Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Change on the Horizon: How Will Demographic Shifts Affect Presidential Elections?

This week Doug Sosnik, a former adviser of President Bill Clinton, published a piece in the POLITICO Magazine outlining the current state of American presidential election politics -- and its future.

Sosnik pointed out that many changes are occurring in the United States -- technological, economical, sociological, and demographic. Voting patterns in presidential elections, however, have remained largely the same. He writes:
With most states locked in by one party or the other, the presidential contest has largely narrowed to five states that have been consistently competitive in the past six elections: Ohio (which has long been at the 50-yard line for American politics) and four of the fastest growing states in the country -- Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia. While these states represent only 15 percent of the population and just 75 electoral votes, they have determined the balance of power in close elections during this period...
Sosnik predicts that the dramatic changes in demographics, including the rapid growth of minority populations in several states, will produce changes in presidential elections, or "a shift that is going to change which voters matter and which states matter."

The current system produces a dichotomy between states: swing or safe. Swing states attract all the attention, and safe states are ignored. Changing demographics may affect which states receive the most attention, but it will not eliminate this dichotomy, which leaves most voters on the sidelines of presidential elections.

FairVote believes that every voter in every state should matter in presidential elections. The National Popular Vote plan would make that a reality. To learn more, visit FairVote's website.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Don't Want a Voice in Your Democracy? Oklahoma Is for You

The Washington Post regularly picks the best state for a variety of categories, and this week, it ranked Oklahoma as having the least political engagement of all fifty states. Niraj Chokshi writes:
Only two states saw a smaller share of eligible voters cast ballots in 2012, and just seven states had a smaller share of residents registered to vote, according to census data. ... It's a rough assessment... Oklahoma scores higher than any other state on political disengagement -- ahead of Arkansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas.
FairVote recently reported on the subject of Oklahoma voter turnout in presidential elections. In 1992, Oklahoma's voter turnout was above the nationwide turnout. However, as the state's underlying partisanship has become more safely Republican, the state's turnout has declined, falling below the nationwide voter turnout in every election since 1996.

The possible reason is that presidential campaigns have little incentive to pay attention to the safe state of Oklahoma. In 2004, 2008, and 2012, neither major party held a campaign event in Oklahoma after the party conventions. Additionally, (as the Washington Post article quotes FairVote reporting), in the 2012 presidential elections, the two major candidates spent a total of $1,300 on campaign ads in the state.

Ultimately, the current Electoral College rules are to blame. Most states allocate their electoral votes using a winner-take-all system, incentivizing candidates to devote all of their attention to swing states and to ignore safe states. This leaves states like Oklahoma on the sidelines and their voters without voices in presidential elections.

For more analysis, read FairVote's blog post, "Oklahoma Voter Turnout Suffers without National Popular Vote Plan."

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Onion Reports a "Gerrymandering Mishap"

The Onion, a satirical magazine, released an article titled "Gerrymandering Mishap Leaves Nation Without Any Borders Whatsoever." Here's the highlight:
WASHINGTON—Urging calm after citizens awoke to find the country’s political boundaries had disappeared completely, authorities announced Thursday that a devastating gerrymandering blunder had left the United States devoid of any district, state, or national borders whatsoever. “Though our investigation is still ongoing, it appears the North Carolina General Assembly may have inadvertently wiped out all local and federal boundaries while redrawing the state’s already heavily manipulated fourth congressional district late last night,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, addressing the millions of panicked Americans now living in flux and untethered to any known county, city ward, rural township, or municipal water district.
This Onion article reflects a serious reality regarding congressional districts: redrawing is ridiculous. As FairVote wrote in Monopoly Politics 2014 and the Fair Voting Solution, the 2011-12 redistricting process led to fewer competitive districts and a bias toward whichever party controlled the state legislature in each state. When a district is safe for a party representative, voters lose their chance to influence the election outcome and, by extension, their voices in the democratic process.

