FairVote is starting to profile more projects and ideas of other people seeking to improve our politics and elections. We don't necessarily endorse these proposals, but would think them worthy of attention. Sam Husseini of VotePact.org agreed to sit down with us and explain his plan.
Question: You've called your VotePact.org project do-it-yourself ranked choice voting (RCV). What do you mean?
Sam Husseini: Both attempt to solve the same problem. Take this election. There are lots of people who would want to vote for Green Party nominee Dr. Jill Stein or Libertarian Party nominee Gov. Gary Johnson or other candidates, but are not currently planning on doing so. They are set to vote for Donald Trump or Sec. Hillary Clinton because they fear or hate the other.
Q: And this election is sort of an extreme in this respect since Clinton and Trump both have very high negatives.
SH: It's through the roof. Suffolk University/USA Today found Trump at 61 percent untrustworthy and Clinton 59 percent untrustworthy. Much of the media system is built around this, Fox and MSNBC work constantly to keep the fear and hatred going, to keep the voters the reservations.
Q: And RCV addresses this problem of course by allowing people to rank the candidates 1-2-3-4. So someone could vote Stein, Johnson, Clinton, Trump -- or whatever they want.
SH: Right. And what VotePact does is get people to pair up. One person who has Clinton as their lesser evil pairs up with someone who has Trump as theirs. So, instead of both cancelling each other out, one self-loathingly voting for Trump and the other for Clinton, they both vote for other candidates -- Johnson, Stein or any other candidate that are their actual favorites. So you're kind of simulating RCV.
Q: So instead of a husband and wife voting for Trump and Clinton, effectively canceling each other out, they both vote for the third parties they prefer?
SH: Exactly. So, they don't change the balance between Trump and Clinton, but they get to vote for the candidates they most want and build up those challengers.
Q: Does this mean you don't think we need to reform our system?
SH: I'm all for reforms like ranked choice voting. I know RCV is on the ballot in Maine and voters might pass it there, but much of the establishment has fought such reforms. That’s the benefit of VotePact. You don't need anyone's permission to make a VotePact. It's DIY.
Q: Well, you do need someone else's permission --
SH: [laughs] Yes, you need the person you're making the VotePact with. You need the agreement of a neighbor, co-worker, debating partner, whatever -- and pair up. It's in effect an electoral revolution from below, from across the political spectrum against the duopoly. So it's really Do It Yourselves.
Q: What you're asking requires work.
SH: It does, you have to have a serious discussion with someone you disagree with to help assert your political independence. But if people don't find a route out of the "spoiler" problem, you have progressives who say they agree with the Green Party working against its electoral prospects for example. The current voting system is leading to all sorts of perversities that hinder development of movements and honest political discussion and VotePact helps address many of them.
Q: Do you think if VotePact took off, it could compel incumbents to get RCV enacted more broadly?
SH: Perhaps. The Black Panthers got free breakfast programs going and then the government came along with Head Start to provide the breakfasts. I think there are few things that force the establishment to focus on a reform more than people doing something for themselves.
Q: But there are hurdles. Don't people who disagree politically often not know each other, or not know each other well enough to trust them to do this?
SH: I think that's overstated. I mean, I'm sure that's an obstacle for some people, lots of folks probably do tend to spend more time with people they agree with politically, but I think what often happens is that voters avoid talking politics with people they know but might disagree with politically.
This gives VotePact a fascinating benefit. For VotePact to work, you have to engage and work with someone you disagree with. So, instead of unfriending that that guy on Facebook who might vote for Trump -- you have a conversation with them: "Hey, I understand, you think Hillary Clinton is corrupt. I prefer her to Trump, but I actually agree that she's corrupt. So, instead of you voting Trump and me voting Clinton -- let's both vote for other candidates." And the conversation can go from there. So VotePact could actually be a mechanism for massively increasing political dialogue among seemingly unlikely pairs.
Q: But right now you're not connecting people online?
SH: Well, I've really wanted people to turn to the people in their life, but so many people have said we really should be connecting people online that we're working on that and hoping to have that out shortly. A software engineer and some graphic designers have volunteered to make that happen, so stay tuned. And we're hoping that this can plug into social media, both to help vitality and hopefully to use existing connections on Facebook and such and build on them in a constructive manner.
Q: You've also criticized the way polling is done?
SH: Yes, media outlets are obsessing over the "tracking poll" -- but it's a lie. It's not a public "opinion" poll as it's presented. The "tracking question" is actually "if the election were held today, which of the following would you vote for" -- but lots of people who would prefer the Green or Libertarian or Constitution parties will say Trump or Clinton.
Q: So the polling just exacerbates the problem of the voting system?
SH: Totally. Pollsters should be asking who people "want" or "prefer" to be president. Or, perhaps even better, they should be asking people to rate candidates 1-2-3, RCV style. A wealth of information could be gathered that way.
Q: Isn't part of the reason such strategies haven't taken off that people have real concerns about the integrity of the ballot?
SH: I think that's true of reforms like RCV as well as strategies like VotePact. There's kind of a functionality to all the ballot integrity issues for the status quo. If the system can't even ensure that people can cast a simple ballot and have it counted properly, then people push aside asking for other things. It's driving deviancy downward.
Q: How can people help?
SH: They can share info about this. If they are planning on voting Green or Libertarian or other smaller parties, they can help others pair people up -- be a match maker. If they have technical or graphics skills that's very valuable. We want people who can represent this idea visually, in pictures or video. Someone recently suggested we should try to be organizing meetups. Perhaps more than anything, we'll want to be featuring real life pairings -- co-written articles or videos about two people making VotePacts together.