Thursday, May 21, 2015

When Will We Have Gender Parity in Elected Office?

At yesterday's Status of Women in the States, an event held by the Institute of Women's Policy Research (IWPR), the crowd gasped at a shocking statistic.
But how did they make that prediction? In FairVote's attempt to calculate the number of years to gender parity, we have encountered many questions that complicate any prediction. Here are just two.

1. How fast or slow are we moving toward gender parity, and is the rate of change always the same? No, the percentage of women in elected office has not increased at a constant rate. For example, look at the percentage of women in state legislatures since 1971.

Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, the percentage of women in state legislatures increased at a speedy and relatively constant rate. But from then on, the rate of change  decreased to almost nil, with the percentage of women state legislators hovering just below 25% for the last decade. Given the rate of change has decreased so markedly, gender parity may be much, much further away than just a century.

2. How soon will we have gender parity in the Democratic Party? And in the Republican Party? As many organizations, including Political Parity, have noted, the Democratic Party has moved faster toward gender parity than the Republican Party. For example, look at the percentage of Democratic and Republican women in state legislatures since 1981.

Democratic women have increased as a percentage of state legislators from about 7% to 15% between 1981 and 2015. In the same time frame, Republican women have increased as a percentage from about 5% to about 10%. Gender parity in elected office is unlikely to be achieved without both major political parties.

Even beyond these simple graphs, there are many other questions to consider in measuring the years to gender parity. The bottom line is that we should be careful not to underestimate how long it will take. In reality, gender parity is not likely to happen in our lifetimes without structural reforms, such as those presented by Representation 2020.

Representation 2020's State of Women's Representation 2015 (forthcoming) will discuss this topic in detail. Visit for more information.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Oregon House Passes National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Today the Oregon State House passed HB 3475 to sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The bill passed by a vote of 37-21. Next the bill will go to the Senate for consideration as SB 680.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is designed to ensure that the presidential candidate that wins the most states in all fifty states and the District of Columbia wins the election. States that sign onto the interstate compact agree to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact only goes into effect when enough states have signed on such that they collectively hold 270 electoral votes, the number of votes necessary to win a presidential election.

If the Oregon State Senate passes the bill and if the governor signs it, Oregon will become the 12th jurisdiction to sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Currently 10 states and the District of Columbia have passed the law. In total, the current signing states collectively hold 165 electoral votes. Oregon has seven electoral votes, which could bring the total number of signing states' electoral votes to 172. That is less than 100 electoral votes away from putting the compact into effect!

Today's results in the Oregon State House make that outcome all the more likely.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Valley Patriot enters "Least Informed Editorial" contest in opposing suffrage rights

FairVote supports local governments acting to extend voting rights to citizens when they turn 16. A 16-year-old  voting age is now the national law in a growing number of nations, including Argentina, Austria, and Brazil, and is now a big issue in nations like Ireland (where a citizens assembly recommended it) and the United Kingdom (where three of the four parties with the most seats in parliament support it).

My home city of Takoma Park (MD) extended voting rights to 16-year-olds two years ago as part of a broader debate about how to stand up for the right to vote, and in the two elections with the system, more 16- and 17-year-old voted than all 18-to-29-year-olds combined -- a sad commentary on low rates of participation  for our young people, but a good indicator that 16-year-olds are often more engaged with their local community than when they are older and often displaced from their long-time home. If one can  establish a practice of participation  in government before leaving one's childhood  home, studies show that is more likely you will be a voter throughout your life.

Our neighboring city of Hyattsville has now moved to 16-year-old voting with little controversy, and I expect more communities to take action in the years  ahead. And while FairVote primarily focuses on the heavy lift of the four key reforms in its Reform 2020 agenda, I have little doubt that the arc of the universe will bend toward this becoming an international and national norm.

