PR across the pond: the push for fair votes in the US

Electoral Reform Society
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Electoral Reform Society

Posted on the 11th October 2016

This week is European Local Democracy Week 2016, and to mark it, we’re running a series of discussion articles on how to make the London Assembly more democratic. Yesterday we published our first piece in the series, calling for the Single Transferable Vote for the Assembly. 

The following is a guest post from Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote  the organisation campaigning for a fairer voting system for US elections  looking at what lessons cities can learn from London in democratising voting in the US. 
This is an external guest blog, and the views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

American electoral reformers eye London elections with some envy. Having a mixed member system [AMS] for city council gives all voters a real opportunity to help elect a representative no matter where they live – a far cry from our congressional elections where more than eight in ten constituencies have zero chance of changing hands this November.

And while the supplementary vote for mayor could be better, at least is not a plurality, “top of the heap” system – one that turns most trailing candidates into “spoilers.” Witness the debate today over whether Ohio Governor John Kasich should drop out of the Republican presidential nomination contest or past fingerpointing at presidential candidates like Ralph Nader in 2000 and Ross Perot in 1992.

But experience with ranked choice ballots in a growing number of American cities suggests that expanded use of ranked-choice voting would increase voter engagement – both by removing the limit on rankings in the mayoral race [through the Alternative Vote] and adding multi-winner constituencies for city council [through the Single Transferable Vote].

In 2013-2014, for example, political scientists Todd Donovan and Caroline Tolbert collaborated with the Eagleton poll to survey more than 2,400 voters in seven cities with forms of STV and another 2,400 voters in 14 control cities without it. As described in a recent Electoral Studies article, they found that: “People in cities using preferential voting were significantly more satisfied with the conduct of local campaigns than people in similar cities with plurality elections. People in cities with preferential voting were also less likely to view campaigns as negative, and less likely to respond that candidates were frequently criticizing each other. Results are consistent across a series of robustness checks.”

Their findings are consistent with more anecdotal evidence from candidates. Minnesota’s largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, now elect their mayors with ranked choice voting. In Minneapolis’ first mayoral election without an incumbent in 2013, city councilor Betsy Hodges surprised the frontrunner with what ultimately was a landslide win in a contest with eight strong candidates. In 2014 she said that ranked choice voting “is an incredibly valuable thing to do if you are a fan of small D democracy and deepening democracy. Because you get to have the conversations that you otherwise would really not be having because they wouldn’t be worth your time as a candidate, and it wouldn’t be worth the time of the voter to have that conversation because their mind would’ve been made up.”

Maine voters will vote on adoption of ranked choice voting for all state and congressional elections this November, and their experience in the state’s largest city of Portland has contributed to support for the system.

The winner of its first mayoral election with the system in 2011, Michael Brennan, is an experienced politician who had headed the state senate and run for Congress. He said in 2013[4] that “I really ended up focusing on all Portland voters as opposed to just looking at targeted voters. In almost every other campaign you sit down and you say OK, I need 28% to win or 32% to win or I need 35% of the vote to win and you target voters to get you that percentage that’s going to allow you to win… If I were running as I have in other partisan elections, you would only knock on Democrats’ doors, or Democrats and Independents. In this case, the only targeting that I did were people that were registered voters.”

We see these impacts even in “winner take all” elections. When you add in multi-winner districts and proportional representation, as with the STV system used for decades in Cambridge (MA), you also see ongoing representation of diversity and candidate-to-candidate coalitions that can deepen relationships both in campaigns and governance.

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