Our Electoral Reform Moment
Looking forward, reflecting backward, over FairVote's progress
When writing my first year-end letter to our supporters over three decades ago, I was full of hope and determination, though short in accomplishment. I could not have imagined our circuitous path toward winning change, nor how much our nation would change. It’s a big country, with a lot of entry points to winning change, and you become ever more aware of it when you try to enact badly needed electoral reforms.
Yet Americans are becoming painfully aware that, even as they face daunting challenges in their own lives, our two major political parties together are unable to rise to the occasion. In fact they are more polarized than ever – and increasingly more driven by fear of the other side than what we can come together to achieve.
The sad fact is, who controls political power does not depend on most of us, but instead on a handful of swing voters in a scattering of battleground states and congressional districts. We are increasingly distant from the “shining City on a Hill” envisioned by our founders, where our leaders must listen to the people, represent our different views, and negotiate with an open mind to balance our interests with those of others.
Yet I feel more hopeful than ever before. Voters are rejecting those who would undermine our democratic norms and fair election practices. Leaders from a mix of states and parties are coming together to pass the reforms that we’ve argued for 30 years are the best way to heal and strengthen our democracy.
On this past November 8, what has become FairVote’s signature reform, ranked choice voting (RCV), had its best year ever, both in the number of jurisdictions using it to elect their representatives, and the number of new places that voted to begin using RCV. On Election Day, RCV elections were held in the states of Alaska and Maine, and in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Albany and Berkeley in CA, Corvallis in OR, Takoma Park in MD, Arden in DE, and Portland in ME. In December, Burlington VT will return to using RCV for its local elections.
In all these places, RCV worked just as it is designed to do, namely empowering voters in big elections. Alaska’s final RCV tallies will be reported next week, but an exit survey from Alaskans for Better Elections showed how easy voters found the process. Moreover, the favorites to win statewide reflect Alaskans’ independent approach to politics, with likely wins by Democrat Mary Peltola in the House race, moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski in the Senate race and conservative Republican Mike Dunleavy in the gubernatorial race. In Maine, voters easily negotiated RCV yet again in confirming Jared Golden as the majority winner in the 2nd congressional district.
Also on November 8, RCV was the most popular “candidate” in the country, with wins in one more state and seven more cities and counties, home to 5 million people across 7 different states. Here is a quick rundown:
* Nevada. Voters approved the use of RCV along with a Top-5 open primary for use in state and federal elections (except president). State law requires citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to pass twice to take effect, so RCV will need to win in Nevada again in 2024. But the wind is at its back after a 53% to 47% win.
* Seattle. Ranked choice voting won in the largest city in the Pacific Northwest. Voters were asked two questions: whether they want to change city elections, and whether they would prefer to use RCV or approval voting. Despite that electoral “double jeopardy,” voters said YES to change and overwhelmingly picked ranked choice voting over approval voting, 76% to 24%.
* Portland OR. It was a big day in Oregon with Portland voting strongly in favor of adopting RCV for all races and the proportional form of RCV for city council elections. This is the best method for a large, “multi-everything” city of 600,000 Portlanders. The measure was put on the ballot by a near-unanimous vote of a charter commission, which was grappling with how to provide adequate representation for different minority groups that are geographically dispersed. The measure was backed by the largest coalition ever assembled in Portland, with over 50 local organizational endorsers. Proponents prevailed by a lopsided margin despite facing major opposition by wealthy and well-connected interests in business and government.
The victories keep rolling in. Portland is the largest city in Multnomah County, where 66% of voters voted overwhelmingly to use RCV for Oregon’s most populous county, with more than 800,0000 residents.
Other RCV victories were seen in Evanston IL, a Chicago suburb, where 82% of voters made their city the first in Illinois to pass RCV; and Fort Collins CO, which passed RCV with 58% of the vote and will become the largest city in Colorado to implement RCV, even as Boulder and Broomfield will begin using it in 2023. And in the “other” Portland across the country in Maine, 64% of voters voted to enable the city council to pass ordinances to use proportional ranked choice voting for any of the city’s multi-winner elections (RCV is already used in Portland for all city elections, including Mayor, based on two prior charter amendments approved by the voters).
FairVote backed these efforts with research, media support, expertise and fundraising. At the same time, more Members of Congress and state legislators went on record supporting RCV than ever before. With our policy team’s input, Congress is poised to pass the Electoral Count Act, which will reform the congressional process for certifying presidential elections. And six states passed pro-RCV bills. All of this is happening because of our rapidly growing coalition of national, state and local allies and partners, working well together.
In short, ranked choice voting has become the fastest-growing electoral reform in the nation.
And we are only getting started. By 2024, we seek to win RCV in 10 presidential primaries (it’s already been used in five), to strengthen congressional relationships, to support reformers advancing RCV in states and more than 500 cities, and to engage with our nation’s top thought leaders and organizations as they coalesce around the need for RCV, including our North Star: the Fair Representation Act, which would implement proportional representation for the US House of Representatives.
FairVote has always had an impact far beyond our size – and that impact is only growing. Over the years we’ve diagnosed what’s wrong with US democracy, through our pioneering research and analysis, but we also have been at the forefront of advancing the solutions. We have a broad vision for our democracy, and so beyond ranked choice voting and proportional representation, we have also been at the forefront of advancing forward-looking proposals for automatic/universal voter registration, fair redistricting, a national popular vote for president, and a constitutional right to vote.
During our 30 years, we’ve never wavered in building a movement that embodies the spirit of democratic innovation that inspired and guided the hand of those late 18th-century framers and founders. We know a lot more today about which voting methods provide the best representation. Indeed, proportional voting methods had not yet been invented in the late 18th-century.
And we also know that the way to keep faith with the insights of the founders is not to worship them or what they created but to imitate their genius of reinvention, meeting the democratic challenges of our times, just like they met the challenges of their times.
Rob Richie @Rob_Richie
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