of notable federal legislation -- visit our federal legislation page for more information and easy ways to write your Members about these bills.
A Constitutional Right to Vote and HJR 28: FairVote fellow Jo McKeegan writes a regular blog series on voting rights and the increasingly obviously argument that we must ensure that voting rights never become just another pawn in the partisan battles between the major parties (See Rob Richie's recent contribution to this series). We must establish the clear principle that, just like our First Amendment rights, the right to vote is essential to representative democracy. We need confidence that every eligible voter vote has full access to vote, but that no ineligible vote should be cast. That means much clearer and grounded action and national standards on areas like voter registration, voting equipment and suffrage rights. To advance the conversation, we endorse Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.'s HJR 28, legislation that will be introduced this month to establish an affirmative right to vote in the U.S. Constitution.
The Redistricting Transparency Act: Winner-take-all elections make the partisan composition of legislative districts determinative for who wins most elections - and whether they are even remotely competitive. Redistricting is a seductive power for state legislators and partisans in the shadows, and it's time to put as much of the process in the sunlight as possible. We endorse Congressman Jim Cooper's Redistricting Transparency Act (HR 419) and applaud Congressman Heath Shuler for his Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (HR 453) even if disagreeing with some of its particulars.
Making the US House More Representative: FairVote's Rob Richie recently had a New York Times letter touting Congressman Alcee Hastings' forthcominglegislation to establish a commission on representation in the U.S. House. It would feature examination of two issues: whether the number of U.S. House Representatives should increase after a century of being frozen at 435 and whether states should regain the power to use proportional voting to elect House Members.
Voter Registration Reform in the States: States continue to take the lead in modernizing voter registration and moving us toward a sensible universal voter registration system in which every eligible voter is registered once to vote and no ineligible voter is registered to vote. One of our signature proposals is voter pre-registration for young people, as adopted in both Democratic-run and Republican-run states in recent years. This year, viable legislation is moving again, and Project Vote has published an advocacy toolkit. Meanwhile, Utah is showing indications of leading the nation in voter registration modernization.
With the mid-term elections over and legislatures back in session, redistricting will soon be in full swing in states across the United States. Some states have already released the Census data that will be used to essentially determine representation for most voters for the next decade. This year allows more opportunities than ever before for civic groups and individuals to track the process, propose their own plans and push for public interest outcomes -- and learn just why the route to fairness must include replacing exclusive reliance on winner-take-all elections with American forms of proportional voting. Redistricting mapmakers' power over representation is a direct consequence of reliance on winner-take-all elections in which 51% of the votes earns 100% of representation, and 60% of votes makes a district nearly certain to be represented by that super-majority for years to come.
FairVote has excellent resources on redistricting, including extensive press coverage from 2001-02 (just click on http://archive.fairvote.org/redistricting/reports/remanual/va.htm and substitute your state's initials at the end of the URL to see other press). This year, we're also partnering with leading reformers onEndGerrymandering.com, which features excerpts from the excellent new documentary Gerrymandering, now available on DVD. We also are tweeting news on redistricting around the country on a near-daily basis - you can easily review the www.twitter.com/endgerrymander archive with a simple click.
Recent articles on the FairVote blog provide a reminder that proportional voting, which greatly weakens the power to gerrymander outcomes, is already a reality in most well-established democracies. FairVote's Wael Abdel Hamid has been examining the political situation in Egypt and other Arab nations with an eye toward issues of representation. National leaders and opposition leaders in nations like Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan are all suggesting forms of proportional representation, as explained recently in a must-read overview of the transition to democracy in the Washington Post by the Hoover Institution's Larry Diamond.
FairVote's Board members and current and past staffers and interns have been busy. Here are a few highlights:
FairVote's long-time board chairman John B. Anderson serves on the FairVote Board and teaches law school at Nova Southeastern. Celebrating his 89thbirthday on February 15, he remains a regular source for media comment, including observations on the state of independent politics and electoral reforms like instant runoff voting in a recent article in Newsweek.
FairVote's current chair Krist Novoselic regularly speaks about electoral reform and new directions in politics on campuses. In his music career, he plays on a song on the Foo Fighters album. Fellow board member Hendrik Hertzberg regularly addresses electoral reform in the New Yorker magazine, including pieces in January in the magazine and his blog on the filibuster.
Executive director Rob Richie last month explained the rise of support for instant runoff voting in the United States in a well-attended lecture in the British houses of parliament, with attendees including Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. He also spoke twice recently on redistricting and proportional voting at American University's Washington College of Law and on February 25th is giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the North Carolina Political Science Association. He also had a letter published this month in the New York Times and regularly contributes to his Huffington Post blog.
Several former FairVote staffers also continue to advance reform. Author Steven Hill, a reform mainstay since helping found FairVote in 1992, recently published an oped calling for proportional voting in the New York Daily News and regularly speaks both here and abroad about his books and ideas, including onMarch 30th at Georgia Tech. Former Vermont state legislator Terry Bouricius recently gave three well-received talks about instant runoff voting in Maine, a state where Rep. Diane Russell has introduced legislation to move to IRV to elect governors after a series of low-plurality wins.
FairVote is just about to close applications for a new round of democracy fellows and summer interns. Current fellows Jo McKeegan and Toby Rowe have made terrific contributions to FairVote, while our current group of interns (Wael Abdel Hamid, Loqmane Jamil, Matt Morris, Sujung Kim and Andy Andrianantoandro) are also all boosting our research and communications. For those interested in civic learning, don't miss Loqmane's review of mock elections in schools -- and the fact that the Election Assistance Commission is accepting proposals to supporting holding such elections through February 15th.