Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meet DJ Livermore

During my internship at FairVote I have learned an absurd amount about fair representation (proportional representation in particular) and bettered my research skills. I graduated from Mount Allison University (a small liberal-arts university in Canada) this May and was fortunate to run across FairVote and apply for a research internship here. I’ve always been interested in electoral reform, and FairVote was the perfect opportunity to learn more about voting systems such as ranked choice voting and proportional representation in the United States.

The largest project I  undertook was a report on the history of proportional representation in the United States. The report outlines various cities and states that have adopted proportional representation, and their reasons for doing so. The help of the other members of FairVote was invaluable, and they were always excited to step in and answer any questions I had. For example, when I was searching for Kathleen Barber’s Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio, the research department knew exactly what book I was looking for, and other resources that would help. Looking through the FairVote archives and academic sources for the history of PR in the U.S. was fascinating. It is remarkable that PR has been used so extensively in the United States. I had no idea the United States had this history of fair representation, so it was very exciting to dig into these issues. Particularly fascinating was Illinois, which used cumulative voting for over a hundred years successfully. Not only was this research intriguing, but it also sharpened my research skills. I found myself better organizing my sources and ideas, and more quickly accessing reliable sources.   

I had the opportunity to follow my interests so with the Canadian election taking place I wrote two blog posts about Canadian electoral reform, specifically regarding the two referendums for the adoption of single-transferable vote in British Columbia and the possibility of reforming the currently appointed Canadian Senate. The freedom to delve into a topic I am passionate about was invaluable experience. Especially helpful was the editing process which challenged me to become a better writer. The process pushed me to come up with new ways of forming arguments and mature my writing style.

My time at FairVote was exceptional and I’m excited to use the skills I developed here in my career ahead. DJ Livermore is a 2015 Intern at FairVote. Do you want to apply for a FairVote internship? Find more information here:

Friday, December 4, 2015

Utah Foundation Report Looks for Ways to Increase Voter Turnout

In an effort to turn the tides of decreasing voter participation in the state of Utah, the Utah Foundation conducted a study to assess current practices for generating turnout, and find opportunities to engage more voters in the future. Among their findings, the study found that vote-by-mail elections are effective in increasing turnout, however, they also concluded that no single policy was a cure-all for low turnout.

This endeavor by the Utah Foundation is encouraging, as voter turnout--especially at the local level--continues to dip across the nation. The findings published by the organization also serve as a reminder that we can be doing more to engage voters and create an environment that encourages participation and civic engagement. FairVote's Promote Our Vote project, grounded in an effort to establish an affirmative, individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, works to advance democracy innovations--like those studied by the Utah Foundation--at the local level. Those interested in improving democracy in their community should be sure to read their report, and visit our own Inclusive Democracy Toolkit for innovative ideas to increase voter turnout.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

O’Malley’s plea for second-choice support meaningless without RCV

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’malley met with House Democrats on Tuesday to discuss his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President. O’Malley’s campaign hasn’t gone well so far - he received just 7% support for the nomination in a recent survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP), trailing both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders - and the tone of his meeting seemed to reflect that. According to the AP, O’Malley asked the lawmakers, not to make him their first choice for the nomination, but their second. Democratic Members of Congress serve as “superdelegates” to the Democratic National Convention, meaning they can vote for whichever candidate they please.

O’Malley’s request seems to reflect his political reality - half of superdelegates have already endorsed Clinton - but it also reflects how many voters think about elections in a way that our electoral system doesn’t. Like any situation in which people must choose among more than two options, voters often prefer candidates in some order: a first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. Ranked choice voting (RCV) allows voters to indicate this preference. But in most US elections, including presidential primaries, winners are chosen in a first-past-the-post system wherein voters can only indicate support for their top choice at the ballot.

The negative consequences of this dynamic are all too familiar to American voters. Politicians often win without majority support; especially when they face multiple ideologically similar opponents that “split” the vote. Without any incentive to appeal to their opponents’ supporters, candidates are accountable only to their base and run negative campaigns, attacking one another to distinguish themselves in any way possible.

Unfortunately for Governor O’Malley, being the superdelegates’ second choice will not win him the nomination. The most recent PPP national poll does show that he has stronger second choice support, but when superdelegates cast their votes at the convention this summer, they will only be able to put their support behind one candidate. Still, using RCV would be instructive for the Democrats or any party. By counting voters second and third choices, winning candidates are able to find out more about what the people who elected them want and build greater consensus behind their platform.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It's time to get out the vote... again.

