Voices & Choices

Women talk solutions: RCV and the Fair Representation Act

Women talk solutions: RCV and the Fair Representation  Act

From March 8 to 10, RepresentWomen hosted its inaugural Solutions Summit. The three day virtual gathering featured experts and leaders who are all working in election administration, voting rights, and democracy reform, including ranked choice voting (RCV). These women are working to find real, creative solutions to make our democracy more representative. The third and final day of the Solutions Summit was called “Fair Representation – House Expansion, Redistricting, Ranked Choice Voting, & the Fair Representation Act.” It featured panels of amazing speakers, including Angela Kouters, FairVote’s own Director of Government Affairs. 

Danielle Allen kicked off the day’s event. Allen recently ran for Governor of Massachusetts and said was inspired to run based on the inequities and lack of representation that she saw in her state, particularly after the pandemic. The audience next heard from Erin Vilardi, the founder and CEO of Vote Run Lead, an organization that trains women to run for political office. She discussed her work in New York City and how training women to run for office, campaign finance matching, and the implementation of RCV combined to help elect a City Council with 61% women, a rate never seen before in the city’s history.  

“The lever of change was ranked choice voting. And this is anecdotal: what I've seen is that it changed the equation for the women who wanted to run to actually jump in the race, because now there were three or four folks who were running. Now, the idea of fundraising didn't seem so daunting.” - Erin Vilardi

The Summit then turned to how RCV can serve as a solution to inadequate representation by speaking with Democracy Rising Co-Director Grace Ramsey, Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, and former Utah State Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck.

I think we can all acknowledge that working on these reforms isn't always the easiest thing to do. To convince people to really invest in our Democracy is a big ask at times but always worth it. And what keeps me going on the hard days are those moments when I've been talking to voters and I've seen them have that aha moment where they're like, “I get it. This is a good idea. Let's do it.” - Grace Ramsey

Rebecca Chavez-Houck spoke about her experience working on a bipartisan effort to bring an RCV pilot program to Utah. She discussed learning about RCV years prior, and how she was unsure if the people of her state were ready for it until 2016. She remembered thinking, “Are the people ready? Are they desirous of change? And that's where I saw what was happening after the 2016 election where people were really focusing on, ‘I want to support a candidate that I believe in. I'm not really caught up in what party whoever is in, I want to believe in somebody and I want to vote for them.’  And I wanted to build on that momentum, that desire, that interest that I saw in a critical mass of voters and I felt, maybe now's the time.” 

Additionally, Secretary Bellows discussed the process by which Maine adopted RCV statewide - the first state in the nation to do so.

“I think the lesson in Maine, as an activist, is to know this: never give up. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. There were numerous bills blocked in the legislature, not supported by leadership either in the legislature or the governor, and yet we knew we had broad bipartisan support across the state. And so in 2016, a committee came together with Democrats, Republicans, independents, it was truly bipartisan to bring forward citizen initiated legislation so we circulated petitions, gathered signatures, all across the state and then ran a statewide ballot campaign, and were successful.” -  Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. 

The conversation shifted focus to the Fair Representation Act, expanding the House of Representatives, and independent redistricting committees. The panelists for this section were Rina Shah, who is a board member at RepresentWomen as well as a political consultant and the CEO Rilax Strategies; Katie Fahey, who is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The People; Michelle Whittaker who is a messaging and campaign specialist; and Angela Kouters, who is the Director of Government Affairs at FairVote. 

Katie Fahey worked to introduce an independent redistricting committee in her home state of Michigan to help ensure that voters' voices were really heard. 

“After the hard work of literally thousands, we have our citizens redistricting commission! It passed in 2018, actually recently passed in January, our first set of fair maps in about 15 years here in Michigan. Actually representative of the will of the people, for the first time in decades and what's really exciting about that, because we put it in our constitution. This process will be followed again and again, guaranteeing that generations of voters will now be able to participate in that, which is very exciting.” - Katie Fahey

Next, Michelle Whittaker talked about how RCV and multi-winner districts lead to fair representation. She also touched on the need for the Fair Representation Act, and how by combining these voting reforms, we can create a better democracy. 

