How do you start a political reform movement?
Answer: with a lot of hard work and patience. FairVote celebrates its 30 year history
Some personal reflections as FairVote celebrates its 30th anniversary this July 25 in Washington DC
I remember with crisp memories the first time I met Rob Richie. He was drenched in sweat and clutching his bicycle helmet. It was 1990ish, in Seattle, and I had founded a local grassroots group called Citizens for Proportional Representation. We advertised our monthly meetings in the Seattle Community Catalyst, which were held in an old school building in the University District. Rob showed up to one of our meetings, having bicycled there, his determined demeanor that would soon translate into a national leader already apparent. That began a partnership that has lasted, on and off, for 30 years.
Rob was especially curious about our group because he had launched a similar one with the exact same name in Olympia, about 90 minutes south of Seattle. Later I found out that another group in Washington DC also had independently adopted the same name. Coincidence? Destiny? Already many of us were traveling on the same beam, independent paths that were somehow fated to interconnect. How does that happen, I sometimes wonder. There are 8 billion people on this planet, what kind of cosmic plan causes any two or four or ten of them to join forces? Or is it all just…random?
I and my Seattle colleagues soon launched a voter initiative drive to change the electoral method for the city council to one of proportional representation. Our group was too small and penniless for such an ambitious effort, but in a quirk of Seattle law we had unlimited time to gather the signatures, so one of our members stored our petitions in her freezer (we never completed that first initiative drive; those petitions might still be in a freezer somewhere).
Rob meanwhile had moved from Washington state, heading east with his partner Cindy Terrell, an inspiring organizer and leader in her own right, and they both rolled up their sleeves to assist with a ballot campaign for proportional representation in Cincinnati. That seemed like a great target because it had used proportional representation to elect its city council from 1927 until 1957, until the election of two black councilors led to a racist-tinged repeal. Unfortunately, that campaign in 1991 lost. So our fledgling movement was 0-2.
Finally Rob and Cindy made it to the Washington DC area, and Rob connected with Matthew Cossolotto, who not only had started his own CPR group but had been a speechwriter and special assistant to Speaker of the US House of Representatives Jim Wright. With Rob and Matthew on the East coast, and me on the West Coast and many other supporters scattered throughout the country, we launched a national organization called Citizens for Proportional Representation, with a founding convention in Cincinnati in June 1992 (which, unfortunately, I was not able to attend). Ted Berry, one of the African American councilors in Cincinnati elected under proportional representation in the 1950s, gave the moving keynote.
You might have noticed that the acronym for Citizens for Proportional Representation is CPR. Our slogan was: “CPR – let’s resuscitate our democracy!” That fits nicely on a bumper sticker. And we thought for sure that, with a slogan that catchy, this movement would soon sweep the country.
Were we ever wrong. Someone once said, “Don’t worry about someone stealing your idea, because if its any damn good, you’re going to have to ram it down people’s throats.”
Yes, we were a bit naïve. But in a way, it’s good that we were, because if we had really understood how difficult it would be to change the antiquated, 18th-century “winner take all” electoral system in the US, either at local, state or heaven forbid federal levels, we might never have started on this meandering journey, 30 years ago.
Lesson Number 1: Political reform is opportunity driven. There has to be a problem that you have identified, and for which you have the unique solution. “Problem plus solution,” that is the formula for successful political reform.
Rob, Cindy and soon their growing family eventually settled into Takoma Park, MD, just up the Red line from Washington DC, and ran the new organization out of their house. Rob was the first employee, I was the second. Sometimes we actually got paid. Rob brought an incredible brainiac focus to our research capabilities, combined with a relentless drive like water cascading down a waterfall. No doubt he was moved by the spirit of his great-uncle, Dr. George Hallett, who was a founder of the Proportional Representation League in the 1920s, and was once called by the New York Times “America’s leading advocate of PR.”
Along the way, CPR flatlined and died – the name, that is. Prospective funders were not yet sold on our solution, so it wasn’t helpful to have our name shout out that we were for this thing that too few people understood. That realization seems common sense today, but the slogan had been soooo good.
We changed in 1993 to the Center for Voting and Democracy (CVD), and former presidential candidate John B. Anderson became chair of the advisory board and later of the board of directors. Proportional voting was still our focus, but now we also embraced instant runoff voting, and eventually universal/automatic voter registration (I wrote about our history with that reform here), national popular vote for president, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to vote (the US is one of the few democracies that has no such constitutional guarantee), improvements to election administration, and more.
