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.

Meet Emily Agliano

The James Madison University Washington Semester program provides political science students like myself with the opportunity to live and work in the nation’s capital for a semester. While searching for internships, I came across FairVote’s website and it excited me. Their ideas are forward-thinking yet with the times – Americans are ready for a change. I wanted to have a part in advocating important reforms during such a crucial time in American history, where citizens are more and more unimpressed with the current unrepresentative electoral system.

I am especially enthusiastic about Representation2020, a project of FairVote that advocates for women’s parity in government. Women are extremely underrepresented in both our state and federal legislatures. This is a problem because women provide perspectives on policy that men are unable to and these perspectives need to be heard. I’m interested in parity for women because I believe that since women make up more than half the country it is crucial they are given the opportunity to govern as such. I am excited to work towards parity these next couple months in order to help the voice of women be heard in our government.
I have been interested in democracy for most of my life because I grew up in a very politically active family. I am excited to expand my knowledge of democracy while working at FairVote. I know that I will gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, including professional, research, and communication skills. The opportunity to research and advocate for electoral reform is appealing because FairVote’s work makes a difference. Making sure that every vote counts and the American people are truly represented is crucial and exciting work. I’m eager to work with passionate people and make a contribution to the betterment of our democracy. 

Emily Agliano is a 2015 Intern at FairVote. Do you want to apply for a FairVote internship? Find more information here:

Friday, October 23, 2015

RCV and Solving the Problem of Non-Majority Winners in Canadian Districts

By Rob Richie and Haley Smith

Canada's most recent elections epitomized the distortions that a winner-take-all electoral system can produce—including a second consecutive "majority government" that won less than 40% of votes. But the elections also showcased the unfairness within each single-member district produced by a plurality, "top of the heap" voting rule. The candidate on the top of the heap always wins regardless of whether they received 20 percent of the vote or 80 percent. That candidate will then "represent"voters even if  a majority strongly preferred someone with very different views.

Canada has three competitive national parties (the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats), one strong regional party (Bloc Quebecois) and a persistent national minor party (the Greens), which means votes are consistently fractured such that most winners do not receive 50 percent of the vote in their district. Indeed, this was the case on Monday, where five candidates were elected to the House of Commons without even winning 30 percent of the vote. Canadian voters are all too familiar with the phenomena of split votes and non-majority winners—more than half of winners in 2011 also failed to win a majority. Sadly, before the 2015 election, there was much hand-wringing about whether voters ought to vote tactically against their least favorite party or sincerely for their favorite party.

Here are the data on non-majority winners in 2015 and 2011

Canadian political parties already have rejected plurality voting for their own internal elections in favor of ranked choice voting (often called "preferential voting" or "ranked voting" in Canada). Now they may do so for national elections, as Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party have pledged that the 2015 election was Canada's last under plurality voting. Similarly, the Liberal-led government in Ontario is moving to allow its 444 local governments to use ranked choice voting, both its single-winner form and its proportional, multi-winner form.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) provides a more representative outcome than plurality because it allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than only expressing a preference for one candidate,and seeks to maximize the number of voters whose one vote helps elect someone. As the least popular candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated one-by-one, their votes flow to their voters’ second choices. This means winners have to reach out to more voters than they would under plurality so that they can be not only the first choice of their most ardent supporters, but also the second and third choice of a broad range of voters. In its multi-winner form, RCV encourages candidates to reach out to voters for the same reasons and provides fuller representation of the diversity of opinion within a district.

Under RCV, the presence of three strong parties, a regional party, and a minor party would no longer split votes so that candidates win with less than 30 percent support. That's a win-win for voters both being free to vote expressively for whom they want and intentionally to make sure  their vote counts  when the field narrows to the strongest candidates  It's high time Canada adopted RCV to accommodate the realities of multi-candidates  elections and non-majority winners—as we should in the United States.

When Plurality Rules: House Republicans Need Ranked Choice Voting

Attribution: Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons
For weeks now, the race for Speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been riddled with tension and disunity among Republicans. Following John Boehner’s resignation, numerous candidates have entered or withdrawn from the Speaker race, highlighting the deep divisions within the Republican Party and the House as a whole. Before Paul Ryan’s announcement yesterday that he would be willing to run for the seat as a unifying candidate, many doubted whether any candidate could achieve the necessary majority. Much of this uncertainty could have been avoided if the House had used ranked choice voting to select a Speaker.

