Category Archives: alternative voting systems

“RELEASE: Fixing the Dysfunction in American Politics Through Electoral Reform”


new report from the Center for American Progress examines some of the most fundamental problems with the nation’s electoral system and recommends better ways to promote effective, representative government.

The report describes how states and localities—from Alaska and Maine to Nevada and Oregon—are embracing a range of solutions to improve how we elect public officials. These include fusion voting, ranked-choice voting, primary election reform, and methods of proportional representation.

Reforms such as these could help address two fundamental problems with the U.S. electoral system. First, our current electoral rules discourage problem-solving and reward conflict, because candidates are incentivized first and foremost to appeal to their own partisan base. Second, the current system often does not represent the country well, squeezing out political moderates and excluding diverse voices that don’t squarely fit within either political party.

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“Americans Deserve a House of Representatives That Better Represents Them”

Ben Raderstorf and Beau Tremitiere in the Bulwark:

So in a sense, the real question is not why cross-party coalitions are appearing in state legislatures, but rather, why they aren’t more common—and why a gridlocked House of Representatives refused to elect a consensus speaker backed by a majority drawn from both parties, instead caving to the demands of a small handful of extremist legislators.

The answer is that our system makes coalition building grueling, if not impossible. Over the last several decades, the trend toward nationalized politics and the increasing brightness of the media spotlight have made it more difficult for legislators to collaborate privately and negotiate in good faith, especially at the national level. Moreover, as legal scholar Richard Pildes notes, social media combined with a rise in small-dollar campaign donations allows “individual members of Congress to function, even thrive, as free agents.” It is difficult to imagine the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Alaska outcomes happening under the glare of cable news or with social media provocateurs like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert.

The United States is not alone in facing these trends, but the effects are aggravated by our winner-take-all electoral system, where each district elects a single, plurality-winner representative. This system strongly incentivizes politicians to coalesce into two vast, directly competing parties, leading to intra-party factions instead of several distinct parties. For a host of reasons, the two main parties have each become more ideologically distinct over the last few decades. This polarization is then exacerbated by primary elections: Any legislator who attempts to build a cross-party coalition—even in an exceptional situation like the current U.S. House—risks being shunned by his or her own party’s base in the next election. A wide range of research has found that primary elections disincentivize compromise in precisely this way.

This is true not just for the GOP, but also for Democrats, who could have offered Republicans an offramp during the speakership impasse earlier this month but had no incentive to do so. As unlikely as Kevin McCarthy was to reach across the aisle to cut a deal, he was just as unlikely to find a warm reception there, even among those inclined towards the possibility. Instead, the 212 House Democrats seemingly relished the theater (some literally bringing popcorn) and repeatedly voted against adjournment in hopes of keeping the embarrassing show going.

The good news is, these rules and incentives can be changed. Instead of electing our representatives through primaries followed by winner-take-all elections, we could instead transition to proportional representation, which avoids the harmful incentives of both….

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“Don’t Blame RCV for Alameda County Election Snafu”

Rob Richie:

First, let’s understand what went wrong. According to both Oakland’s City charter and RCV election norms, if a voter skips a first-choice column or writes in an ineligible candidate, that voter’s ballot should be advanced immediately to the voter’s second-choice candidate. That’s how it’s always been done in San Francisco, which has the same Dominion equipment as used in Alameda County, and how Alameda configured its software for years.

In preparing for the 2022 elections, however, the Alameda County Registrar’s office turned on an incorrect setting on the vote-counting equipment to count local RCV races in several Alameda cities, including Oakland. This setting determines how ballots are counted if a voter leaves the first-choice column blank or writes in an ineligible candidate.  It “suspended” such ballots so that they were not included in the first round. The rest of the votes were then used to determine whether a candidate had earned a first-round majority and, if not, which candidate was in last place and should be removed. Only in the second round, after a candidate had already been removed, were the suspended ballots brought back into the tally.

While that error may sound trivial and impacted only a few hundred votes that were delayed when they were added to the tally, it could have a big impact in an RCV system designed to make as many votes count as possible. Oakland’s District 4 school board race was extremely close among three candidates, with only 29 votes in the original first-round tally separating the original second-place finisher Pecolia Manigo and Mike Hutchinson. As a result, Hutchinson was removed after the first round, and only then were the suspended ballots added to the tally. Manigo picked up most of Hutchinson’s support, but narrowly lost to Nick Resnick in the final instant runoff.