Rob’s statistical wizardry provided the vision for advancing the most powerful critique of America’s “winner take all” elections, incorporated into our regular reports called Dubious Democracy and Monopoly Politics (which soon became mimicked by a number of other news and research organizations, such as the Charlie Cook Political Report). CVD became a pioneer in several important and original areas of research, analysis and reform.
By 1994, I had moved to San Francisco. A voter initiative had established an Elections Task Force that was deliberating over whether San Francisco should change its at-large plurality election system — a terrible method that was underrepresenting SF’s minority communities — to a district election system. Certain constituencies in SF had pined to return to district elections since the late 1970s, when districts were blamed for the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first prominent gay politician in the US. In the midst of that tragedy, a citywide ballot measure opportunistically repealed district elections and replaced it with the at-large plurality method (in the tortured logic of the times, the assassin, another elected supervisor named Dan White, was elected from one of the 11 districts, so he was chosen by only a small number of voters, i.e. 1/11th of the city. Repeal advocates claimed that switching to an at-large system would mean winners would need more votes, and so better officeholders would be elected. Or at least officeholders who were not assassins. This may have been the first time that political reform was spurred by murder since the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by an embittered appointment-seeker, which resulted in the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act).
But the Elections Task Force, which was presumed to be returning district elections to San Francisco, began noticing an uncomfortable fact – since the late 1970s, minority communities had become more geographically dispersed. It was not so easy to draw districts that would ensure diverse representation.
So there it was, an opportunity, based on a problem that needed to be resolved: how could San Francisco have fair and competitive elections that resulted in diverse representation and political equality in an increasingly diversified city? We at CVD had a unique solution to this problem.
I was able to meet with members of the Elections Task Force, and offer a different democratic vision for this “multi-everything” city. I introduced the task force to the idea of proportional representation, using a visual presentation to demonstrate to them how an electorate can cast the same votes through different electoral systems – proportional representation vs district elections vs. at-large plurality – and come up with completely different results, in terms of who gets elected. I showed them how a ranked ballot method called preferential voting (and which is now called proportional ranked choice voting) could work in San Francisco.
To their credit, most of the task force members were open-minded and forward-looking. They did not balk at a new and different electoral method (that is not always the case with such task forces and commissions). Over a period of many months, I was able to round up enough support among community organizations, political leaders and ultimately task force members to convince them to recommend to the Board of Supervisors (the city council in SF) that proportional representation, along with a “winner take all” district-based system, should be put on the ballot, side-by-side, for the voters to decide.
Huzzah! Only three years after our founding, we were making real progress in a major city!
Or so we thought. Now we had to convince the elected officials to put this electoral package on the ballot. That is, to agree to allow voters to change the rules that will impact their own reelections. Incumbents tend to “dance with them that brung ya,” as Stanford Law professor Pam Karlan once told us. Yes, we were blissfully naïve enough to hope that the incumbents would allow the voters to decide the election rules. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers voted down the package, and we were facing over a year of work suddenly circling around the drain.
But we did not give up. I redoubled my efforts to enlist endorsements and support from key organizations and political leaders. A group of us met with the mayor – the formidable Willie Brown. Former speaker of the California Assembly for 15 years, first African-American mayor of San Francisco, and known as the wiliest (and perhaps most crooked) politician in California who knew how to twist an arm, step on a foot, or sweeten the deal with candy and pork to get the votes that he needed. Willie had been the king of the California roost, and after term limits had removed him from the state legislature he brought his scheming to San Francisco.
He was no fan of political reform; in fact he disdained it. He was the type of politician that liked backroom deals, because for years he had been the one in the back rooms – “in the room where it happens.” But for some reason, he gave us invaluable advice. I still remember how he sat in this enormous chair, an ornate cathedra like a king’s throne, and softly pounding both fists on the wooden arms he told us: “You don’t give incumbent politicians a chance to vote on the rules that affect their own reelections.”
Blank stares from all of us.
An exasperated His Willie-ness, practically rolling his eyes, spelled it out for us: “Set the implementation date of the first election to go into effect after those who are voting on it are term limited out of office.”
Duh, of course. So that’s what we did. And it worked. The incumbents voted to place two ballot measures before the voters, Proposition G for district elections and Proposition H for proportional representation. San Franciscans voted in November 1996 and the first date of implementation would be in January 2000, after all the current incumbents were gone. Amazing how some clever little legislative sleight-of-hand sometimes can flip the tipping point.
That indicates Lesson Number 2 of political reform: be sure to factor in the incumbents’ self-interest. You can’t let it paralyze you, but if you ignore it, you will never get over the mountain pass.