Historically, Republicans have dealt with deeply contentious House Speaker races by forgoing the majority requirement all together. For example, in 1856 the House held upwards of 130 votes for Speaker over the course of two months. The race was so contentious and divided that even over the course of 130 ballots, no candidate was able to achieve 50% of the vote. The House was eventually forced to abandon the majority requirement and elect a Speaker by simple plurality, meaning the candidate with the most votes would win even if they received less than 50%. Under this relaxed standard, Nathaniel Banks finally won the speakership, two months later, with just 103 votes, or only 23% of the total House.

Plurality elections like this one are a problem because a candidate can be elected with so little support. Banks had a very weak mandate going into the Speakership. When leaders don’t need a majority to win, they have no incentive to reach out beyond their very narrow band of supporters, and they enter office without consensus support. These same problems plague plurality elections across the country at the local, state, and national level. In competitive races with more than two candidates, winners frequently receive less than 50% of the vote, and candidate can win despite the fact that most voters would have chosen someone else.

For these reasons, the House should use ranked choice voting to elect a speaker efficiently while maintaining its majority requirement. Winning with a majority will empower the next House speaker to lead with a strong mandate, and bring greater united to a party that needs it. Using ranked choice voting to achieve that majority would have allowed the house to avoid such prolonged periods of uncertainty and divisive politics within their own party. When House members can rank candidates for Speaker instead of just choosing one, they can fully represent their preferences in just one vote instead of engaging in multiple rounds of elections. FairVote has observed in the past how multiple elections for the same position, which are necessary if no candidate achieves a majority, are “often divisive and exacerbate existing fault-lines within the party.” With ranked choice voting, the House could have avoided these past weeks of discord, and efficiently elected the strongest leader with majority support.

What could an independent run by Jim Webb mean for 2016?

On Tuesday, former Virginia U.S. Senator Jim Webb ended his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, while also leaving the door open for an independent run. Webb, a former Republican whose views are more conservative than many Democrats, never found momentum as a Democratic presidential candidate. He indicated his interest in running as an independent however, stating, "Poll after poll shows that a strong plurality of Americans is neither Republican nor Democrat. Overwhelmingly they're independents."

It remains to be seen whether Jim Webb will run as an independent--he said he would consider his options in the coming weeks--and it's hard to tell how much support an independent campaign could muster in the general election. It is important to note, however, that he would not have to establish too much support to have an impact on the 2016 presidential race.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Take the simple fact that he’s from Virginia, one of the few true swing states in recent presidential elections. Since most states give all of their electoral college votes to the presidential candidate that wins a plurality (the most votes, not a majority of votes), candidates that garner a relatively small share of the electorate can have a big impact on highly competitive elections. Voters need only remember the photo-finish in 2000 in which Al Gore lost the presidency by a very small margin in a few states (most notably Florida) -- even as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won over some would-be Democratic voters in those crucial swing states. Similarly, Republicans often lament the role Ross Perot’s independent candidacy played in Bill Clinton’s victory over incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Even a few percentage points in Virginia could prove significant in a closely contested presidential race in 2016. For example, in 2012 incumbent President Barack Obama won by only three percentage points over challenger Mitt Romney with a slight majority of 50.8 percent -- and the state would likely have been near a dead heat if Obama and Romney had tied in the popular vote. In an even tighter race in 2014, incumbent Senator Mark Warner defeated challenger Ed Gillespie by just 0.8 percentage points, garnering only 49.2 percent of the vote. In that election, 2.5 percent of voters chose Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who also won far more than the Democrat’s margin of victory in the 2013 election for governor. One could easily make a claim that had Sarvis not run, Gillespie, a Republican, would have likely captured most of that 2.5 percent and won with a majority of the vote, and Terry McAuliffe might not be governor.

When candidates can win with the most votes rather than a majority of the votes, independent and third party candidates can really have a big impact on the outcome with even just a couple percentage points. Should Webb run as an independent, there’s a real chance he could peel away just enough of would-be Democratic voters to change the outcome in Virginia. And given his history of appealing to some populist conservative voters, his candidacy might just cut the other way and hurt the Republican nominee.

The problem isn’t Jim Webb, but rather our elected leaders who maintain a system that breaks down in elections with more than two candidates. In doing so, they are essentially playing a game of chicken with would-be candidates and voters rather than simply changing the rules to better accommodate more choice at the ballot box.