This brings us to the Valley Patriot, as Massachusetts publication that this week issued an editorial strongly opposing North Andover from extending voting rights to 16-year-olds. Echoing the "Know Nothing" movement that was strong in Massachusetts in the 1840's, the editorial trots out various myths that evidence easily refutes, including:

* Suffrage rights must be tied to "responsibilities": Citizens start earning significant new rights and responsibilities by the time they are 16, including paying income taxes, being able  to marry and much more. The editorial lists other rights that people have only upon turning 18. But if one accepts the right to vote as fundamental, then there is no such direct connection. Many adults with voting rights do not have credit cards, pay property taxes nor serve in the military. The editorial writers essentially are hearkening back to long-discredited notions that suffrage should be tied to property ownership -- an 18th century majority view among  Massachusetts legislators, to be sure, but not a 21st century one.

* 16-year-olds cannot express independent judgment: Featured in a cartoon accompanying the editorial, this notion has been definitively debunked through research of 16-year-old voters, such a major study in Scotland after 16-year-olds were allowed to vote in the independence referendum last year - -a study that helped the Scottish government to now move to extending voting rights to 16-year-olds in all elections.

* Suffrage is connected to military service: It is true that the 1971 passage of the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowering the voting age to 18 was tied closely to the fact that the median age of Americans being killed  or wounded in Vietnam was 19. But if service in combat was a precondition for voting, then women would have been denied suffrage until only  recently -- which, indeed, was one of the arguments against women's suffrage that closely track what has been said about a 16-year-old voting age. But even if one accepts this false standard, it should given the editorial writers pause that if one  turns 18 right after a presidential election, then you can't vote for president until nearly 22 -- years after potentially  serving in the military. Indeed, 17-year-olds are able to enter the military today.

But  when  it comes to suffrage rights, Americans are in fact not quick to act on principle. Congress sits on its  hands instead of passing legislation to provide voting rights in congressional elections to more than 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C. Nearly six million American citizens of voting age cannot vote due to the fact that some states deny voting rights to people with felony convictions in contradiction to international norms. It took generations for  men to extend voting rights to women, for whites to extend voting rights to African Americans and yes, for those 21 and up to extend voting rights to 18-year-olds (with Illinois voters soundly rejecting that change in a  1970 referendum, for example, just months before enactment of the 26th amendment).

We'll see what North Andover voters do. The majority may well reject inclusion, but if they do so, I firmly believe they are on the wrong side of history -- as most certainly is the misnamed Valley Patriot.

Maryland voting rights restoration: A call for Gov. Hogan to stand on principle

According to the Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.85 million Americans citizens today are denied the right to vote because of state laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions..

The Maryland legislature this year voted to join 13 states like Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio and Utah in continuing to deny suffrage rights to citizens with felony convictions when they are incarcerated, but to restore voting rights immediately upon release from  prison. Gov. Larry Hogan is considering whether to sign the bill, accept it or veto it.

Current debate over this legislation is a great example of how many Americans still haven't grappled with accepting voting as a right, as opposed  to seeing it as  privilege. The United States is an international outlier among well-established democracies in denying the right to vote to incarcerated citizens, let alone non-incarcerated people with felony convictions.

As one example, the European Court of Human Rights has four times ruled that the United Kingdom is in violation of European rights law for denying voting rights to incarcerated citizens, most recently in February, At least 18 European nations, along with nations like Canada and two states (Maine and Vermont) do not deny voting rights to citizens in prison.

Maryland for  years was among the worst states for denial of voting rights to people  with felony convictions, then improved its status a few years ago This bill would bring our state in line with several others -- still denying voting rights to incarcerated citizens with felony convictions, but at least restoring voting rights upon release from prison.

My home city of Takoma Park to its credit adopted this change a couple years ago for its own elections.If you have three  minutes to spare, watch ex-offender Jerry Cowan's powerful  testimony to the Takoma Park city council about his personal history and support for suffrage:

The fact that states even have this power over suffrage rights is tied to the lack of an explicit right to vote in the U.S Constitution. Such an absence allows state political leaders to make suffrage a part of political football, with suggestions that it's somehow"soft on crime" to support human rights and voting rights.