How might we solve the problem of the complicated redistricting process, which leaves many voters without a say in the election of U.S. Representatives? FairVote explains:
"The only reform that would truly ensure that the will of all voters is reflected in the U.S. House is passing a statute to replace winner-take-all elections with fair representation voting systems in multi-member "super districts."
Fair representation voting systems in multi-member districts would allow voters in a given geographic area to have multiple representatives, perhaps of multiple parties so that both Democrats and Republicans from a given region have a voice in Congress. Fair representation voting systems in multi-member districts would give all voters a real chance to influence the outcome of competitive elections.

FairVote demonstrates the advantage of fair representation voting systems in depth in the its Monopoly Politics report. Read more here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Washington Post Draws Link Between Elections and Police Shootings

The Washington Post's Radley Balko wrote a piece this week titled, "How elections affect police shootings," which draws a connection between elections and policing trends in Albuquerque, New Mexico--a city known for its history of excessive force.

No doubt, there are presumably many complex factors that contribute to the high level of police shootings in Albuquerque. However, Balko's analysis serves as a reminder that local elections, which often have low-turnout (and consequently, little accountability for local decision makers), must not be overlooked as the nation collectively approaches criminal justice reform and other issues that are significantly influenced by local decision makers.

Bad News for Third Party Candidates in Arizona

bill in the Arizona Senate would require a greater number of signatures for third party candidates seeking to have their name on the state-wide ballot. House Bill 2608 expands the pool of voters from which candidates may gather signatures, while also increasing signature requirements to include a minimum that reflects this expanded pool of voters.  The bill would leave third party candidates needing more signatures relative to the size of their party compared to Republican and Democratic candidates.

Many see the legislation as an attempt by Republican candidates to keep Libertarian candidates off of the ballot who might siphon away voters who might otherwise support Republicans. A better solution would be to adopt ranked choice voting, which would allow Arizona to keep greater choice on the ballot, while avoiding outcomes that are impacted by vote-splitting.

How States Can Protect the Right to Vote

From the East Coast to the West Coast, many are thinking about the right to vote. The conversation among political scientists and the actions of policy practitioners reflects an important side of the public dialogue: how can states protect the right to vote? 

On the East Coast, one political scientist theorized on how to protect the right to vote. Theodore S. Arrington, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, presented his ideas in an article for the Scholars Strategy Network. He writes, 
"By now, Americans universally expect that all adult citizens have the right to vote. But an effective democracy must also ensure that votes are fairly cast and accurately counted. Ballot security mesaures can sometimes conflict with assuring that everyone has the right to vote."
In response to this conflict, Professor Arrington suggests that states take steps to protect proactively the right to vote. If states choose to use photo identification laws, he says, 
"there are ways to implement such rules without harming anyone's legitimate right to vote or discouraging turnout. Laws can allow for the use of a wide range of types of photo identification, as the states of Georgia and New Hampshire already do."
On the West Coast, one state took proactive steps to protect the right to vote by making voter registration automatic. On Monday, March 16, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a new law that will automatically register all qualified citizens any time they interact with the DMV. 

FairVote supports adopting a Right to Vote Amendment in the Constitution. Many do not realize that the "right to vote" does not appear in the Constitution. An explicit "right to vote" in the Constitution would reflect national values, put the burden on states to protect the right to vote, and place strict scrutiny on any laws that could impede citizens exercising their right. Several national organizations and major cities, including Pittsburgh and Atlanta, have passed resolutions endorsing this plan.

Read more about the right to vote and FairVote's work on our website.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Yakima, Washington: From Vote Dilution to Fair Representation?

A federal district court recently ordered that Yakima, Washington elect its city council from seven single-winner districts. FairVote had asked that the court consider fair representation voting, but the judge unfortunately adopted a highly formalistic analysis and ordered the more limited district remedy. But there may still be a chance for fair voting in Washington in future cases or even by the adoption of a Washington Voting Rights Act.