Municipalities across the country held elections last month, as they do every November. But even if you are in the minority of voters who actually participate in elections that don’t coincide with presidential or congressional contests, your civic duties might not be complete just yet.

In many jurisdictions, indecisive votes in November mean runoff elections in December. While runoffs are valuable, in that they avoid “spoiled” elections and help to ensure that winners are those most likely to have the support of a majority of voters, they also often lead to significant declines in turnout. Low turnout is especially likely in runoffs for down-ballot races, as voters are far more likely to return to the polls to participate in a runoff for mayor or governor than a runoff to elect the state insurance commissioner or a city comptroller, as Houston voters will do next week. The lack of attention to races like these is unfortunate, as many such offices come with considerable power.

Runoff elections are also expensive. In major cities, the cost to taxpayers of putting on a single city-wide runoff election can reach well into the millions It’s no wonder then, that a growing number of cities have looked to eliminate runoffs altogether (Jersey City, NJ is a recent example).

Fortunately, ranked choice voting (also known as "instant runoff voting") allows municipalities to enjoy the benefits of runoffs, while avoiding the costs. As cities like, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, ME have learned, allowing voters to rank the candidates in an election means that a winner with broad, majority support can be selected from a large field of candidatesand in the general election, when the greatest number of voters is likely to participate. Adoption of ranked choice voting presents cities and states with an opportunity to increase the power of voters and make wasteful runoff elections a thing of the past.

Monday, November 23, 2015

California colleges lead the way on RCV

Last week, the University of California, Davis held elections for its student senate using ranked choice voting (RCV). Even with sixteen candidates on the ballot this quarter, UC Davis represents just a fraction of the RCV elections held on campuses across California and the US this year. Beyond its already wide-spread use, RCV’s popularity is increasing on California campuses. Last month, UC Santa Barbara’s Associated Student Senate voted unanimously to switch to multi-winner RCV.

RCV is used to elect student governments at colleges and universities all over the US, both big and small. Of the roughly 60 campuses where RCV is used, 16 are in California. This includes internationally renowned institutions like Berkeley, Stanford, and UCLA. Popular support for RCV has endured at California schools because it gives students meaningful choice and promotes a more representative student government.

The UCSB Senate’s adoption of RCV reflects this support. The school has used RCV to elect its executive offices since 2001. Even with the highest student government election turnout among UC schools, UCSB students wanted to do more to invigorate campus democracy. By voting for the Senate using multi-winner RCV, UCSB Gauchos will be able to elect a legislature that better represents their diverse student body.

UCSB activists fought for this change because of their commitment to inclusion and fairness in the way they’re represented. However, these values are not just shared by students. Indeed, this movement may represent the future of voting in California.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Did Louisiana just elect "wrong" governor due to flaw in Top 2 runoff method?

Few analysts at the start of the year would have predicted Louisiana voters would elect a Democrat to be their new governor. Republicans have dominated statewide contests in recent years, with no Democrat earning even a third of the vote in races for governor and six other statewide offices in 2011, with incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu losing by 12% in 2014, and with Mitt Romney easily defeating Barack Obama by 17% in the 2012 presidential race in the state.

Yet yesterday Democrat John Bel Edwards won a runoff against Republican U.S Senator David Vitter by a convincing 12%. 

Before jumping to the conclusion that Edwards' majority win indicates he would have won under any electoral system, think again. Edwards benefited from a classic problem with traditional two runoff-systems. That is, one of the two advancing candidates (Vitter) was in fact the weakest Republican among the three that ran for governor this year.

In fact, it's quite likely that either of the other two Republicans in that first round in October would have defeated Edwards, just as Republicans won all six of the other statewide contests, including in yesterday's runoff for lieutenant governor by more than 10%. It's also quite likely that Edwards would have lost if there had been a runoff to decide the Republican nominee or if Louisiana had extended its use of ranked choice voting ballots from only overseas and out-of-state military voters to all voters. But the state's so-called "majority system" of runoff elections in fact almost certainly did not provide a majority outcome.

To see how it happened, let's start by looking at the first round results, courtesy of Ballotpedia.

Governor of Louisiana: First Round, Blanket Primary, October 24, 2015
PartyCandidateVote %Votes
    DemocraticGreen check mark transparent.pngJohn Bel Edwards39.9%444,061
    RepublicanGreen check mark transparent.pngDavid Vitter23%256,105
    RepublicanScott Angelle19.3%214,907
    RepublicanJay Dardenne15%166,553
    DemocraticCary Deaton1.1%11,750
    DemocraticS L Simpson0.7%7,411
    IndependentBeryl Billiot0.5%5,690
    IndependentJeremy "JW" Odom0.4%4,755
    IndependentEric Paul Orgeron0.2%2,244
Total Votes1,113,476
Election Results Louisiana Secretary of State.