For Gov Hogan, this can be a defining moment: will he take a principled position or just play politics?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mississippi election of new Member of Congress with Louisiana form of Top Two makes case for ranked choice voting

On May 12,voters in the first congressional district of Mississippi went to the polls to vote for a new Member of Congress in the wake of the unfortunate death of Congressman Alan Nunnelee earlier this year. Grounded in the U.S. Constitution, no person has ever served in the U.S. House without being elected, so Mississippi needed to fill the seat with a vacancy election.

Courtesy of the invaluable Ballotpedia, below are the election results. Under Mississippi law, special elections for Congress are held without primaries. As in Louisiana's elections for Congress and state offices, all candidates instead go straight to the general election ballot. If any candidate secures more than half of the votes, we have an immediate winner. If not, all but the top two candidates are eliminated, and there is a runoff.

This fractured field on May 12 certainly deserved a runoff election, which will be held on June 2nd. The runoff can be so close to the general election because Mississippi allows its overseas voters to cast a ranked choice, "instant runoff" ballot before the first round, with each overseas ballot counting in the runoff for whichever finalist is ranked higher on the ballot. See Drew Spencer's explanation last year of this sensible practice that was done in five states for congressional elections in 2014.

But here's the problem with the current way Mississippi structures its system -- one that is endemic to any such "top two system." The first congressional district is heavily Republican -- one with a partisanship  index, according to our Monopoly Politics report, of 64.4% Republican. With such lopsided partisan balances, as true of most congressional districts due  primarily  to natural "sorting" that has gone on among voters in recent decades, the district is a slamdunk win for any Republican facing a Democrat.

Indeed, in the May 12th election, the only  Democrat in the contest, Walter Zinn, won just 17% of the vote. But with 11 Republicans also seeking the seat, Zinn's 17% was good enough for first place, and in a plurality, British-style "first past the post" election, it would have given him the victory. With a majority runoff requirement, however, Zinn will now face the top Republican, Trent Kelly, who won 16% of the vote. Kelly is widely predicted to win easily and then keep this safe seat in the future.

The results show one of the key flaws with such system that don't use ranked choice voting. Among all voters on the 12th, 83% voted for a Republican. Mr. Kelly won just 20.4% among those Republican voters, with 14,239 votes. Those right behind him included Mike Taget, with 11,115 votes (13%) and Greg Pirkel,with 7,094 votes (8%).

This result is far from atypical with top two runoff results. That is, it's extremely common for a candidate of the second biggest party in a district to advance to the top two runoff. Washington State has had 56 Top Two elections for congressional and statewide partisan elections, and all but two involved a Republican facing a Democrat, and only one had two candidates of the same party in the runoff.

When that happens, the underlying partisanship kicks in, and most such contests are boring, predictable affairs -- meaning that all the real action was determining which candidate associated with the majority party advanced to the runoff. In California and Washington, that truly decisive election has the added problem of occurring with a highly  unrepresentative electorate -- one that is significantly older, whiter, wealthier and  more partisan than the general election electorate that then simply rubberstamps the preordained outcome determined by what has happened in the primary.

Imagine if Mississippi  had taken its insight into the value of ranked choice voting ballots for overseas voters and extended ranked choice voting to all voters. They could have chosen a winner in a single round this week, with the winner potentially being Kelly, but also possibly another Republican if that candidate had proven better at reaching out to backers of other candidates as they were eliminated during the count (a "bottom's up" method where the last-place candidates is defeated, and that person's votes are then added to the totals of the candidate listed next on each ballot),

Alternatively, Mississippi still could have had a runoff, but advanced four candidates -- in this case Democrat Zinn and Republicans Kelly, Tagert and Perkel. Those four candidates would all had a chance to make their case to the voters a second time, and  the ultimate winner in this safe seat would have truly had to prove worthy and able to win the support of more voters I made the case for a "top four" ranked choice voting system at our Democracy Slam last month, and was pleased to see such a good response to it from judges and the audience.