The city of Yakima violated the Voting Rights Act by electing its city council at-large by "numbered posts," a winner-take-all system that allows the same majority group to elect every seat. That election method was utterly unfair to Yakima's significant Latino population, and it showed. About 23% of Yakima's eligible voters were Latino, and several strong Latino candidates had run for the seven-seat city council, but even well-qualified Latino candidates consistently lost their races, in one case, even when the candidate's sole opposition had dropped out of the race. As the district court easily ruled, Yakima's voters were clearly polarized by ethnicity.

The Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU asked that the city be divided into seven districts, so that one district could encircle the most heavily Latino part of town and another contain a significant Latino population who could influence its choice of representative. Without a doubt, that would help to diversify the Yakima city council and would be good for Latino voters.

However, under the seven-district plan, almost 80% of Yakima's Latino citizen voting-age population would live outside of the one majority-minority district, and almost 60% would live outside of either the majority-Latino or the "influence" district. That means that most Latino voters in Yakima would still have no actual representation on the Yakima city council. There would be one or possibly two Latino members elected, but those members would not be responsive to voters outside of their own districts. It also means that no elected official would represent more than one-seventh of the city; Yakima does not have a separately elected mayor.

FairVote proposed an alternative that we believe would be better: the use of fair representation voting citywide for three seats. The continued use of a mixed system would mean that the city would have three elected officials with direct responsibility for the entire city. With four seats still elected in districts, one majority-minority district could still be drawn, ensuring that Latino communities would be represented. Additionally, however, the entire Latino population of Yakima could help elect one of the three at-large positions. That's because although three positions would be elected, each voter would have one vote.

The "single vote" system means that each candidate must be elected by a separate group of voters, rather than one group of voters being able to elect all three. FairVote forcefully argued that fair representation voting is a legal remedy for Voting Rights Act lawsuits, that it is an effective option for racial minority communities, that it empowers all voters, and that it works in appropriate conditions like those in Yakima. With three seats elected by the single vote method, any candidate winning more than 25% of the vote would be guaranteed election. That's because it would be mathematically impossible for three other candidates to also get more than 25% of the vote. However, the effective threshold - the percent of the vote candidates realistically need to come in third - would be much lower than 25%. For example, when Calera, Alabama elected its city council with the single vote method in 2012, an African American candidate was elected by coming in third place with only 13% of the vote (in a six-seat race).

As mentioned before, about 23% of Yakima's eligible voters are Latino, which puts them above the effective threshold for election in one of the at-large seats. That means that under FairVote's plan, every Latino voter would have the ability to elect a candidate of choice.

However, the court applied a highly formalistic analysis that relied on the 25% guaranteed threshold rather than the much more realistic effective threshold. Consequently, he concluded that the single vote system was inadequate for Latino voters in Yakima. FairVote asked the court to reconsider, noting both that candidates have come in second with less than 25% in Yakima's primary elections and that Latino candidates have attracted more than 25% of the vote in at-large elections in Yakima. Unfortunately, the court dispensed with those arguments with very little analysis.

Notwithstanding the result for Yakima itself, this case does present a way forward in Washington. First, FairVote has begun to research what it takes to win in single vote elections, so that in the future, we can powerfully make the case that a group above a realistic effective threshold can win election. 

Second, this case led to an interesting partnership with city officials in Yakima itself. Yakima wanted to retain some at-large seats, and so it actually embraced fair representation voting as a remedy, as fair voting would allow it to both retain at-large seats and resolve the vote dilution claim. In fact, the city council voted unanimously in support of using the single vote method. This may lead to more cities in Washington (and elsewhere) asking for fair representation voting in future cases.

Finally, this case has increased interest in Washington adopting its own State Voting Rights Act. Already, a state representative has editorialized in the Yakima Herald-Republic in favor of the proposal. The California Voting Rights Act has already paved the way for fair representation voting in cities like Santa Clarita. The Washington Voting Rights Act could do the same for Washington.