Earlier this year Virginia’s state senate backed establishing runoff elections for certain statewide races, however runoffs would force the state to hold expensive, big-money elections in the middle of the holiday season. For that reason, and because we are having more primary and general elections with more than two candidates, ranked choice voting (RCV) is gaining support across the country. It’s being used in more than a dozen U.S. cities, in Democratic and Republican internal party contests in Virginia and Utah, and will be on a statewide ballot measure in Maine in 2016. RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice. That way if no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the voters who supported that candidate have their vote instantly count for their next choice. It’s the best way to uphold the principle of majority rule in an election with more than two candidates.

It’s time to take on the structural flaws in our electoral system, rather than bury our heads in the sand. A system that allows candidates to win without a majority leaves the door open for “winners” that a majority of voters oppose. With a better electoral system, we could be talking about what issues and voters Jim Webb might bring to the presidential debate as an independent, rather than simply calculating how he might affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential race.

Try out ranked choice voting at the new FairVote-Civinomics Ranked Choice Voting App. You can vote in this year’s presidential contests and soon will be able to set up contests of your choice.

The Pros and Cons of Requiring Citizens to Vote

By Nina Jaffe-Geffner

Americans are used to hearing about elections that are plagued by low voter-turnout. Many Americans see voting as optional, and in most elections (that do not involve choosing the president) a majority of eligible voters choose to abstain. But what if voting wasn’t a choice, but rather a duty that was legally required of a country’s citizens? This idea isn’t as outlandish as it may initially sound. In fact, there are at least 26 countries that currently employ some form of compulsory voting.

While giving a speech just this past March, President Obama expressed his support for mandatory voting. Seeing compulsory voting as a way to combat the influence of money in politics, he said:
“It would be transformative if everybody voted […] The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities.”
Obama’s concern regarding voter turnout in the U.S. is not unfounded. In the most recent 2014 midterm elections voter turnout rates were at their lowest levels since 1942, with less than 37% of the eligible population making it to the polls. In addition, voter turnout can be as low as 4% when municipalities hold special elections.

President Obama is not the only world leader who has been contemplating the possibility of mandatory voting recently. Canadian Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has seriously argued for compulsory voting, expressing hopes that it might take effect immediately after this Fall’s national election.

Because compulsory voting is a hot topic in the United States, as well as our neighbor up north, it is important to consider some of the pros and cons of such a policy:

Pro: Higher Turnout Elections

Not surprisingly, one of the main arguments which champions of the policy present in favor of compulsory voting is that it leads to drastically higher voter turnout rates. Australia serves as a prime example of such an effect. Prior to Australia’s implementation of compulsory voting in 1924, the voter rate had sunk to around 47% of registered voters. After the adoption of mandatory voting, turnout rates soared, with the current level resting at over 80% of the eligible population (and over 90% of registered voters). This percentage should be considered in comparison to the U.S., in which only 57% of eligible voters turned out in the 2012 presidential election.

Additionally, some proponents of the policy emphasize that under compulsory voting, voting becomes more a duty than a right. The idea is that making voting mandatory alters civics norms, so that eventually it is simply expected that everyone takes part in elections.

As is often highlighted by supporters of the practice, in a democracy where politicians are supposed to represent the interests of all citizens, it is especially important that as much of the population votes as possible. When voter participation rates are low, a small minority often ends up controlling leadership and policy decisions, while lower-income, younger and non-white voters are less often heard by political leaders.

Another benefit advocates cite in support of compulsory voting is that it will help to minimize political polarization in the United States. Lower turnout, it is argued, enables more hard-core partisans and ideologues to dominate elections. Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, William Galston, believes a fully engaged voting population can counter this problem. “If the full range of voters actually voted,” Eric Liu of TIME explains “our political leaders, who are exquisitely attuned followers, would go where the votes are: away from the extremes.”

Lastly, some people assert that mandatory voting will ultimately help make it easier for people to vote. If a state legally compels its citizenry to vote, the burden shifts from the individual to the state to ensure that everyone has the means to be able to take part in elections. An example of this shift can be seen in Australia’s usage of mobile polling facilities in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and remote Aboriginal communities to ensure that those who are unable to get to a polling location can still vote.

Con: The Rise of the Uninformed Voter

Of course, the range of arguments supporting compulsory voting is matched by a plethora of reasons why the U.S. should keep voting voluntary.