Results (courtesy of Ballotpedia)

]U.S. House, Mississippi District 1 Special General Election, 2015
PartyCandidateVote %Votes
    DemocraticGreen check mark transparent.pngWalter Zinn17%15,135
    RepublicanBoyce Adams5%3,938
    RepublicanNancy Collins5%3,953
    RepublicanGreen check mark transparent.pngTrent Kelly16%14,239
    RepublicanQuentin Whitwell4%3,106
    RepublicanChip Mills8%6,804
    RepublicanGreg Pirkle8%7,094
    RepublicanDaniel Sparks3%2,790
    RepublicanMike Tagert13%11,115
    RepublicanSam Adcock5%3,962
    RepublicanEd Holliday5%3,930
    RepublicanStarner Jones8%6,951
    RepublicanHenry Ross5%4,285
Total Votes87,302
Source: Unofficial Results from

Washington Post editorial renews call for ranked choice voting ("instant runoff") for DC elections

The Washington Post has had a series of cogent editorials calling for the instant runoff voting form of ranked choice voting to be adopted for elections in Washington, D.C.

Today the Post has a new editorial arguing for ranked choice voting in the wake of two special elections won with less than 50 percent that was the subject of a blog by our communications director Michelle Whittaker earlier this week. Here's an excerpt from the Post editorial:

"Instant runoff voting would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Winners generally would have to combine strong first-choice support with the ability to earn second- and third-choice backing. This method ensures that candidates get elected with a kind of majority support, and it tends to promote more positive campaigning, since candidates hope to become the second choice of voters who support their rivals."

Bloomberg magazine editorial: UK should adopt proportional representation

As my colleague Sarah  John cogently explains on the FairVote blog, the winner-take-all, plurality (a.k.a.,"top of the heap") system in the United Kingdom has broken down.

Bloomberg Businessweek this week has an editorial in its print edition in which it concludes that "[British prime minister David] Cameron's government should make a priority of introducing an element of proportional representation." The online edition has a more detailed editorial excerpted below:

"Cameron's complicated new reality is partly a consequence of "first-past-the-post" elections that count only the votes of the winners. It disproportionately rewards parties whose votes are regionally concentrated -- such as the SNP [Scottish Nationalist Party] -- and penalizes those whose supporters are more evenly distributed across the country, such as the U.K. Independence Party. UKIP won more than twice as many votes as the SNP but 1/56th the number of seats. Even within Scotland, the SNP won, not 95 percent of the vote as their representation at Westminster would suggest, but about half.

"This system was tolerated when it supported a two-party system, but that no longer exists. Now that Britain's parliamentary order relies on multiple parties, and the U.K. is becoming more a union of nations than a centralized state, this way of electing the legislature has become undemocratic and unsustainable for a U.K. that includes Scotland. Cameron's majority government should make a priority of electoral reform -- to introduce an element of proportional representation. It will also need to devolve further powers to Scotland and begin a much broader constitutional change."

The case for proportional representation in the United Kingdom is strong, but it's different than the equally strong case for reform in the United States. We have a different party system (one with two "big tent" umbrella parties that historically could accommodate relatively large differences in views) and a different governmental system (we  have a presidential system, while the UK has a parliamentary system), but there is a common reality: old methods of winner-take-all, plurality voting have broken down with shifts in our demography, know-how of political consultants, big money politics and the media.

For more on our case for changing to American-style forms of proportional representation -- ideally the multi-winner form of ranked choice voting system -- see our Monopoly Politics and the Fair Voting Solution report and the paper I coauthored with Drew Spencer for our recent Democracy Slam that was rated by the audience and judges has likely to have the most positive impact on our elections among the range of major reforms presented at the Slam.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Ranked Choice Voting Will Be Used to Select British Party Leaders, Naturally

After the poor showing of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democratic Party in last week's British elections, the parties' leaders—Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, respectively—quickly resigned. Membership of both parties will choose new leaders in the coming months, and both parties will use ranked choice voting (RCV).  With six candidates potentially in the race for the Labour leadership, bets are on for a competitive race in which the candidates will reach out to other candidates' supporters for their second or third choices.  For the Liberal Democrats, whose House of Commons delegation has been slashed to eight, the race is likely to between just two men: Tim Farron (the former party president) and Norman Lamb (who was health minister in the former Conservative-Lib Dems coalition government). 

