The History of FairVote: The Middle Years

Posted by John Patrick Thomas on October 24, 2017

Back in 1993, a year after its founding, Rob Richie and Cynthia Terrell’s organization “CPR” became The Center for Voting and Democracy to reflect how it was becoming an innovative thought leader on electoral reform. Over the next three years, the Center expanded its research and advocacy efforts.

Early on, the Center made a mark for its vigorous defense of law professor Lani Guinier, in particular her beliefs about proportional representation as she was considered to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division. The controversy motivated the fledgling organization.

Howie Fain, a founding member of Citizens for Proportional Representation and an early board member, said “in the early days of the board, one of the most frustrating things I remember is feeling powerless - why weren't we bigger and more powerful - as the surreal hatchet job on Lani Guinier played out. But that debacle made us want to do better.”

In 1994, the Center brought an impressive group of political insiders together for the release of a research report, “Dubious Democracy,” ranking the competitiveness of each state’s congressional elections and showcasing the role of winner-take-all elections. The Center made headway at advocating for fair representation as solutions to voting rights cases, such as in Worcester County, Md. It held two well-attended national conferences, including one in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

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Steven Hill had become the west coast director, where he first sparked an effort to put the fair representation form of the ballot in Seattle, then moved to San Francisco and successfully persuaded a task force and ultimately the Board of Supervisors to place the same reform on the ballot. The 1996 measure fell short 56 percent-44 percent, but set the stage for future victories by gaining critical political support and helping grow the allied Californians for Electoral Reform.

Developmentally, the Center was coming into its own as a growing nonprofit. Initially, funding was provided by individual supporters, but as its impact grew and former Congressman John Anderson became its board chair, the Center earned support from major donors and foundations. By 1997, the Center’s budget exceeded $100,000, and it had earned grants from the likes of the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The Center even had a website, which they soon named fairvote.org, a harbinger of things to come. Howie Fain recalled, “I still remember the time when Rob said that we can start communicating with each other by something called 'email,' since it appeared that we now all had a home computer.  Nervously, we all jumped in.”

The Center still operated from Richie and Terrell’s home, but now with both a growing organization and growing family, it was time for a change. In 1999, it hired a team of new program staff and moved into offices in Takoma Park, Md.

The growing movement and its coalition of activists had built the organizational foundation to make the most of a new millennium -- one starting with a presidential election that drew even more intense scrutiny to the rules of our elections.

Next week: FairVote’s impact on a broad array of reforms, as well as a renewed focus on its original core goals of ranked choice voting and fair representation.

 


 
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