Voices & Choices

Lee Drutman on RCV, Maine and values a democracy ought to have

Lee Drutman on RCV, Maine and values a democracy ought to have

For the next edition of FairVote’s podcast “Voices and Choices,” I spoke with Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America. Drutman is the author of “The Business of America is Lobbying” and is the winner of the 2016 American Political Science Association’s Robert A. Dahl Award, given for “scholarship of the highest quality on the subject of democracy.” In addition, he writes regularly for Polyarchy a Vox blog. He’s an expert on lobbying, influence, and money in politics. The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Rich Robinson: What are your thoughts about the ‘People’s Veto’ referendum in Maine? Do you think it’ll be successful?

Lee Drutman: I think it will probably pass and if so, that’s big news because it means that Maine will become the first state in the nation to have a statewide ranked choice voting for federal elections and their state primaries, and that makes this a really important election. Everybody should be paying attention to it.

In its attempt to thwart the will of the people, it’s kind of astounding what the legislature has done.

Well look, people who are the state legislature got there on this winner-take-all system so they know it. Republicans oppose RCV because they’ve gotten a governor twice elected with without a majority vote – a very, very combative, divisive governor Paul LePage – and it’s not surprising that if you get to power with a particular set of rules you don’t want to change those rules because you don’t know if you can master the system. It's the same thing that happened in New Zealand in the 1990s. They passed a referendum to move to proportional voting in the legislature there and the legislature said, “Yeah we don't know about this new system.” So the voters passed another national referendum in New Zealand, now they have proportional voting which people there to be pretty happy with. New Zealand remains a stable and thriving democracy. So it’s not surprising that if you learn to type on a typewriter, you might resist moving to a word processing computer.

That’s the step that’s coming next. RCV has shown that it works in several cities around the country. Last November Minneapolis and St. Paul had a wildly successful ranked choice voting elections for their mayor races and city council races.

Yeah look, we know ranked choice voting works because cities are using it and we find that there is enhanced voter participation and that makes sense, right? Because if there’s more candidates, more likely you have somebody who you feel that you’re excited about. There’s also more candidates out there working to recruit voters to get them in the mix. You know you get you get more turnout when there’s more choices. When there's more choices, there’s more excitement.

And we know that the politics is more civil. In our binary, two-party, know zero-sum conflict you can win by being the lesser of two evils, so there’s a real incentive there to try to tear your opponent down because you just you know you’re the lesser of two evils you can get elected. That doesn't work when you have ranked choice voting.

We just witnessed a new city just this week conduct its first ranked choice voting election in Santa Fe New Mexico, and FairVote New Mexico has been very working very hard in the last year to get the city to implement it. We saw through the whole campaign cycle there were stories in the paper about how maybe the campaign was too civil. The candidates knew how to knock the doors of people who had opponent’s signs on their lawn and convince them to be their second or third choice.

Yeah well, hooray for Santa Fe. Too civil? If that's if that's the biggest problem that we have, then you know, that's not a particularly big problem.

It was interesting to see how quickly everyone pivoted to ranked choice voting, having been used to their first-past-the post system, and from what we’ve seen in press accounts, everybody is pleased with the results.

You're closer on the ground than I am, but yeah, everything that I’ve read seems to indicate that it was a huge success, and you know, it really pushes us towards a more compromise, consensus-oriented politics. That’s not to say that politics should be pure consensus, but certainly we’ve moved way too far and in the wrong direction. Right now the incentives of the winner-take-all system are to tear down your opponents and to do a scorched earth campaigning strategy. Negative campaigning dominates positive campaigning throughout the country and that’s tearing the country apart.

It’s really encouraging me to see what’s going on in Santa Fe. We've seen this in cities throughout the country that went when you adopt ranked choice voting, you get more participation and more civility. So these seem like values that we ought to have in a democracy.


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