RCV is already used in many elections in the UK, including the election of the House of Lords Speaker, special elections in the House of Lords, the election of the chairs of House of Commons committees in the House of Commons, as well as to choose party leaders.  Indeed, it is used in most English speaking countries to choose party leaders at leadership conventions and elections, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. RCV appears to be widely accepted as the most obvious choice for democratically choosing a single party leader from a competitive field. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Special Elections: A “Mandate” from the 4%

“Every election is determined by the people who show up.”  Larry J. Sabato, Pendulum Swing
Photo Illustration by Michelle C. Whittaker (FairVote)
By Michelle C. Whittaker

Throughout the United States, there are numerous special elections held to fill vacant seats in local, state, and federal offices. Recently, while discussing the District of Columbia Ward 4 and Ward 8 special election results, a friend remarked that she was unaware there was an election in the District. While most Americans have the second Tuesday after the first Monday in November ingrained in their brains as Election Day, the dates for special elections are set by local/regional boards of elections and can vary greatly.

The result? Low turnout and a less representative government.

Growing up I learned the value of participating in the democratic process from my grandfather. He emigrated from Honduras in the 1930s and cherished being a United States citizen and all that entailed. This is a trademark of my family. We regularly have lively discussions about politics (even at the dinner table!) that continually shape our opinions about critical issues impacting our community, our country, and the world.

Elections matter - even special elections.

I am a voter in Ward 4. Many of the candidates in my ward had unique ideas, but do they represent the interests of the population? There were 13 candidates running: 12 Democrats and 1 Socialist Worker Party member. While an overwhelming majority of Ward 4 voters are registered Democrats (79.69%) the remaining 20% of voters are unlikely to have their voices heard and their views represented in this slate of candidates. Sadly, without candidates that reflect their interests, voters have little reason to turn out on election day.

The United States ranks among the top for the percentage of registered voters (84.3%) but ranks low in the percentage of eligible voters because so many adult citizens aren’t registered. Only 58% of eligible voters turned out for the 2012 presidential election. For the midterm election in November 2014, 36% of eligible voters showed up. Primary elections, runoff elections, and special elections typically have even lower turnout.

In many cases, less that 50% of the population elects leaders for our government. Is this the way democracy is supposed to work?

Looking at the special election in D.C., only 14.78% of registered voters cast a ballot city-wide — 14.06 % in Ward 8, and 17.99% in Ward 4. The winning candidate in Ward 4, Brandon Todd, won with less than 50% of the vote. In Ward 8 (which also had a field of 13), the top two candidates, LaRuby May and Trayon White, garnered 26.76% and 25.67% respectively.

Without casting any aspersions about the winners, when you put their vote shares and turnout together, more than nine in ten registered voters in their wards didn’t vote them. In Ward 8, only 3.75% of registered voters cast a ballot for the winner.

It isn't just the relatively low shares of the vote for the winners that troubles me. It’s the lack of engagement by candidates. From my perspective, candidates weren't working hard enough for my vote -- no knocks on my door, no individual engagement, no request to put a yard sign on my lawn — even though I'm a regular voter.

There are a number of key reforms that can address low voter turnout and it all centers on fair, equitable voting. Using a fair voting system - like ranked choice voting - allows voters to express their preferences and create representative bodies in government. Even in a single seat election, the use of ranked choice voting enables candidates to build bridges across political ideologies, addresses issues that impact citizens, and incentives knocking on doors to ask to be a first, second, or third choice.

Maximizing the voices of voters and giving winning candidate’s a clear mandate from a broad range of constituents — now that sounds like democracy.

Michelle C. Whittaker is the Communications Director at FairVote

Monday, May 11, 2015

Remedies in Voting Rights Cases Could Create New Election Opportunities for Women

May 11, 2015
By: Dania Korkor, Legal Analyst

Left to Right: Drew Spencer, Peter Rosenstein, Lisa Gilbert, State  Senator Jamie Raskin, Dania Korkor, Lia Epperson, Alexandra Shapiro. Not shown in the photograph but took part in this panel on Judging Seven Democracy Initiatives: Rob Richie, David Lubin, Mark Schmitt, Trent England, William Galston, Sarah John.