One of the major arguments given by those against compulsory voting is that it leads to a greater number of uninformed voters, noting that those who choose not vote are generally less educated on political issues than those who choose to vote. Critics argue that the resulting surplus of politically ignorant voters has three main negative consequences:
  1. Misleading uninformed voters. It is often asserted that uninformed voters are more susceptible to the influence of money and spending on television ads. A short advertisement is likely to have a greater influence on an uninformed voter than one who already has strong views. This encourages the use of sensational and misleading advertising and may have a negative effect on campaigning techniques. While politicians no longer need to try to convince citizens to go out and vote, they still need to find ways to maximize their vote among less informed voters. Australian political scientist, Haydon Manning notes that compulsory voting often “require[s] banal sloganeering and crass misleading negative advertising.”

  2. Ignoring the wishes of most voters. Since uninformed voters are more easily persuaded, some politicians may choose to focus on marginal voters and ignore their main base of support. Even if compulsory voting leads to less polarization, it may not result in better policy outcomes because complicated and nuanced legislation may be perceived negatively by swing voters.

  3. Dampening the voice of the majority. An additional concern under a compulsory system is that people who are uninformed (or simply do not care about the outcome of an election) may end up voting randomly. The impact of ‘random’ votes ends up being particularly detrimental because it fails to increase civic engagement and may skew election results.

Compulsory voting presents some ethical challenges. Many people argue that it infringes upon individual liberty by denying people the ability to choose not to vote. While it is true that ballots may include a “none of the above” option (though, in practice, typically do not), the act of voting itself may be seen as “endorsing” the current politicians and political system, an endorsement that some citizens may not want to make.

While it seems pretty unlikely right now that compulsory voting will be adopted in the United States, at least on a federal level, it is a policy to keep in mind as America continues striving towards a better democracy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Liberal Party Landslide in Canada: Reform of Winner-Take-All On the Way

Canada held elections for its national parliament on October 19. The elections showed once again how U.S.-style plurality voting breaks down when voters have more choices. As has been true in every Canadian election since 2000, the party that won a governing majority failed to earn even 40% of the vote, and voters were forced into making strategic calculations about whether to vote their conscience or for a candidate who could win.

But based on the unambiguous pledge of Liberal Party leader and incoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Canada has just seen the last of plurality voting. In a speech last June, Trudeau promised to replace plurality, known there as “first-past-the-post” voting, with either a form of proportional representation or ranked choice voting in current single-winner constituencies.

To show why many Canadians are calling for change, here’s a summary of the distortions between votes and seats won in 2015.

The Liberal Party won 54.4% of seats from only 39.5% of the nationwide vote. This is a characteristic problem of Canadian elections. No government has taken office on the back of a majority of Canadian voters since the Progressive Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won 74.82% of the seats in the Canadian House of Commons from 50.03% of the 1984 vote.

Dave Meslin appeared on Canadian election night TV, using Lego to highlight the disproportionate allocation of seats under Canada’s existing plurality system in 2015. Below is a tweet of his creation for Canada’s largest province, Ontario.
(The full video, which was watched over a million times within 24 hours of polls closing, is available here.)

In a vibrant multi-party system, vote splitting and the spoiler effect are regular phenomena. As noted on FairVote’s blog in the lead up to the election, numerous organizations urged Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) voters to vote strategically for whichever party could defeat the Conservatives. It seems voters obliged, sacrificing their conscience in favor of strategic calculations about ousting the Conservative Party. In explaining the poor showing of the NDP, the Washington Post observed “Canadians appeared to jettison the NDP in favor of the party they believed could outperform the Conservatives”.

But Trudeau and the Liberal Party platform on fair and open government, committed to ensuring that the 2015 election would be “the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” (To carry out this commitment, the party promised to convene an all-party parliamentary committee to explore electoral reform options, engage masses of Canadians in the process, and propose a new system in the next 18 months.)

Based on its prior policy proposals, the Liberal Party will likely support a form of ranked choice voting (RCV), in which voters rank choices so that most votes end up counting even if a voter’s first choice loses. All of Canada’s major parties use RCV in party leader elections, and the Liberal government in Ontario plans to move legislation to allow all Ontario municipalities to use RCV.

Because the Liberals won an absolute majority of seats, they may decide to keep single-winner districts rather than the multi-winner version that FairVote backs for congressional elections and that earned the support of 58% of British Columbia voters in 2005. If forced to go into coalition with the New Democratic Party (PR), the Liberals may have been more likely to adopt a multi-winner form of proportional representation, since the NDP has long supported proportional representation.