To read more about fair voting and the Voting Rights Act, read FairVote's booklet for practitioners, our Policy Perspective on fair voting and racial minority communities, and see critical excerpts from our brief filed in Yakima. Also, take a look at FairVote's new page listing each of the over 100 local jurisdictions that elect some or all of their legislative offices by fair representation voting.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Michigan Aims to Get Back on the Presidential Election Map, but Risks Wrong-Way-Winners

Currently in the Michigan State Legislature, there is a bill to change the way the state allocates its electoral votes to presidential candidates. This bill would adopt the system used in Nebraska and Maine: allocate two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and allocate the rest of the electoral votes by congressional district.

Michigan legislators recognize that the current Electoral College system used by most states is broken. It leaves most states, including Michigan, without campaign attention during presidential elections. This proposal is meant to increase the amount of campaign attention Michigan will receive. However, as the Washington Post points out, this plan comes with several likely negative effects.

First, the plan would increase the likelihood that a candidate could win an election without winning the most votes nationwide. In January, FairVote provided evidence for this theory in its report Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral Votes.

Second, the plan gives of the appearance of being partisan. Many political scientists have concluded that allocating electoral votes by congressional districts would largely benefit Republican candidates. That is because Republican voters are more sparsely distributed among districts nationwide, whereas Democratic voters tend to be more concentrated in urban districts. FairVote also found similar evidence in its Fuzzy Math report.

There is another way that Michigan can get back on the map for presidential elections. That is using a national popular vote to elect the president. With a national popular vote, every voter in every state would matter, rather than just the voters who are lucky enough to live in a few swing states.

The national popular vote system has zero risk of wrong-way-winners. The candidate that wins the most votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia would win the election. Additionally, both Republicans and Democrats have won the national popular vote over decades of presidential elections. The system would not unfairly benefit one party over another.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact could bring this idea into action. By signing the compact through a bill in the Michigan State Legislature, Michigan would join other states in promising to award its 16 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact only goes into effect when the signing states collectively hold 270 electoral votes; and if Michigan signs on, those states would hold 181 electoral votes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March Madness: Jeb Bush's NCAA Bracket Favors Swing States

Yesterday Jeb Bush released his NCAA bracket to the world, as the Washington Post reported.

Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, has been on the short-list of potential Republican candidates for president in 2016 after he announced he was "actively considering" a run. With a presidential race in mind, we can begin to analyze his picks for the NCAA winners.

Other presidential candidates seem to give leeway to swing state teams in their NCAA brackets. President Obama released his bracket in 2012, for example. The Washington Post writes, "The picks weren't crazy, but they were somewhat politically convenient." Perhaps the same is now true for Jeb Bush. Here are three items of note:

1. Bush predicts that UVA wins it all! This is not completely crazy, given that UVA is the second seed in the tournament. Nonetheless, Virginia has been a swing state in the past two presidential elections. In 2012, its underlying partisanship was 49.99% -- a near perfect split. Taking that detail into account, perhaps Bush's pick is just a little too convenient.

2. Bush predicts Iowa beats Gonzaga in the round of 32. As the Washington Post points out, this would be "a pretty major upset." Iowa is the No. 7 seed, and Gonzaga is the No. 2 seed. But of course, in presidential elections, it makes sense why Bush would favor Iowa over Washington (Gonzaga's home state). Iowa's 2012 underlying partisanship was 49.02%, making it a definite swing state. Washington's underlying partisanship was 44.49%, making it a safe blue state. Bush certainly stands to gain from rooting for the underdog in this NCAA faceoff.

3. Bush predicts Duke makes the Final Four. Again, not a crazy pick. Duke is the No. 1 seed in this tournament. And yet, Bush may be a bit biased because of Duke's home state of North Carolina. North Carolina was previously a safe red state, but entered a group of swing states when it went to Obama in 2008 (those "Blue Devils," the Republicans might say). In 2012, North Carolina's underlying partisanship was 52.95%, making it a likely swing state in the 2016 elections.

