These US states voted to make elections fairer

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 13th November 2020

In the past two weeks, the flaws of the US electoral system have become plain for all to see.

As the dust slowly settles, it’s worth looking at some results that aren’t the presidential race.

In many cases it’s up to the individual states to choose how to run their elections, and some took the chance this time to become more democratic and engaging, and their results more representative.

Towards fairer elections

Five US cities which held referendums to implement ranked choice voting (RCV) have backed the shift, sometimes with large majorities. One of which, Albany, has moved to STV. RCV is a method of voting that allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference e.g. first choice, second choice, third choice and so on.

RCV means that the winning candidate has broad support, as the winner must secure over 50% backing in the final round. When there is only one potential winner, this is the ideal voting system, reducing wasted votes and eliminating the problem of ‘spoiler candidates’ supposedly splitting the vote.

Ending the Electoral College

The National Popular Vote Compact has added the state of Colorado to its list of states bidding to side-line the Electoral College system.

States who back the compact agree to assign their presidential ‘electors’ – the individuals nominated by states to pick the president – to the candidate who secures the popular vote nationally. This bypasses the undemocratic Electoral College in the election of the president.

In order to go into effect, the Compact requires states with a total of 270 Electoral College votes –  the majority of electors – to be signed up, enough to control the outcome of the election. Currently, the Compact has now been signed by states collectively representing 196 Electoral College votes, which is 74 short of the 270 needed for a presidential victory.

Fair seat boundaries

The practice of ‘gerrymandering’ – an unfair political tactic that has been used by both major parties for their benefit – was weakened in Virginia last week, when voters approved a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission.

Partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering, is a way of establishing a one-sided political advantage by manipulating district boundaries. For instance, in North Carolina, the federal courts recently found that the Republican party unconstitutionally crowded traditionally Democratic black voters into a handful of districts, in order to favour the Republican vote. This is a real problem under First Past the Post where votes cast over the margin needed to win are effectively ignored: meaning the incentive is to crowd all your opponents’ voters into concentrated seats, or split them out thinly among your voters.

The introduction of a bipartisan redistricting commission to tackle this issue aims to stop the party in charge from giving themselves an unfair advantage. While a step in the right direction, proportional representation could have an even bigger impact.

Expanding Voting Rights

In California, approximately 50,000 people were re-enfranchised, as they were given back their right to vote. A proposition to amend the Californian state constitution to allow prisoners on parole who meet state guidelines the right to vote was passed in a state-wide vote. The state is also expected to make an initial investment in voter registration to ensure they can sign up.

Previously, activists for this proposition argued that “Black and Latinx individuals are both disproportionately incarcerated and disenfranchised by the current state voting restrictions”. Closer to home, Scotland recently enacted similar legislation.

Fairer Campaign Finance

In Oregon, one of just five states that sets no limits on the amount of money candidates are able to receive from donors, a historic vote has welcomed the introduction of campaign finance regulation.

The measure changes the constitution to allow restrictions on contributions and spending

The measure also permitted rules requiring campaigns to be open about how political ads are funded.

Lessons for Britain

These positive reforms show what democracy is something that is fought for. Here in the UK, we can see the different ways our democracy is under threat: from a warped voting system to plans to introduce mandatory voter ID at elections – a plan that seems to be fresh out of the US voter suppression playbook.

But much like campaigners in the US, we know that positive changes can be won too – and what is happening right now across the pond should encourage the fight for a better democracy here.

By Akash Thiara, a Placement Student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.

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