A wave of cities across the United States switch to fair voting systems

Peter Smart, former Lakeman Fellow

Posted on the 11th November 2022

This week’s big electoral story is America’s midterm elections and the failure of the predicted ‘Red Wave’ to materialise. However, an underreported story has been the high number of cities that accepted proposals to introduce fairer voting systems. A ‘Fair Voting’ wave is rolling across the United States.

The United States is one of the few countries that still use Westminster-style First Past the Post (FPTP) voting. Most democracies use some form of proportional representation. But, things are starting to improve in the USA.

American cities adopt the Alternative Vote

Unencumbered by the politics of the 2010 coalition, the Alternative Vote (or Ranked Choice Voting as it is known in the United States) has proved popular when judged on its own merits in America.

The Alternative Vote (AV), like FPTP is still a ‘winner takes all system’ and is not proportional. However, it does mean that voters aren’t punished for picking candidates who aren’t from the big two parties – something important when independent candidates are standing.

In 2016 only 10 cities in America used the Alternative Vote, now over 50 American cities use AV and that number is only growing.

At the mid-term elections on the 8th of November Multnomah County (the largest County in the state of Oregon), Evanston (Illinois), Fort Collins (Colorado), Ojai (California) all voted yes to propositions to ditch the antiquated FPTP system and towards the fairer AV. We are also awaiting the results of the Seattle proposition on AV; it can take quite some time to count up results in American elections.

Additionally, voters in three cities Corvallis (Oregon), Albany (California) and Palm Desert (California) all used AV for the first time in this November’s elections.

Whole state votes to scrap First Past the Post

Not only have all these cities abandoned FPTP but the entire state of Nevada voted to flip to AV. As this is a constitutional amendment, it will have to be confirmed again in 2024 to take effect, but the momentum is clearly with AV and this vote is definitely a step in the right direction.

Nevada will be joining Maine and Alaska as states that use the Alternative Vote for statewide and federal general elections.

Major American cities adopt the Single Transferable Vote

The AV results are all fantastic news, but it gets better. The cities of Portland (Oregon) and Portland (this time in Maine) have voted to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (or as the Americans call it, Proportional RCV). The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is a proportional voting system which aims to produce a city council that reflects the way the electorate voted. We use this system in the UK to elect Scottish and Northern Irish local councils, as well as the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Fairer voting systems are gaining salience across the US as the polarising impact of First Past the Post makes itself clear. In the past two years, Congress and more than half of American states have considered legislation to introduce fairer voting. Countries saddled with First Past the Post nearly always have groups of activists trying to scrap the system.  Fairvote, the leading proportional representation organisation in the US, is fighting hard to build momentum nationwide.

Add your name to our call for fair votes in the UK

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