(More analysis on the Washington Post.)

March Madness is known for being unpredictable. But it is a pretty safe bet that in the 2016 presidential elections, only a small handful of swing states will receive any attention whatsoever. The best way to restore the competition in presidential elections and involve the entire country is a national popular vote. Read more on the FairVote website.

Monday, March 16, 2015

New Study Reaffirms Democratic Advantage in Electoral College

The Washington Post provided analysis this week on a recently released edition of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. The report, prepared by nonpartisan political analyst Nathan Gonzales, demonstrates that the Democrats will have a clear electoral advantage in the 2016 presidential election.

Gonzales categorized states traditionally. He separated them into groups based on their tendencies to lean Democratic or Republican, and the intensity of their preference for either party. There are the safe Democratic and Republican states, the lean states, and the "toss-up" swing states.

With these groupings, the safe Democratic states collectively have 217 electoral votes. That's only 53 votes shy of the 270 electoral votes a candidate needs to win the election. On the flip side, safe Republican states only have 191 electoral votes.

The Washington Post notes that the Democratic advantage is even more extreme when you consider the states that lean Democratic. Consider, for example, Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), which has given its electoral votes to a Democrat in the past six presidential elections. Iowa (6 electoral votes) and Nevada (6 electoral votes) are also Democratic lean states. Include these three states in the count, and the Democratic candidate would have 249 electoral votes in total.

The Washington Post points out that this analysis is coming in early, but also applauds it. The analysis is consistent with a developing trend: "increasing Democratic dominance in the Electoral College."

The problem with the current Electoral College system is not that Democrats have a current advantage. Their current advantage is small, and Republicans could take the White House with slightly more than a popular vote majority. Additionally, Republicans have also held such an advantage in the past, as FairVote has documented.

The problem is that the current Electoral College allows for any party to have an advantage, regardless of the nationwide preference for that party. Given the statewide winner-take-all rules, a candidate can win a nationwide election without having the greatest number of votes. This opens the door for systemic partisan bias and for a small handful of swing states to have unfair influence.

If the United States used a national popular vote to elect the president, no candidate would have an unfair advantage. Every vote in every state (and for every party's candidate) would matter equally.

To learn more about the national popular vote, visit FairVote's website.

Chilean President Takes Aim at Dictatorship-Era Constitution, Passes Fairer System