Even though single-winner RCV would not alleviate the country’s problem of seats-to-votes distortions, it still would provide significantly more democratic outcomes than the current plurality system. The spoiler effect would be virtually eradicated. Voters would not be put in the impossible position of choosing between their conscience and strategy. And at least within each district, the winner would be more likely to represent that district’s majority.

The next step is for Trudeau and the Liberals to live up to their commitment for change. Given a string of controversial elections and the realities of its multi-party politics, Canada has a great many reasons for change.

FairVote Testifies in Favor of Ranked Choice Voting in Massachusetts

Yesterday (Monday, October 19), the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Election Laws held a hearing to consider various bills. Among them were four bills that would institute the use of ranked choice voting (which they call "instant runoff voting") in Massachusetts elections.

Read FairVote's full testimony to the committee here.

Ranked choice voting is an increasingly common election method that allows voters to have real choices while still being able to elect strong winners. Recent research is showing that it also has a profound impact on campaigning: making it more positive and issue-focused.

It has a particularly interesting connection to Massachusetts: it was invented there! The single-winner ranked choice voting method, sometimes called instant runoff voting, was invented in 1870 by an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named W. R. Ware.

There are five bills under consideration: H575 and H576, introduced by Rep. Jay Kaufman, and H608, H609, and H610, introduced by Rep. Ellen Story. Together, they would institute ranked choice voting for primary and general elections for all statewide offices, as well as implement the use of ranked choice voting ballots for overseas and military voters in the presidential primary.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why Hedrick Smith's challenge to gerrymandering demands thinking bigger

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith has been zeroing in on the problem of gerrymandering in American democracy, including in this new commentary in the Sacramento Bee. My hat is off to Smith for confronting this kind of structural problem with our elections, and he's right that putting legislators in charge of redistricting is like putting foxes in charge of the henhouse.

But we can't stop at his reform prescription of independent redistricting commission. Instead, we must go further with the Ranked Choice Voting Act that we expect to see introduced in Congress early next year. Smith's own words are telling, when he suggests that in 2011 Republicans in many states both created a partisan gerrymander and safe seats that led to extremists doing well, writing "The Great Gerrymander of 2011 that helped cement the party’s House majority also embedded the rump faction of anti-government extremists that toppled Boehner and now faces whomever becomes his successor."

As Drew Spencer points out in his analysis of Virginia congressional district options last week, however, the best partisan gerrymanders in fact typically create fewer ultra-safe seats for the majority party by seeking to more efficiently spread their party's vote. Plans that seek overall partisan balance typically do so by creating a number of very safe seats.

Take the example of the Freedom Caucus that Smith suggests is a product of gerrymandering. Of its 36 members (as of today), fully three are from Arizona: Matt Salmon, Paul Gosar, and David Schweikert. That means more than eight percent of the caucus comes from a state that only has two percent of House seats- - and is one of the few states with an independent redistricting process. A fourth member, Rod Blum, holds one of the four Iowa seats also created by an independent process.

The three Arizona commission-drawn districts represented by Salmon, Gosar and Schweikert have an average underlying partisan lean of more than 66% Republican -- far beyond the reach of Democrats in a general election. As we explain in our Monopoly Politics analysis of Arizona, six of the state's nine districts overall are one-party-dominated. Overall, the plan also contributed to Republicans winning only 44% of seats in 2012 despite winning more than half the overall House vote in the state, helping to explain Republican allies' ongoing legal assault against the commission's plan for state and congressional districts.

The same story applies to California's much-praised independent redistricting plan plan. While doing far more to put congressional incumbents at risk in 2012, the California plan did not reduce the number of "landslide" partisan districts, as Devin McCarthy showed in 2013, and in 2014 did not lead to any incumbent turnover despite the nation's strong shift that year toward Republicans.

If we want both partisan fairness and meaningful competition, we must think bigger, with multi-winner districts and ranked choice voting. Although Smith is right that state efforts to reform redistricting are important and worthy of support, we ultimately must go to the source: Congress. Just as Congress imposed a national standard for single-winner districts in 1842 to avoid partisan gaming of winner-take-all statewide elections, it's time to stop state gaming of single-winner districts and give voters in all states the power to use their votes to determine their own representation in every election.

With Canada's failed voting system, it's all about that base

Canada holds elections today for its national parliament. As explained well by my colleague Sarah John over at the main FairVote blog today, Canada for years had been an instructive lesson in why its plurality, "top-of-the-heap" electoral system is a failed system when there are more than two  choices on the ballot: you can get illegitimate outcomes, heated debates over how best to vote and elections that are "all about that base" (cue soundtrack).