We actually lost that election, in November 1996. Proportional representation was too new of an idea, even in liberal San Francisco (“No, for the hundredth time, San Francisco will not end up like Italy and Israel!”). District elections prevailed with 56% of the vote; our ballot measure earned a strong yet ultimately insufficient 44%. We were disappointed, and now 0-3. But we dusted ourselves off and kept going.
Our first major ballot box victory, the first electoral system change passed by US voters in nearly 60 years, would have to wait almost 6 years longer, until March 2002. District elections were implemented in San Francisco in 2000, and that year several elected officials proposed that we present to the voters a ballot measure for “instant runoff voting,” the ranked ballot method to ensure majority winners within the districts, as well as for citywide offices such as the mayor, district attorney, city attorney and others. In a previous article, I wrote about the exciting and successful campaign that passed instant runoff voting in March 2002 (in a strange coda, that name would soon be changed to “ranked choice voting” by San Francisco’s Director of Elections who did not want the pressure of producing “instant” results, so much to our dismay he unilaterally changed the name. “Hey, can he change the name of our reform?” we wondered. Apparently yes. Talk about random. But the name kind of stuck, because it described what voters have to do – rank their candidates – and that wasn’t a bad thing).
So we had our first major victory, plus an unwanted name change for our reform, and by 2004, yet another name change for our organization -- the Center for Voting and Democracy became FairVote, a shorter name that wasn’t such a mouthful to say. We also now had a half dozen or so employees, and Rob oversaw an army of interns during the summer months. Several of us wore multiple hats as reformers, organizers, researchers, op-ed writers, dishwashers and whatever else the job required.
We were like a small startup business, always looking for new sources of revenue and trying to keep the doors open. We were still inspired, and not as naïve as before. The world of political reform often felt random and haphazard – stuff happened beyond our control – but we were still determined and pragmatically idealistic enough to keep going. Through it all, I remember being inspired by a quote from social activist Abbie Hoffman who said, just before he died in 1989 as he looked back on his life as a reformer:
“We are here to make a better world. No amount of rationalization or blaming can preempt the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on this planet. The lesson of the 60s is that people who cared enough to do right could change history… We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong and scared half to death. And we were right.”
We are still right. US democracy is still based on antiquated, 18th century institutions and practices that have resulted in the most pernicious “minority rule” which is gravely undermining America's future. The mission and mandate of the former Citizens for Proportional Representation a.k.a. Center for Voting and Democracy and now FairVote is more important than ever, and crucial to this fragile American experiment with representative democracy.
Cue Frank Sinatra: “We did it our way.” Now ranked choice voting is used in 55 cities, counties, and states in jurisdictions that are home to over 11 million voters. Two states, Maine and Alaska, use RCV for most of their important state and federal races, and Democratic primaries in four states have used it to nominate their presidential choices. New York City’s use of RCV in its municipal elections contributed to the first women-majority city council in its history (31 out of 51 seats, 25 of them women of color). Military and overseas voters in six states cast RCV ballots in federal runoff elections. More people than ever have heard of it, understand it and seem to have a generally favorable view. Sure, it’s a big country, and we still have many tall mountains to climb. But the movement for a better democracy is poised for new breakthroughs in the years ahead.
There is no greater army than an idea whose time has come.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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Awesome cataloging of lessons learned. “‘Problem plus solution,’ that is the formula for successful political reform.” resonated with me. Unfortunately good ideas don’t win on their merits alone. Their merits must meet a specific and prevalent need.
When I helped switch my university’s student government elections to ranked-choice voting, the biggest element in our favor was recently bungled run-off elections that had to be thrown out, necessitating a *third* vote for student president.
People were justifiably annoyed having to vote, vote in a runoff, and vote yet again. We emphasized that ranked-choice voting would have no run-offs and the change passed in a landslide. I think, honestly, the other benefits of ranked-choice voting didn’t play much of a role.
Problem of too many elections recently + solution of ranked-choice voting means no more run-offs = successful reform.
We’re lucky the run-off elections were mishandled in some sense. It’s important to recognize and seize on political opportunities.
"There is no greater army than an idea whose time has come." How true!
But for an idea's time to come, much lesser armies need to survive many battles for many years. This is a fine historical review of an exemplary political reform movement, FairVote; the leader of its "army", Rob Richie; and its many efforts - rarely won but never defeated - over the past 30 years. Has the proportional representation/ranked-choice voting idea finally come to this country? Alas, it's not over yet but it is looking encouraging.