By Charlie Hunt
In January, Chile took significant steps in pursuit of more democratic elections, as the National Congress passed sweeping changes to the country’s electoral system. Key among the improvements, promised by President Michelle Bachelet when she took office in March 2014, is a change from the existing “binomial system” to a system of proportional representation (PR) to elect the Chilean National Congress. In the past, conservatives like former president SebastiĆ”n PiƱera have often dismissed reform efforts with claims that Chile had “other more urgent priorities.”  This January, however, reform passed easily though both houses of the congress, and will come into effect in time for elections in 2017.
The binomial system is similar to limited voting systems, as each voter gets one vote in two-winner districts. The system differs from limited voting in that the top two vote getters are not necessarily elected into office. A party may win both seats in a district only if its two candidates (each party is allowed to run a maximum of two candidates per seat) receive at least twice as many total votes as the two candidates of the next best performing party.
On the positive side, the binomial system cracks the winner-take-all principle. No party will elect two candidates in a district unless it can reliably secure more than two-thirds of the vote. The binomial system prevents the disproportionate majorities associated with winner-take-all and, in a two-party system, facilitates representation of the minority party. It also elects representatives of the major parties from districts throughout the country, instead of only those where they happen to be in the majority, giving a voice to many voters who do not support the party that is dominant in their area.
On the negative side, the binomial system cannot be discussed without reference to its origins. Adopted in the dying days of his regime, former dictator Augusto Pinochet established the system, devised in communist Poland, in an attempt mitigate losses to like-minded conservatives. Its operation has also been controversial. In practice, the system often elected a third placed candidate to the second seat over the second placed candidate, resulting in the overrepresentation of the minority party. Like winner-take-all systems, the binomial system has entrenched two political parties, while underrepresenting small parties. Reform advocates, including former president Ricardo Lagos, insist that the binomial system limited political dynamism in Chile and, compared with PR, severely reduced the choices available to Chilean voters.
The Bachelet administration developed its PR reform proposal using Chile’s municipal elections, which already take place under a system of PR, as a model. The reform increases the size of the National Congress and introduces a party-list form of PR. In the Chamber of Deputies, each of the 27 newly-created districts will elect between three and eight members.
Administration officials say this system of PR will ensure that “majorities express themselves adequately.Others suggest that it will also reduce vote dilution in Santiago, the most significant metropolitan region in the country, and ensure that regional and small minorities, long locked-out of the political system, will gain representation.
The experiences of other nations that have adopted forms of PR suggest that these assertions are well-founded. Proportional representation systems tend to uphold the principle of majority rule, negate the impact of vote dilution, and ensure that ethnic, political, and other minorities can win their fair share of representation. While American voters might prefer fair representation voting systems – proportional systems in which voters vote for candidates, and that are consistent with American political traditions – Chile’s new party-list system will ensure that the will of the country’s voters is reflected in the National Congress better than ever before.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

'Constitutional Right to Vote' Rhetoric Ignores Reality of its Absence

Yesterday on the White House Blog, coverage of the 50th anniversary of the historic events in Selma began with this narrative: "Six hundred people defied the warnings of authorities and attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama, to show the desire of black American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote." Certainly, the courage of those who marched that day cannot be overstated, and the important legislative victory they achieved in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 must never be forgotten. However, this description glosses over a very critical point.

By stating that African Americans sought to "exercise their constitutional right to vote," this narrative misses the irony of the fact that the absence of an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution was the reason that civil rights leaders had to march in the first place. In fact, it took the Voting Rights act to give courts the leverage to enforce individual voting rights of African Americans, because there is no explicit right to vote in our constitution.

No doubt, the right to vote is fundamental. However, its absence as an explicit constitutional right is undeniable. President Obama, who spoke passionately in support of voting rights on Edmund Pettus Bridge at the anniversary, knows this well. As a professor at the University of Chicago, the president-to-be would start out each constitutional law class by pointing out this absence, and highlighting its significance in leaving voting rights vulnerable in the court of law.

With the Voting Rights Act in dire straights after the Supreme Court gutted key provisions in 2013, we must remember why the legislation was needed in the first place and why it needs congressional action today. Legislators, media, and the American public must understand that our right to vote is not currently enshrined in our constitution, and that efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act must be accompanied with focused efforts to establish a constitutional right to vote. Wishing for a constitutional right to vote with the rhetoric we use does not change how the courts see it and protect it (or not protect it), even if employed on the White House blog.

To learn more and get involved, visit FairVote.org or RightToVoteAmendment.com.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

New Study Highlights Political Exclusion of Racial Minorities in Local Democracies

On March 3, 2015 the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released "50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics." The report surveys minority voter turnout and representation at all levels of elected government, among other measurements, as a means of evaluating the state of race in politics since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. While findings at the national level tell a story of progress with significant improvements still needed, the state of race in local politics deserves just as much attention.

The study found that local voter turnout averaged 27 percent—less than half of presidential general election turnout—and in some cases was lower than 10 percent. Furthermore, as overall turnout declines in local elections, there is evidence that the diversity of the electorate declines as well. Thus, older, whiter, and wealthier voters increase their voting power, indicating that low voter turnout in local elections is at least in part responsible for disproportionately white local governments across the nation. 