Stephen Harper's Conservative Party have ruled Canada's parliament -- including the last four years with an absolute majority of seats --without ever topping 40% of the national vote. Furthermore, there has been a consistent super-majority of opposition party voters that in fact oppose much of Harper's agenda. Here are the national vote totals for the past three elections "won" by the Conservatives:

  • 2011: 39.6%  for the Conservatives won a majority of seats even though more than 59% of voters backed one of the four main  opposition parties: New Democratic Party, Liberal Party, Green Party and Bloc Quebecois 
  • 2008: 37.65% for the Conservative Party more than 61% for those same opposition parties 
  • 2006: 36.3% for the Conservative Party over more than 62% for  these same opposition parties
To provide an indication of what voters really wanted in those elections, the latest polls out of Canada show 67% of voters want a change government -- barely higher than the 68% not planning to vote for the Conservatives. One can imagine the numbers of those seeking change were some 60% in both 2008 and 2011 as well.

Because there is a fractured opposition, talk of strategic voting has been rampant -- meaning many Canadians won't vote for whom they really want to represent them, but instead be figuring which "lesser of evils" might have the best chance to win.

The New York Times had a featured story yesterday all that says it all about "base" politics: Plurality, not Popularity is Paramount in Unpredictable Canadian Elections. That headline gets to core problem with Canada's electoral system- one that fortunately all the opposition parties seem committed to changing to either ranked choice voting or full proportional representation.

Friday, October 16, 2015

What to do with the Appointed Upper Chamber?

By DJ Livermore

Wikimedia Commons
The Canadian Senate is a unique institution within Canada. While every province has adopted unicameral legislature (similar to the legislative chamber for Nebraska), the Canadian Senate persists as the upper chamber of the federal legislature. Even as the United Kingdom moves to democratize its House of Lords, the Canadian Senate remains appointive, with senators chosen by the Prime Minister. Around the world the Canadian Senate is seen as a bastion for political patronage.

The chamber, with its recent expenses scandal, is controversial. It is inherently undemocratic to have an unelected chamber of the federal government with the power to draft, approve, and reject bills (which the Senate does occasionally). There are better ways of representing Canadians and party leaders are considering the options available to both create a representative and accountable government. When it comes to the Canadian Senate, talk of reform is nothing new, while reform proves to be stubbornly difficult.

Modifying Tradition

Senate reform is particularly popular in Western Canada as shown by Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed’s task force in the 1970s that recommended an elected senate. Lougheed himself wanted a “House of Provinces” similar to the German Bundesrat, in which the provincial parliaments would choose senators. In the 1990s, the Reform Party called for the “Triple-E Senate”, which refers to a senate that would be “Equal, Elected, Effective.” Both the Meech Lake Accord (1987) and Charlottetown Accord (1992)--Accords which would have renegotiated the terms of federalism in an attempt to prevent Quebec from seceding and the balkanization of Canada--included provisions for a transition to an elected and reformed Senate. However, neither accord was adopted. 

Like its Reform Party predecessor, the Conservative Party is in favor of a “Triple-E Senate”. However, there are significant barriers on the path to reform. In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada complicated the Conservative Party’s plans for reform when the Court ruled both abolishing and/or electing the Senate would require constitutional changes. This is a daunting task that requires substantial provincial support. The Court set different standards for abolishing and electing the Senate with abolishment requiring unanimous support amongst the provinces and elections requiring the consent of seven provinces that consist of half the population of Canada. This ruling pertains to other parties as well as the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois are both in favor of abolishing the Senate. The Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has proposed that all appointed senators sit as independents in an “open, transparent, non-partisan process.” The Green Party is in favor of electing senators using proportional representation which would ensure fair representation for an elected Senate, something the House of Commons is sorely lacking. In addition to disagreement over the manner in which senators are chosen, there is also philosophical disagreements over whether the allocation of seats should be equal by province or region, or by population the provinces.

Un-appointing the Senate

The debate about the Canadian Senate will continue after the election, as it has for over sixty years. The debate within Canada about a founding pillar of its government is admirable. It is difficult to see what the future holds for the Canadian Senate with the rocky waters of a federal election and constitutional hurdles approaching, but change is coming and Canada could soon be rid of its antiquated relic.