In Louisiana's system, you will win in the first round if you win 50% or more of the vote. It's an open system where all candidates run on the general election ballot (albeit with that first round confusingly called a "primary") and has real advantages over the California-style Top Two system and traditional primary election systems that are plagued by low voter turnout in primaries.

But no candidate won a majority in the governor's race. Edwards led the field with 39.9%, and he and his fellow Democrats collectively earned just under 42%. Vitter was in second with 23%, barely ahead of two fellow Republicans, with Republicans together winning over 57%.

As the election took shape, polls showed a clear contradiction. Vitter was getting the most votes among Republicans, but as explained in this Daily Kos review of polls before the October election, he was also the weakest Republican candidate when paired against Edwards and also lost when matched one-on-one against either of his fellow Republicans.

So let's suppose ranked choice voting had been used to narrow the field to the top two. Edwards clearly would have advanced, but it's nearly certain that Scott Angelle would have consolidated the anti-Vitter vote after Jay Dardenne was eliminated and surpassed Vitter to finish second and make the runoff. In the runoff he would have been favored to win, just as Republicans now typically do in statewide offices in Louisiana.

Angelle also likely would have won if the election had been decided in October with ranked choice voting without a runoff, as Vitter voters would have overwhelmingly ranked him ahead of Edwards. In that case of having a one-round eleciton, Louisiana would also have been spared the highly negative, mean-spirited runoff into which this year's election devolved after the first round.

Note that if Louisiana had used the traditional primary system used in most states -- that is, Republicans holding a contest, Democrats holding a separate contest, and the top-vote-getter earning the majority even if receiving less than a majority of the vote -- Vitter would also likely have emerged as the Republican nominee and then lost. He only would have certainly lost the nomination if Republicans had used a primary runoff (as a few states do, including most in the South) or had an "instant runoff" in the primary with ranked choice voting.

The bottom line is twofold. First, John Bel Edwards should be congratulated for winning his election under the "Top Two" runoff rules used in Louisiana. Second, Edwards almost certainly owes his victory to a flaw in those rules that could be corrected by giving all Louisiana voters the power to cast ranked choice voting ballots that today is limited to overseas and out-of-state military absentee voters.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Will Ryan be Speaker of the House, or Speaker of the House Republicans?

Paul Ryan is likely to be chosen as Republicans’ nominee for Speaker of the House on Wednesday, and elected by the full chamber on Thursday, in a vote that will undoubtedly break along party lines. As Republican votes alone will be enough to hand Ryan the Speakership, it should come as no surprise that he will be expected to use his power to advance his party’s agenda, ahead of any other goals. However, the position of Speaker need not be used in this way. Lessons from state chambers and recent Congressional history illustrate how the power of strong partisan leaders restricts legislative efficiency and inter-party cooperation.

Writing in Politico last week, former congressman Mickey Edwards discussed his experience working in the House under Speaker Tip O’Neill. While O’Neill was seen as a liberal and fierce partisan, he was not in the habit of blocking bills or amendments just because they originated with the minority party. If a measure could win the support of a majority in the chamber, O’Neil would not stand in its way. Edwards argues that House speakers once thought of themselves as leaders of the full chamber, not representatives of the majority party. The decline of this perspective has led subsequent Speakers to block legislation that requires significant bipartisan support, and employ procedures like “closed rules” that shut the minority party out of the legislative process, effectively disenfranchising the millions of voters they represent.

Evidence from state legislatures supports the idea that partisan leaders wielding power over the legislative agenda can have a negative impact. Research presented in Best Practices for Collaborative Policymaking, a report from FairVote and the Bipartisan Policy Center, shows that chambers in which leaders are able to block bills pass less legislation, and less bipartisan legislation.

Recent proposals of the House Freedom Caucus did seek to devolve some of the Speaker’s power to rank-and-file members. But, as we explained in Roll Call last week, these changes would compound current dysfunction by empowering members of the Republican Party only. Meaningful reform would democratize power within the chamber by empowering all members to work together to advance legislation, regardless of the preferences of party leaders. Unfortunately, Paul Ryan has made no efforts to build support across party lines, and has shown little interest in creating a House in which priorities are set more democratically. To borrow the words of Rep. Edwards, the likely result is that we will remain without a true Speaker of the House, but with another Speaker for House Republicans.