The disparity between racial minorities' share of the electorate and influence in local politics reflects this low and unrepresentative turnout in local elections. African Americans account for 12.5 percent of the eligible voting-age population in America yet have been excluded from power at the local level, occupying 5.7 percent of local elected positions. Similarly, Latinos make up 11 percent of the voting age population, yet occupy only 3.3 percent of local elected positions. Elections have consequences: The study found that African Americans were the least advantaged group in America in terms of policy outcomes based on available data from 1972 to 2010.

These findings show that the conversation around reflective democracy must extend past the national political stage--where many tend to focus their attention--to our local democracies, which often have the largest impact on the daily life and welfare of citizens. FairVote's Promote Our Vote project is working to eliminate these barriers to reflective democracy by advancing pro-suffrage policies and practices in Maryland localities, in the spirit of establishing an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. To learn more and take action visit Promoteourvote.com, or check out the preliminary version of our Inclusive Democracy Toolkit for ideas and advocacy tips to increase voter turnout.

A Cure for the Low Turnout in LA? RCV in November

As a native Los Angeles resident, there are so many things to be proud of about my home town--beaches, great food, a diverse community--but turnout is not one of them. Los Angeles most recently had primary city elections for a number of city council and school board seats, in which the LA Times reported an estimated 8.6% of registered voters turned out to the polls, causing the winners of the council seats to win with less than 10,000 votes for districts that represent a quarter of a million people. Candidates win their seat outright if they receive 50% of the votes cast but if this does not happen, candidates continue to a runoff election in May. One seat in the council, the District 4 seat stretching from Sherman Oaks to Glendale to Beverly Hills, did not receive the 50% threshold necessary to have a candidate win, causing the top contenders Carolyn Ramsay and David Ryu to advance to a runoff with only 15% and 14% of the votes in their district. Only 61 votes separated Tomas O Grady from David Ryu to go on to the runoff. Many other seats in the Board of Education will similarly have to succumb to an instant runoff including Districts 3, 5, and 7. Here we see how a low number of voters, 15% and 14%, are making decisions about representatives for 100% of their district.

Interestingly enough, the few people who did make it out to the polls voted to change the City Charter Code to make city elections in June and November of even number years instead of odd number years (how it is set up currently), coinciding with state and federal elections. The election date change was brought forth with the intention to improve the turnout level of voters in municipal elections. This is a crucial structural reform that will cause more meaningful elections as more people show up to city elections that coincide with state and federal ones. Voters in Los Angeles will experience less voter fatigue with this new change, as voters will not have to keep track of as many voting days--they will no longer have to to think about whether its even or odd years; March, May, June, or November. It has become more simple for voters, as all elections will be held in June and November in even years.

While we applaud Los Angeles voters for taking this important first step, we at FairVote think that this is not enough. Changing to even years will certainly improve voter turnout, but it is not the best solution, as it has been shown that June primaries still bring a small amount of registered voters to their polling places. The 2012 California June primary, for example, had a 39% turnout rate compared to November general election that brought out 65% of registered voters. Additionally, for Congressional District 31, 36% of the electorate voted for the seat in the June primary elections whereas 68% voted in the November elections. Elections are largely determined by who wins the primary elections, especially in LA’s municipal election system, meaning that a very small electorate is determining the pool of candidates for a large, diverse city.

To have the most meaningful elections possible with the most voices heard, cities like Los Angeles should consider consolidating elections to November with a ranked-choice voting system. Instead of holding a separate primary election date, Los Angeles could have one single election date in November in which all eligible candidates are on the ballot and voters rank candidates in order of preferences, acting as an instant runoff. This would save voters from confusion, save the city money, and save polling places from low turnout. 