BC-STV: A Look Back at British Columbia’s Attempts at Electoral Reform

By DJ Livermore

From Wikipedia Commons
Ahead of the 2015 Canadian election (October 19) electoral reform has taken center stage in the campaign. The New Democratic Party, Green Party, and Liberal Party have called for wholesale structural reform at the federal level and an end to the winner-take-all elections (called “first-past-the-post”) because it leads to unfair results. There is also consistent discussion of reforming the Senate, which is currently appointed, across the provincial governments and federal parties. Discussion of electoral reform is not new in Canada, with numerous reform movements flourishing in the provinces over the last decade, and Prince Edward Island considering a plebiscite on the electoral reform in 2016. The most prominent reform movements have been in British Columbia, where there have been two referenda on electoral reform in the last decade.

2005 Referendum

Between 1991 and 2001, three consecutive elections in British Columbia returned distinctly unfair results. In 1991, the Liberal Party won two-thirds of the seats despite receiving only 40% of the province-wide vote. In 1996, the New Democratic Party won a majority of seats despite winning fewer votes than the Liberal Party. In 2001, the Liberal Party won all but 2 of the 79 seats with only 57% of the vote. In response to these highly erratic and unfair electoral results, the British Columbia legislature voted unanimously in 2003 for the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly to investigate building a fairer electoral system. The assembly consisted of a man and woman from each of British Columbia’s electoral districts, selected by lottery.

From Wikipedia Commons

After months of debate, the Citizens’ Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of a form of ranked choice voting (RCV) -- the Single-Transferrable Vote system. This recommendation was voted on at a referendum. Fifty-eight percent of British Columbia voters endorsed the RCV system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly. However, the law enabling the referendum had a particularly high double majority requirement: to pass, the referendum needed 60% of voters across the province and a simple majority of voters in 60% of ridings.

2009 Referendum

Due to the high threshold, RCV was not adopted in 2005, but another referendum was scheduled for the next provincial election in 2009. With the memories of the 1991, 1996 and 2001 elections fading, the results of the 2009 referendum were less favorable for RCV: 39% Yes and 60% No. The massive shift into the No column was attributed to a multitude of factors including low voter awareness, a lack of voter education initiatives, greater media coverage of the No-STV campaign, and the more fair results of the 2005 provincial elections.

Reform for the Better

Despite STV not being adopted, British Columbia’s experience with reform shows there is significant support for fair representation. Fifty-eight percent approval is a mandate for change. If not for the 60% threshold, BC would have a legislature that better reflects the population. The Canadian party system provides voters with numerous viable options, but voters are all too often hamstrung by winner-take-all voting. Moving to a fair voting system would give voters better governance and fair representation. Change can be difficult, but properly representing the electorate is worth the effort.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Meet Ethan Fitzgerald

Working at FairVote is an amazing opportunity for me for a number of reasons. With a career in political advocacy as my ultimate goal, I’m thrilled to be gaining real world experience advancing electoral reform. This is especially true because enhancing our democracy is something I’m truly passionate about and is key to moving forward in other crucial policy areas. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a political junkie, so the chance to be working in Washington, D.C. was another factor that made FairVote a huge draw.

In focusing my fellowship with the outreach and advocacy team, I hope to gain valuable experience in organizing and activism. Having worked on political campaigns in the past, I’m excited to build on those skills at FairVote. I hope to advocate for electoral reform not just among elected officials and stakeholder organizations, but with everyday Americans too. Advancing any policy requires connecting with people across the political spectrum, making FairVote’s nonpartisan character an asset as I work to develop my communications skills.

Not only will the work I do for FairVote matter, but the work FairVote does for democracy matters. It’s fundamental to our democracy that everyone is represented and engaged in the political arena. The disconnect we see today between average Americans and their political leaders traces back to our unfair winner-take-all electoral system. This system reinforces the gridlock and polarization that has kept us from making progress on a host of issues. With my background in policy analysis, I’m keenly aware of the need for both an engaged public and results oriented leaders to move things forward.

Finally, I feel so fortunate to be doing this work in Washington. Though our electoral system may be broken, D.C. remains the center of politics and policy. Being surrounded by the intelligent and hardworking people that come here to work on big ideas and make a difference is an opportunity for growth in and of itself.

Ethan Fitzgerald is a 2015 Advocacy Fellow at FairVote. Do you want to apply for a FairVote internship? Find more information here:

Monday, October 5, 2015

Latest from our App: Trump’s Shallow Support Clears the Way for Carson Victory

Poll results on 10/01 before new weighting was applied
Donald Trump may maintain dominance as the first-choice pick of many GOP primary voters, but his breadth of support is noticeably falling apart. Ben Carson wins FairVote’s online GOP presidential nomination poll with 52% of the vote in the final round, overtaking Trump by raking up second and third choice support from other candidates. After using Real Clear Politics polling averages to weight the first choices of respondents, our polling app offers a better glimpse into what a ranked choice Republican primary contest might look like.