“I think what's great about the Fair Representation Act is it combines the discussion on redistricting and taking the hands of the politicians out of drawing our district lines, and also combines it with ranked choice voting to really make sure that we're both creating a way for people to have a stronger voice in their elections, and it's the blueprint that we have for representative democracy. That's where we really get to the structure of saying, ‘if we want reflective democracy, or Congress, and if you want it at the local level, these are the ways that we do it’, and it's by combining these reforms to create really powerful aspects in our world.” - Michelle Whittaker 

Angela Kouters next spoke about working with Congressman Don Beyer to create the Fair Representation Act and how pushing these reforms at the Congressional level works. She also spoke about how advocates on the ground can help support needed legislation like the Fair Representation Act. 

“First of all, show up. You guys showed up today, you showed up over the course of the summit. Democracy requires participation… Nothing is more valuable than you reaching out to your member of Congress and developing that relationship with their staff, with their members. And to the extent that you're interested in educating and working with us, reach out to us at FairVote, we’ll help prepare you to talk to your members of Congress and work with where our legislative strategies are… And you know, be patient with Congress, it’s been around for a long time. It takes a while to change.” - Angela Kouters

The final section addressed more solutions and how they are being tackled on the ground. The panel was moderated by Reflect Us Coalition CEO Tiffany Gardner, and featured Stephanie Houghton, the organizing director at FairVote Washington; Jaqueline Castaneda, the communications director of the DC Latino Caucus and advisory board member at More Voice DC; Jessica Lieberman, the program officer for American Democracy, Political and Voting Reform at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Sarah Higginbotham, the managing director of United America; and Maria Perez, co-director of Democracy Rising.  

Sarah Higginbotham spoke about her roots as an organizer and her hope and optimism for the future of reforms like RCV.

“We're at this incredibly compelling inflection point for the work around ranked choice voting and other structural reforms, and what's probably most compelling to me sort of strategically and politically, is how much progress we've made across a broad range of states.” - Sarah Higginbotham

Jessica Lieberman talked about her work creating the Our Common Purpose report, which details recommendations for building a stronger democracy. She advocated for expanding the House of Representatives by 150 members to increase representation and accountability. 

“By bringing 150 new seats into Congress, we would create a lot of opportunities to bring new faces and voices into Congress. As we have talked about earlier today, incumbency advantage is a huge barrier to electing more women and diverse voices to Congress… It also would ensure that we're not losing progress going forward.” - Jessica Lieberman

Stephanie Houghton discussed how her role at FairVote Washington has helped her to hone her messaging surrounding RCV and its benefits, and how she handles conversations with those who disagree. 

“It can be a tough conversation, and I think anyone on this call who has tried to have a conversation with a legislator about ranked choice voting has probably come up against the same pushback and it comes from a place where in the back of their minds oftentimes, they are thinking, ‘I'm a really great representative, I don't think I want to change the way that I got here’ … And that's a really sensitive conversation. So, the unsolicited advice I give is, just give space for that and say this isn't something where we’re not going to have democracy. It's still an election, it's just a way for your voters to actually tell you more about what they're feeling… So, I think that there is actually a place for our legislators current and future to learn more from ranked choice voting and to really take a lesson from that.” - Stephanie Houghton

When asked about grappling with the daunting task of fixing so many issues, Maria Perez spoke about the need for grassroots organizing and the constant practice of democracy. 

“We need to become a country where everyday citizens and residents are practicing democracy every day. It's kind of like going to the gym, you can't ask people just to show up for election day or run a half marathon without training. We're training every week, every day you put in your little of whatever your practices are. That is the way that we get the masses to whatever it is. It's that civic engagement on a long, sustainable multi-generational term.” - Maria Perez 

Finally, Jaqueline Casteneda talked about grassroots operations and the difficulties of navigating voting reforms in Washington, DC.

Education has really been a key part of that. We know that we have a lot of supporters for ranked choice voting, but we still know that we have a lot of conversations to have with others who are still not on board with thinking about how ranked choice voting will look like in DC, and that's okay. Conversations are a great way to start discussions and I love teaching. I love learning as well, so I am ready for that fight and with the Latino Caucus, that's what we're doing.” - Jaqueline Casteneda

This was an amazing panel discussion preceded by two days of enlightening and inspiring conversations. We at FairVote thank RepresentWomen for organizing this summit and for facilitating dialogues about concrete steps we can take to strengthen our democracy. The women who spoke are all working to create positive and equitable change in our country, and we look forward to working with them on the solutions they discussed. 

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