The Voting Rights Act protects the votes of people of color, but it also includes a provision that could create new opportunities for advancing the election of women.

Dania Korkor, Democracy Slam 2015
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) prohibits minority vote dilution in climates of racially polarized voting. This Section has become increasingly important after Section 4 of the Act, the formula for determining pre-clearance under Section 5, was found unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder in 2012.

Here’s what a Section 2 “vote dilution” case looks like. A group of voters from a racial minority community brings a lawsuit against their city, county, school board (or other jurisdiction) in federal court. They have to prove three things: that the racial majority group votes together as a bloc, that the racial minority community also votes together but for different candidates, and that the winner-take-all election method means that the majority can elect every candidate they prefer while denying the same to the minority group – effectively silencing the voices of people of color in local elections. The most common remedy is replacing the winner-take-all, at-large electoral schemes with winner-take-all, single-winner districts.

There are clear consequences to remedying vote dilution with single-winner districts rather than using a remedy that retains multi-winner elections. One problem with moving away from multi-winner districts, elections where voters can have more than one representative, to single-winner districts, is that these single-winner districts are detrimental to women’s representation. Research shows that female candidates are elected at higher rates in multi-winner districts when compared to single-winner districts.

Election structures are important, especially when it comes to gender disparities in elected office. Women occupy less than a quarter of state legislative seats, and only about 20% of congressional seats, making the United States worse than 93 other nations worldwide for women’s representation. However, of the ten states that elect their state legislatures in multi-winner elections, six make the top ten for women’s representation, including Vermont with 41.1%, Arizona with 35.6% and New Hampshire with 33.5% women in their respective state legislatures.

Using fair voting methods, like ranked choice or cumulative voting, alongside multi-winner districts instead of single-winner districts are very effective VRA remedies. Given the growing evidence that women will be better represented under fair voting, there is a strong legal case to be made that judges should prefer fair voting remedies because they can cure the discrimination that compelled the Section 2 challenge, and promote the representation of female candidates.

Additionally, in multi-winner districts, the number of racial minority voters who have a representative of their choice and the number of voters with a female representative are higher than in single-winner districts. This could also lead to representatives being more responsive to racial minority voters in general and to women of color in particular.

Last month, FairVote, American University’s Washington College of Law, and the American Constitution Society hosted a productive and action-packed convening: National Democracy Slam 2015. Numerous reforms were presented, debated, and rated by panelists, judges, and attendees. The reform I presented and submitted as a paper discussed Section 2 of the VRA and why representation of women candidates may deserve consideration in decisions about Section 2 remedies in voting rights cases.

My reform paper recommends that when judges are remedying voting systems that violate Section 2 by discriminating against minority communities, they should preference remedies that not only cure the discrimination, but also promote representation of female candidates.

Polling done immediately following my presentation of the paper showed that a majority of conference attendees agreed that representation of women should be considered by judges in decisions regarding Section 2 voting rights remedies.
FairVote Staff Members, Democracy Slam 2015

Poll: Should the representation of women be considered in decisions regarding Section 2 voting rights remedies?
Yes: 57.7%
No: 42.3%

While this reform is not a panacea to the current underrepresentation of women, considering the representation of women while remedying Section 2 discrimination has the added benefit of helping to erase two wrongs in flawed voting systems. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fewer Americans Experience Competitive Congressional Races

The Washington Post's GovBeat blog reported yesterday that fewer and fewer people live in a places that have competitive state house and senate races. Using analysis provided by Ballotpedia, they found that "less than 5 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state House or state Senate district where the two leading candidates finished within 5 percentage points of each other."

The article also points out that U.S. House and Senate elections also lack competition. Moreover, the fact that the Senate lacks competition reflects that the problem is not just Congressional redistricting and gerrymandering. The electorate is becoming "increasingly polarized... with fewer voters willing to consider candidates from either party."

FairVote has a solution to the problem of increasing political polarization, and that solution is fair representation voting. Fair representation voting would ensure that voters can participate in meaningfully competitive elections. Furthermore, fair representation voting would make sure that more voters have representation in elected office. Learn more about FairVote's solution here.