The results are striking, and they illustrate the limitations of just polling first choices. Ranked choice polling reveals how dependent Trump’s candidacy truly is on his core of first-choice support. Between early September and the last week of September, Trump’s first-choice support dropped from around 33% to around 23% in Real Clear Politics’ poll average. In our ranked choice poll, this dip costs Trump the victory. With ranked choice voting, candidates are rewarded for reaching out beyond their base to get second and third choice support instead of picking fights with opponents. Polarizing candidates like Trump, who attract intense popularity among a certain set of voters but fail to appeal to a broader audience, tend to fare poorly.

Before Trump’s appearance in the second Republican presidential debate on September 16, his first choice support was enough to carry him past Carson in the final round, despite Trump’s tendency to garner fewer second and third choices than his rivals in our poll simulation.

Though he still leads the field in the first round, each successive candidate’s elimination adds only a sliver of additional support to Trump. For example, many John Kasich supporters ranked Bush, Rubio and Fiorina second or third, while few ranked Trump second or third. When Kasich is eliminated, Bush, Rubio and Fiorina benefit from an influx of those supporters. With each new round, candidates like Carson and Fiorina receive strong additions of second-choice support, and Trump’s lead erodes.

A quarter of respondents rank Fiorina second; Carson beats Trump head-to-head

Leading into the final round, the three remaining candidates are Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, who also relied on second and third choice support to stay ahead of candidates like Bush and Rubio. In addition to winning 12% of first choices, Fiorina has strong second-choice support. Nearly a quarter of all respondents in our poll list Fiorina as their second choice.

Ultimately, Carson easily surpasses Trump in the final head-to-head matchup. Carson gains this win largely due to the influx of Fiorina supporters he receives upon her elimination. The story at the last round is a stark demonstration of just how polarizing Trump is: few voters listed Trump second or even third.

Results from 10/02, after new weighting of first-choice votes was applied

Trump has gained notoriety throughout the summer for his near continuous barrage of disparaging remarks about fellow candidates, most notably aimed at Carly Fiorina. Ranked choice voting promotes civility by discouraging this type of negative campaign tactics. In a ranked choice voting election, if candidates want to earn enough second and third choice support to win, they will refrain from this type of behavior. Trump’s defeat in our poll shows just this. His popularity is dependent on his most loyal first-choice supporters, and such polarizing candidates do not gain the second and third choice support they need to win in a ranked choice contest.

Meet Elliot Louthen

I have long grappled with the concept and scope of “civic engagement.” Though I could barely define the term in high school, it manifested itself as I attended town hall meetings as a Boy Scout and mobilized my high school classmates to vote in a local referendum. As I ventured off to college, these experiences led to my focus on political science where I was formally introduced to civic engagement from an academic standpoint. I dove headfirst into the discipline and embraced my inner nerd as I philosophically debated what it means to be civically engaged in my theory courses and learned about the quantitative methods driving research in American politics. Peers would often question why I cared about politics, claiming my efforts were misguided and futile. Yet I always returned to my core belief that despite widespread cynicism, a future that consisted of a renewed sense of civic engagement was within reach.
Today, I have come to realize the democratic process itself, rather than the people running our democracy, is the most powerful medium to realize this future. Our electoral structures play a significant role in how our society expresses itself civically, particularly in regards to voting, the cornerstone of civic engagement. It is this understanding that motivates my desire to contribute to FairVote, an organization that has extensive experience working to reform these electoral structures.
As a Democracy Fellow, I am eager to learn about the advocacy process from a nonprofit perspective and begin to comprehend the range of stakeholders that have a hand in the sphere of electoral reform. Moreover, I look forward to collaborating with a team that is equally committed to this cause. I recognize, however, that I’m not going to change the world in my time here. I am consequently entering my fellowship with the goal of moving electoral reform in the direction of progress and expanding related conversations in the public domain. At a time when the American political system is deadlocked and our polis is disenchanted, the need to profoundly understand our electoral structures has never been greater. I am both humbled and thrilled to join the FairVote team as we advocate for a brighter future in American politics.

Elliot Louthen is a 2015 Advocacy Fellow at FairVote. Do you want to apply for a FairVote internship? Find more information here: