Thursday, January 29, 2015

Virginia Bill Would Allocate Electoral Votes Proportionally

A new bill in the Virginia State Senate (SB 786) would change the way the state allocates its electoral votes during presidential elections. Currently the state awards all 13 of its electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Under this bill, Virginia would award its electoral votes to the candidates in proportion to their total share of the statewide popular vote. This is also known as the whole number proportional system.

Here's how it works:

  • The whole number proportional system, like the one proposed in Virginia, divides electoral votes among the candidates based on the percentage the candidates win in the state.
  • They must, according to the Constitution, award whole numbers of electoral votes. No splitting them up.
  • This means that to win electoral votes, candidates need to pass certain "breakpoints." For example, in a state with three electoral votes, a candidate needs 16.7% of the statewide popular vote to win one electoral vote; 50% to win two electoral votes; and 83.3% to win all three electoral votes.


What if Virginia had used the whole number proportional system in 2012?
  • In 2012, Obama won 51.1% and Romney won 47.3% of Virginia's statewide popular vote.
  • Virginia would have awarded 7 electoral votes to Obama and 6 electoral votes to Romney.
  • Only one of the state's 13 electoral votes would have been a "swing" vote. Both Obama and Romney safely earned the 42% necessary to win 6 electoral votes each. Obama only narrowly won the 50% necessary to win 7 electoral votes total. Romney would have had to win 2.7% more of the statewide popular vote to swing one more vote in his favor.

Currently Virginia is a swing state. With only 1 electoral vote to swing, however, Virginia would likely join the large majority of spectator states in the 2016 election.

Earlier this week, the Virginia Committee on Privileges and Elections voted to "pass by indefinitely" SB 786. In effect, they have decided not to consider the bill at this time.

To learn more about the whole number proportional system, and what would happen if every state were to adopt it, read FairVote's latest report, Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral Votes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Demanding an Explicit Right to Vote in the U.S. Constitution

By: Dania Korkor, Legal Analyst, FairVote

Left to right: Representative Mark Pocan, Representative Keith Ellison,
Dania Korkor, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Julie Fernandes.

On January 21, 2015, I spoke among a determined group of U.S. representatives and advocates and announced our support for an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution during a Press Conference to reintroduce the Pocan-Ellison Right to Vote Amendment. U.S. Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced this bill to the 113th and 114th Congresses with 26 and 21 cosponsors, respectively. Alongside Representatives Pocan and Ellison, speakers included the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., prominent civil rights activist and Founder and President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN), and Julie Fernandes, senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center. FairVote is proud to have supported this important goal since the first Right to Vote Amendment was introduced in 2001 and continue to support it today. 


This Right to Vote Amendment aims to amend the U.S. Constitution to provide all Americans an affirmative right to vote and empower Congress to protect this right. The effects of not having a right to vote in the constitution are overwhelming and expansive. Take, for example, the harmful impact strict voter ID laws have upon voter participation. Eleven percent of Americans do not have government-issued photo ID. Some populations lack these documents at even higher rates. Nationally, 25 percent of African-Americans, 16 percent of Hispanics, and 18 percent of Americans over age 65 do not have such ID. A constitutional right to vote would require that state governments ensure that voter’s access to the polls are protected and that eligible voters are provided necessary IDs before implementing voter ID laws. The amendment would also allow Congress to enact minimum electoral standards and provide our courts with the authority to keep politicians in check if they try to game the vote for partisan reasons.


FairVote currently is leading a project called “Promote Our Vote,” which was born out of an effort to build a grassroots call for an explicit, individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. This movement is being advanced through “Right to Vote” resolutions passed by local governments, which call on Congress to enshrine voting as a right and lay the groundwork for the highest degree of legitimacy, inclusivity, and consistency in our democracy. 

Read Dania Korkor's Remarks
Read more recent news on this issue from John Nichols of The Cap Times, Miya Pontes of the Campaign for America’s Future on Truth-out.org, Adalia Woodbury of PoliticusUSA.com, and Katie Mulvaney of PolitiFact.com. Check out photographs from the press conference and the full video.

Visit our websites for more information: www.RightToVoteAmendment.com and www.FairVote.org.


     

Friday, January 23, 2015

Republican Candidates Reflect the Power of the Swing State

The Washington Post recently reported that "everyone is running for president in 2016!" More specifically, the Republican party has a flood of prospects who will have to battle it out for the party's nomination. Many of these prospective candidates have come from swing states, reflecting the highly unbalanced influence that swing states have in presidential elections.

Prospective candidates from swing states have a better incentive to run:
Sen. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, Florida: Florida had the smallest margin between Obama and Romney in 2012 with a difference of only 0.88%. Of course, the state is more famous for the even smaller margin in the 2000 election. Bush won the state by 0.01%, approximately 537 votes.

John Kasich, Ohio: Ohio had the third smallest margin between Obama and Romney in 2012 with Obama winning by only 2.97%, and consistently has been one of the largest swing states with 21 electoral votes.

Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin: In 2012, Wisconsin voted for Obama over Romney by a margin of 6.94%, bringing it into the top 10 closest states. There are other signs it could go red with the right candidate. The state legislature is Republican controlled, and in 2000, Gore won the state by only 0.22%, just under 6000 votes.

Lindsey Graham, South Carolina: While certainly not a "swing state," South Carolina had the 18th smallest margin in 2012, with Romney winning 10.47% over Obama. And with its northern neighbor entering the world of swing states, Republicans may want to secure their territory.

Republican leaders in Democrat-dominated states have more incentive to run, given their appeal to swing states:
Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey: New Jersey is decidedly not a swing state with Obama winning the state by 17.74% in 2012. That said, the fact that Gov. Christie managed to get elected governor in a blue state may suggest that he could win some of the swing states that have gone blue in recent elections, like Florida, Ohio, or Virginia.

Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts: Like New Jersey, Massachusetts is not a swing state, with Obama winning over Romney by 23.15% in 2012. But like Christie, Romney's role as former governor of a blue state may make him attractive to voters in swing states that have gone blue.

Of course, candidates win their party's nomination by winning primaries, not swing states necessarily. Indeed, the primary process may push many of these candidates to the right as they aim for their party's center, rather than for the nation's center. Nonetheless, candidates must realize that even if they win the nomination, they cannot win the eventual election unless they have the potential to appeal to swing states. It is therefore not surprising that many of the emerging Republican candidates have ties to swing states, or strong backgrounds demonstrating why they could.

The outsized influence of swing states reflects a larger trend in presidential elections. The current Electoral College system encourages candidates to concentrate on only a small handful of battleground states, while the large majority of states are ignored. FairVote supports a National Popular Vote for president, ensure that every vote in every presidential election matters equally.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How the House is Becoming Less and Less Accountable to Voters

While we're on the subject of seats and votes in the U.S. Congress, let's look a little more closely at the increasing divergence between the national House vote and the makeup of the chamber.

Yesterday we discussed the limitations of using raw vote shares--that is, a comparison of the total votes cast for each parties' candidates across all districts--to measure national partisan sentiment. FairVote's Monopoly Politics House elections model attempts to capture that national sentiment more accurately. The model's "national two-party preference" metric measures the degree to which Democratic and Republican incumbents outperformed their respective districts' underlying partisan lean, which in turn is measured by how that district voted for president relative to the nationwide split in the presidential vote. By ignoring open seats and uncontested races and comparing vote margins to a uniformly defined baseline rather than summing raw votes, national two-party preference reduces the impact of the turnout disparities that make raw vote share a flawed measure. (See a fuller unpacking of this metric here.) Here's how national two-party preference has stacked up actual House results since 1996:

Sources: FEC, Cook Political Report, Monopoly Politics 2016

The projected values for 2016, drawn from our Monopoly Politics 2016 projections model, assume an evenly split national two-party preference of 50%. (The model allows users to simulate different House outcomes based on different values for national two-party preference in 2016, as well as different values for generic incumbency advantage--check it out.) A 50% split in 2016 isn't necessarily likely, but it serves to show the way the House is now stacked against the Democratic Party regardless of the national mood: if 2016 were a 50% year, Democrats would take just 191 House seats, or under 44% of the chamber. And it would take a national two-party preference of about 55.8% in 2016 to tip Democrats into a slim House majority--a much bigger wave even than the 2008 Democratic landslide, in which they were preferred by 54%. 

The underlying cause of this imbalance is the interaction between demographic sorting and single-winner districts. Democrats, increasingly clustered in urban areas, are naturally "packed" into their districts, meaning their candidates tend to win by larger margins than Republicans: the average Democratic winner in 2014 won his or her race by a two-party margin of 44.1 percentage points, while the average Republican winner won by 39.7 points. But because each district elects just one winner no matter the margin, Democrats' more emphatic victories are meaningless with respect to the makeup of the House. Republicans' leaner margins are more efficient at winning more seats with fewer overall votes. (While intentional gerrymandering is also a factor here, natural patterns of partisan demography are surprisingly powerful on their own.)

This trend was masked for a while by the looseness of the parties' ideologies and more frequent ticket-splitting, with Democratic incumbents able to hold on to seats in relatively conservative districts, especially in the South. But the 2010 election exposed the underlying asymmetry by eliminating nearly all Democrats representing Republican territory--and now, with Republicans enjoying the advantages of incumbency in those seats and ticket-splitting becoming steadily rarer, Democrats are unlikely to claw those seats back in the foreseeable future. Partisanship is now such an effective predictor of House votes that our Monopoly Politics 2016 model confidently projected over 85% of 2016 House races less than a week after the 2014 midterms, using only recent election results as predictors. 

The structural bias in the House currently favors Republicans, but this tilt in the playing field is problematic no matter its direction. With the parties increasingly voting as tight units rather than loose coalitions that cut across ideologies, democratic accountability depends on voters' ability to empower or reject the parties as legislative agenda-setters. When even a solid majority of the country can't hope to "throw the bums out" and push control of the House to the other party, the House loses its electoral tether to popular opinion--an alarming reality in the chamber designed to represent the American people. The structural bias in the House is a strong argument in favor of eliminating single-winner districts and instituting multi-member districts with fair representation voting, which would promote meaningful competition in almost every district and ensure the House much more faithfully reflected the will of the nation's voters. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

No, National Vote Shares Don't Much Matter for the Senate. But the House Is Different.

RealClearPolitics's Sean Trende and Vox's Dylan Matthews have been trading blows about the significance of some numerical musings on Senate popular vote totals published here last month, with Matthews arguing that those numbers point to the Senate's being fundamentally undemocratic and Trende accusing him of misusing the data (see Matthews's initial piece, Trende's takedown, Matthews's rebuttal, Trende's latest counter). In a brief follow-up I noted that the discrepancy between the parties' nationwide popular vote and their share of seats in the Senate doesn't necessarily point to an easy takedown of the Senate as anti-democratic. But what about the House?

First, a quick note on one of Trende's major critiques of Matthews, which is Matthews's reliance on the fact that currently sitting Senate Democrats received about 20 million more total votes than currently sitting Republicans in winning their seats. That number is not to be confused with the split in the number of votes cast for all Democratic and Republican candidates (including losing candidates) in the 100 elections that decided the makeup of the chamber. The "victors' total" figure is interesting to document as a kind of cute factoid: for example, it seems to be the case that, out of the people who can say that their sitting Senator is one they voted for, many more voted for a Democrat than for a Republican despite Republicans' substantial majority in the chamber. But Trende and Philip Bump are correct to point out that it doesn't indicate much about "fairness" or proportionality (and wasn't intended to in my original piece). Instead, it's the parties' vote share across all elections that meaningfully hints at which party the country as a whole preferred when it elected the current Senate, which is really Matthews's core justification for calling the Senate anti-democratic. Democratic Senate candidates outperformed Republican candidates by about 2.5 percentage points, but that translated into an eight-seat advantage for the GOP.

There's plenty of room for debate about what that means for the Senate. But let's talk about vote shares in the House. According to the Cook Political Report, Republican candidates in 2014 won 51.4% of the national House vote to Democratic candidates' 45.7%, with 2.88% of votes cast for other candidates. But Republicans came away with 247 seats, or 56.8% of the chamber. What should we make of that?

Trende makes some sound points about the limitations of vote share as a measuring tool: given that the House and Senate are elected in local first-past-the-post races, he asks, how much does the aggregate vote share in those races really tell us about national sentiment? Trende argues that it's improper to compare national popular vote share to House or Senate seats won, because "the parties aren't trying to win national elections," citing differences in ideology, candidates' personal attributes, and campaign quality across races. On ideology, he may be overstating his point: as Matthews points out, since the two parties in Congress increasingly vote in lockstep on key issues, there's arguably a sense in which a vote for a conservative or liberal Democrat isn't actually worlds apart from one for a generic Democrat. However, Trende is correct to note the counting issues posed by turnout variations, retirements, uncontested races, and third-party candidates, which combine to make raw popular vote share an incomplete proxy metric for the ideological mood of the nation.

But it's a mistake to lump the House and Senate too closely together here. Because races for all House seats are held simultaneously, differences in nationwide turnout between election years don't come into play--one of Trende's primary reasons for dismissing Senate vote totals. And turnout variations between House districts are much smaller than those between states, because districts vary much less than states in population. The nation's largest House district, Montana at-large, is less than twice as populous as the smallest district, Rhode Island's 1st; California's population is about sixty-six times that of last-place Wyoming (this according to the 2010 Census). So when it comes to the House, a big split between seats and votes really should make us sit up and take notice.

Besides, the limits of vote share don't make it a meaningless number. After all, we do have a national election for reference here. Thanks to the Electoral College, the presidential election isn't exactly a 50-state race, but it's not too far off from a national referendum on the parties--and the fact that swing states and swing districts don't always coincide helps smooth out variations in turnout (for example, almost none of Ohio's House districts are in play, but the state is ground zero for presidential campaigns). Take a look at how closely the two parties' vote shares in House elections have mirrored presidential races since 2000:

Sources: FEC, Cook Political Report

It's a pretty close fit. The biggest gap, in 2008, was just 1.9%, the equivalent of about 8 House seats under a hypothetical PR system. So no, raw vote share isn't going to equate perfectly with a nationwide PR election, but it's also not so hopelessly skewed by local variation that it can't tell us anything. 

As well, there's a way to reduce the impact of the counting issues Trende cites. Instead of looking at the raw number of votes cast in each district, we can compare each district's two-party House vote share to that district's Partisan Voting Index (PVI), which is in turn determined by comparing a district's two-party vote share in the most recent presidential election to the nationwide presidential two-party vote share that year. This method lets us compare how heavily districts favored Republicans or Democrats in a given election relative to a uniform baseline, reducing the impact of differences in raw vote totals. Looking across the the 2014 House elections using this method (eliminating races without a candidate from both major parties), FairVote's Monopoly Politics 2016 projections model finds voters preferred Republicans to Democrats by 51.9% to 48.1%. That's actually a notch closer than the raw two-party vote margin of 52.9% to 47.1%; if the makeup of the House reflected the underlying national two-party preference, the GOP would hold just 226 seats, not 247.

It's still the case that summing vote totals across a series of first-past-the-post races will never fully describe what a hypothetical vote under a true national PR election would look like. But it's also quite clear that there's a genuine mismatch between how the nation votes for Congress and how Congress ends up looking.

Again, this kind of seats-to-votes mismatch in the Senate isn't inherently problematic: the Senate isn't meant to translate votes into seats at the national level. But the House is a different story. Unlike the Senate, which reflects the interests of states as political units in their own right independent of population (and which was designed, quite openly, as a mechanism to maximize the political clout of smaller states), the House really is meant to serve as a direct reflection of popular will--an "exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large," in John Adams's phrasing. This is reflected in the House's institutional design: as the "lower," popular house, its members are elected frequently and simultaneously, making it more responsive to short-term changes in public opinion than the sedate Senate and its staggered six-year terms--and, of course, the House uses a quasi-proportional system of apportionment based on population. It's a body designed to reflect the electorate. 

So while seats-to-votes distortions in the intentionally non-proportional Senate are baked into the cake of American bicameralism, there's a strong argument that similar distortions in the supposedly representative House are problematic on principle--a result of some flaw in the method of connecting seats to votes, rather than of an intentional decision to sever that connection, as in the Senate.

What's keeping the makeup of the House from reflecting the nationwide popular vote? It's the fact that we elect the House "first past the post" style--by giving a single plurality winner all of the representation for each district. That's a feature so easy to take for granted that the distortions it creates are difficult to notice at first glance, but it's crucial. Single-winner districts crunch voters' preferences coarsely into a binary value, meaning a landslide victory has no more effect on Congress than a hair's-breadth squeaker. So a party that tends to win by smaller margins, but in more districts, reliably comes away with more House seats than its vote totals would translate to if the House accurately reflected the nationwide vote. Right now, thanks to demographic sorting, that's the Republican Party, which won less than half of the national two-party House vote in 2012 but came away with a robust majority in the chamber thanks to precisely this phenomenon. (See Nate Cohn's September New York Times piece for further exposition.)

To the extent that we'd like the House to reflect national popular sentiment, winner-take-all districts are a cripplingly poor means of electing the chamber, because of the way they arbitrarily waste votes in "packed" districts and eliminate meaningful competition nearly across the board. Much of Trende's analysis points to that conclusion: wide differences in turnout across districts and the large number of uncontested races, for example, are in part a reflection of the fact that so few districts are meaningfully competitive. (See FairVote's Monopoly Politics material for a fuller unpacking of the woes of winner-take-all districts - and how a simple act of Congress could fix them)

It's true that raw vote shares can't tell us everything, and it's not an automatic trump to point out that Congress doesn't perfectly reflect the national vote, especially in the Senate. But no matter how you slice the numbers, it's abundantly clear that right now, the House of Representatives isn't, well, representative--and that's a problem.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sri Lanka Presidential Election Demonstrates Value and Ease of Ranking Candidates

Yesterday (January 8, 2015), more than 12 million voters in Sri Lanka participated in a fascinating presidential election with ranked choice voting, showcasing how RCV can work among a wide range of electorates.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat this morning after a close but unsuccessful attempt at a third term in office. Sri Lanka's Election Commission announced that former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena had won roughly 51.3 percent of the vote, with Mr. Rajapaksa garnering 47.6 percent--a margin of just under 450,000 votes. The political upset has caught the attention of the international community, as Rajapaksa was a heavy favorite with a considerable advantage in terms of resources over his opponent.

For advocates of ranked choice voting (RCV), the method in which Sri Lanka’s highest office was elected is what made this election so fascinating. Sri Lanka uses a form of RCV that is called the "contingent vote" system, to elect their President, which is very close to the RCV systems as current implemented in Minneapolis and the Bay Area. There are two key elements that are explained in a detailed blogpost in Sri Lanka on how to vote:


  • First, voters can rank up to three candidates, just as is the case with the voting equipment in place in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Oakland.
  • Second, the winner must finish in the top two in first choices.If no candidate capture a majority in the first round of counting, ballots whose top-ranked candidate has been eliminated are then added to the totals of whichever of the two finalists is ranked next on that ballot. The candidate with the most votes after this second round of counting is the winner. No American city currently uses this form of RCV, although it has been proposed in New York City, Vermont and elsewhere because it so closely simulates a a single "instant runoff."

With ranked choice voting, Sri Lankans avoid a plurality winner for president, as well as costly run-off elections. Mr. Sirisena won a majority in the first round of counting with 51.3 percent of the vote, so the contingent voting system didn't come into play, and only voters’ first choices ever had to be counted. But rather than have a whole second election if he had been below 50%, the next preferences  of the trailing candidates would have decided the election without asking everyone to come back for a new election.

Still, there are important takeaways from this election for advocates of ranked choice voting. First, Sri Lankans had 19 choices on their ballot on election day, and could vote their conscience without fear of electing their president for the next six years with a plurality of votes. Had no candidate crossed that 50% threshold, the 1.1% of voters would who preferred other candidates would have second choices already noted. This combination of choice and consensus is empowering.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that more than 12 million Sri Lankans successfully voted in an election in which they could rank their choices, and close to 99% of all votes cast were valid.

This successful presidential election proves unequivocally that allowing voters to rank their choices is a simple and effective way for voters to elect the highest of political offices.

Pennsylvania Will Have an Open House Seat in 2016, Chance to Break All-Male Delegation

Pennsylvania has the largest all-male delegation in Congress, a total of 18 male House members and 2 male Senators. But the state may soon have the opportunity to send a woman to Congress with the opening of a House seat in 2016.

Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), serving the state's 8th District, has announced that his term in the 114th U.S. Congress will be his last. Several candidates have already expressed interest in running for Rep. Fitzpatrick's open seat in 2016, including state Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D) and Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination in the 2014 primary.

On the Republican side, there are also several possible candidates, including outgoing Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, Robert Loughery, and state Rep. Scott Petri, or even trying to get Rep. Fitzpatrick to consider holding onto his seat. Unfortunately the number of women expressing interest or being considered as prospects remains low, both for Democrats and Republicans. 

Pennsylvania consistently has fallen short on the number of women in elected office. After Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D) gave up her U.S. House seat to run for governor (later losing in the primary to the now Governor-elect Tom Schwartz), Pennsylvania lost its only female delegate in Congress. It remains the most populous state in the country to have an all-male delegation in Congress and a male governor.

According to FairVote's Representation 2020, Pennsylvania lags behind most states in women's representation. The project's annually produced report, The State of Women's Representation includes a Gender Parity Index, which assigns states a score based on women's representation in local, statewide, and national elected offices. Pennsylvania ranked 46th in the Gender Parity Index of 2013-14, receiving a low score of 9, out of the 100 possible points with 50 points indicating gender parity. In the soon-to-be released Gender Parity Index of 2015, Pennsylvania ranks 45th with a score of 10 points, but still falls far from gender parity.

With an open seat, Pennsylvania has an opportunity to improve its women's representation. Key political players, such as party leaders, funders, and gatekeepers, ought to take a firm stance on recruiting women candidates, publicly stating they will preference strong women candidates when offering support and endorsements.

Furthermore, Representation 2020 finds that states can improve their Gender Parity scores by pursuing structural reforms to electoral systems and by adopting legislative practices that benefit women. These reforms may be more feasible in local and statewide offices, which are important pipelines for prospective candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats.

States with no women among their U.S. Congressional delegations:
  • Arkansas: 0/6
  • Deleware: 0/3
  • Georgia: 0/16
  • Idaho: 0/4
  • Kentucky: 0/8
  • Louisiana: 0/8
  • Mississippi: 0/6
  • Montana: 0/3
  • Oklahoma: 0/7
  • Rhode Island: 0/4
  • South Carolina: 0/9
  • Vermont: 0/3
FairVote's Representation 2020 is a project seeking to draw attention to the structural barriers limiting the number of women in elected office. For more information, visit www.representation2020.com.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The New York Times Cites FairVote in Editorial on Ferguson Voting Rights

Earlier this week the New York Times published an editorial on the state of voting rights in Ferguson, MO.

The editorial explained that a lawsuit filed in a Missouri federal court in mid-December points out the lack of black representation on the school board. Although Ferguson is 50% white and 47% black, only one of the seven-member board is African American. The plaintiffs of the lawsuit argue that this has led to a lack of attentiveness to the needs of black students.

To resolve the lack of representation, the New York Times argues that Ferguson ought to abandon the at-large voting system and replace it with another system. The New York Times proposes that Ferguson consider voting systems such as cumulative voting or ranked-choice voting, citing FairVote's explanation of these systems.

FairVote fellows Amaris Montes and Zack Avre has previously written about the problem of under-representation of minority populations in Ferguson, MO, publishing an analysis of Ferguson voter turnout in the online magazine In These Times. They explain that alternative voting systems, such as ranked choice voting, "would give voters real choice and opportunities to win fair representation addressing the disillusionment and disconnection that contributes to low and inequitable turnout."

FairVote will continue to provide analysis on the potential for alternative voting systems to improve democratic governments.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Following up on Seats and Votes in the Senate

Vox's Dylan Matthews draws on FairVote's December analysis of the relationship between the current partisan makeup of the U.S. Senate and the raw popular votes cast to elect its members to argue that "the Senate is a profoundly anti-democratic body and should be abolished."

While we welcome the debate over the significance of these numbers, we'd like to be clear that FairVote does not advocate abolishing the Senate or changing the constitutionally prescribed method of Senate apportionment. Nor is our noting of the discrepancies between seats won versus votes cast intended to imply that the Senate is problematic in this regard. As a body designed to represent the interests of states as political entities in their own right, it's not necessarily the case that the Senate should closely reflect the nationwide popular vote aggregated across states, although there are good arguments on both sides.

But while we're on the subject, let's talk about another way to boost voters' ability to have their views faithfully represented in the Senate: electing Senators using ranked-choice voting (RCV, also termed instant-runoff voting).  RCV elections promote the airing of fresh policy ideas, encourage constructive campaigning, and favor candidates with broad appeal. RCV also allows voters to vote their preferences without fear of a spoiler effect. This would eliminate frustrating scenarios like that seen in Kansas last September, when Democratic Senate nominee Chad Taylor appeared to withdraw from the race to avoid splitting his votes with independent candidate Greg Orman. 

And unlike abolishing or redrawing the Senate, which would require nothing short of a constitutional convention, electing Senators through RCV is a low-hanging-fruit fix that can be accomplished by simple state statute. In Maine, an initiative to implement RCV for U.S. Senators and other statewide elected offices is currently making its way to the ballot with FairVote's support. Jettisoning our anachronistic plurality voting system is a commonsense Senate reform we can all get behind.

Washington, D.C. Will Consider Ranked-Choice Voting for Local Elections

Councilmember David Grosso submitted a bill on Tuesday morning proposing to change the plurality system used to elect the mayor, the city council, and the attorney general of Washington, D.C. Instead, he proposed to adopt instant runoff voting, otherwise known as ranked-choice voting.

The Associated Press explained the system clearly: "Voters in instant-runoff elections rank candidates in order of preference. Candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated in rounds. That means if a voter's first choice has been eliminated, that voter's second choice gets a vote."

Councilmember Grosso has pointed out many advantages of the system. In a stream of tweets this morning, Councilmember Grosso pointed out the many advantages of the system. He wrote, from his Twitter handle @cmdgrosso:
"We're definitely lucky that in DC we have no shortage of qualified individuals willing to run to serve our city in a public capacity.
 "But that same asset also presents challenges--for example, Ward 8 special election coming up this spring has over 20 candidates registered.
"It is excellent that so many residents are interested in public service. But our voting system is not well-designed for that many candidates.
 "Too often, with so many candidates, the winner of the election does not have a clear majority of support from the electorate.
 "And that's really troubling for a couple of reasons. For one, it increases voter apathy.
 "Also, it diminishes possibility of vigorous policy debates among candidates since there's little need to appeal to a broad array of voters.
 "Using instant runoff and ranked choice voting seems like an obvious solution to this problem. That's why I introduced this bill."
 Grosso explained that ranked-choice voting is already used in many cities, and that it offers advantages including higher voter turnout, positive and widespread campaigning, and elections that are "more competitive, fairer, and more interesting."