Los Angeles only has to look up north to the Bay Area to see what a difference this can make on city election turnout. Oakland had a similar problem with June primary turnout levels and they found the best solution was turning to a ranked choice voting system in November elections. In 2010, when Oakland had the June primary system, 66,891 voters went to the polls versus 122,268 that voted in the November general, an 83% increase in turnout from the primary to the general election. Compare this to after Oakland turned to a November ranked choice voting system. Before the use of ranked choice voting November elections, city council district 7 only brought only 3,797 winning votes, a fraction of the Oakland population. After ranked choice voting, 8,733 winning votes were casted, a increase of winning votes of of 130%. An average increase in winning votes for all city council seats after ranked choice voting was 37%--for school districts, a staggering average increase of 90%.

This timing and voting change is especially important to voters in minority groups, as minority communities are less likely to to vote in primary elections as they are in general November elections. An analysis of the June 2004 primary in Oakland showed that turnout was between 47% and 54% less in census tracts predominantly made up of African Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and/or Latinos. The difference was only 32% less in predominantly white tracts. Los Angeles is largely racially diverse, with over 70% of its residents being people of color. Because people of color dominate the LA population, and because white residents are disproportionately represented in primary elections, elections are not representative of the diverse opinions found in the city. With the use of ranked choice voting, more people will have their voice heard, their votes will be more meaningful because voters will be ranking their preferences, and representatives and policies will represent the needs of the people. Ranked choice voting would allow communities like my low income predominantly Latino community in Los Angeles to harness the power of their vote in the most meaningful way.

RCV Brings Clarity and Consensus to Del Mar City Hall Plans

The city of Del Mar, California is in the process of revamping their City Hall, and is using ranked choice voting to make the best decision they can. The city wanted to ensure that they were aware of how the community would like this space to be used, so Del Mar contracted with Everyone Counts Inc. and conducted a poll between February 2nd and February 20th where registered voters were able to assess 3 proposed uses for the space and rank those choices in order of preference. 

The three options consisted of A) Using the space solely for civic uses. B) Civic Facilities with Additional Parking and 11,000 Square Foot Expansion Area and C) Civic Facilities with Additional Parking & 20,000 Square Foot (SF) Expansion Area.

The results of the poll were displayed in two different ways. The first showed how many first, second, and third choice votes each option received. Option C was the winner, by having the most first choice votes. The second display of the results shows the use of a weighted system for each choice. First choices are assigned 3 points, second choices are assigned 2 points, and third choices are assigned 1 point. In this analysis Option B won, even though it has the fewest points in the first “round” of voting. For the City Council of Del Mar, as well as the voters, this poll does not give a clear result that shows which option most voters prefer. 

Giving varying number of points to different options can give you interesting information, but it can also cause a lot of problems when used in important contested elections. With a point system, ranking a second choice can hurt the chances of your first choice winning. In fact, in this poll, 75% of voters would have their first choices lose, and probably many (if not most) of them would have contributed to their first choice losing by ranking a second choice. That’s why FairVote advocates for an “instant runoff” form of ranked choice voting and not the use of points.

While allowing voters to rank these options provides the city with more information than voters selecting only one option, tabulating the results using ranked choice voting provided a more clear understanding of what the community would like to see by requiring the winner to be one with substantial first-choice support. In a ranked choice voting election, if no option received a majority of the first choices the option with the fewest votes would be eliminated and the voters who selected that option as a first choice would have their vote added to the totals of their second choice. This process continues until one option has more than half of the votes. In this case, the “instant runoff” tally selected Option C.

In a ranked choice voting election, the winning option must have strong first choice support to be a viable candidate. While a lot of voters saw Option B as a solid second choice, less than 25% of voters chose Option B as a first choice. This means that 75% of voters would prefer another option for city hall. Ranked choice voting allows voters to indicate second and third choices, and expressing those choices never hurts their first choice’s chances of winning. 

The City of Del Mar was smart to ask its voters to rank their choices. They got a more detailed understanding of the will of the people, and gave voters more power in expressing their preferences. For more information on ranked choice voting go to http://www.fairvote.org/reforms/instant-runoff-voting/.