But the suspended ballots should have been counted before Hutchinson was removed. After receiving the cast vote record provided by the county, my research team colleagues at FairVote determined that Hutchinson should have earned 80 additional votes in the first round and Manigo an additional 14. The corrected vote totals put Hutchinson in the first round ahead of Manigo by 37 votes. With this corrected tally, Manigo is the one who should be eliminated, with Hutchinson now facing Resnick in the instant runoff.  Manigo and Hutchinson are both black and are more aligned on education policy, and Hutchinson was strongly preferred by Manigo’s backers as backup choice – enough to give him the edge over Resnick in the instant runoff.

So how does a mistake like this happen and what can we do about it?

First,the Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis should be thanked for recognizing his mistake and correcting it. Less than a week after FairVote and the Cal RCV Coalition alerted him to the error, he had confirmed the error, reviewed all elections that might have been affected by it and alerted the candidates in the school board race. Although earlier access to the cast vote record would have been ideal, providing it allows interested parties to examine the results for themselves – and the error is now fixed.

More broadly, it’s an unfortunate reality that election workers are overworked and underfunded. Between the demand for “stop the steal”-inspired FOIA requests and labor shortages, we’re witnessing human mistakes across elections of all types. Californians in 2022 saw errors on ballots in RiversideMerced, and Tulare counties, for example.

We should provide election officials with more resources and support, twinned with greater transparency of decision-making. The Alameda County error was the equivalent of attempting to follow a recipe and accidentally mixing in the wrong ingredient. The answer isn’t to throw out the cookbook and the oven, or never to cook again. Instead, the answer is to get more help in the kitchen – and build in means to confirm your ingredients…..

…Looking ahead, Alameda County should set up a task force to study these elections, make recommendations and perhaps establish an ongoing advisory board to review and suggest practices and key decisions and institutionalize communication between the registrar’s office and the community…..

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Must-Read: “After election debacle in Oakland, what’s next for ranked choice voting?”

Mercury News:

The revelation this week of an unprecedented error in Alameda County’s counting of election results has upended an Oakland school board race. But more lasting damage could be done to the reputation of ranked choice voting, a novel “instant runoff” format that is growing in popularity around the country.

Mike Hutchinson, the third-place finisher in a race for Oakland Unified’s District 4 school board seat, was told by election officials Wednesday that he may actually have won the race due to a technical mistake in how the county’s Registrar of Voters tabulated ranked-choice results.

The mistake itself involved a simple switch — a feature in the county’s election software that was incorrectly turned on, rather than left off. As a result, ballots where a first-choice candidate was missing were incorrectly counted.

“We incorrectly had the software set so that it did not elevate those votes when there wasn’t a vote in the first-choice column,” Registrar Tim Dupuis said in an interview Wednesday. “It was an error, and after being notified we immediately took that seriously and did the research to validate it.”

County officials are scrambling to figure out the process for re-certifying election results after they were formalized Dec. 8, and Dupuis hinted that it could require legal action on the part of the candidates involved. He could not be reached Thursday for an update on what steps need to be taken for Hutchinson to be rightfully elected.

The school board race is the only one that was affected, the registrar says. But it could not come at a worse time for election officials who are trying to allay fears about the legitimacy of results provided to the public.

The debacle could particularly be a black eye for ranked-choice voting. The system allows voters to select more than one candidate for a particular race by ranking them in order of preference and redistributes votes from the lowest performers until one candidate secures majority support and is declared the winner. The system eliminates the need for a separate runoff election when no candidate gets a majority of votes.

Ironically, the error affecting Hutchinson’s totals was detected by advocacy groups working to get jurisdictions around the country to adopt the format. They noticed a discrepancy while reviewing all of Oakland’s election results, which indicated that a special category of votes wasn’t being counted until the second round of ranked-choice results. The error was also caused by a decision made by the registrar’s staff, not a flaw in the election software.

“This is a learning moment for all of us, and I think it’s crucial we maintain transparency around the process no matter what,” said Rob Richie, the CEO of FairVote, which successfully lobbied for Oakland to first implement ranked choice in the city’s 2010 elections.

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Blake Hounshell NYT Newsletter on the Revival of a Push for Fusion Voting


One of the great paradoxes of America’s polarized political system is that people seem to hate it, yet few can conceive of a way out.

Every once in a while, a third-party candidate catches fire — as the quirky billionaire Ross Perot did in the 1992 presidential race, appealing to a chunk of voters who were unhappy with deficits and trade deals. More often, though, such candidates fizzle.

Many people wring their hands about political polarization and calcification, but grudgingly accept it as the inevitable result of the way voters are sorting themselves by geography or education, or the baleful effects of social media and cable news, or the product of slicing and dicing by political operatives who stoke fear and outrage to win elections.

One of the latest and more intriguing efforts to try to change the system comes in the form of two forthcoming lawsuits by Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group, and a new outfit called the Moderate Party.

Starting the week after Thanksgiving, the two groups separately plan to sue the State of New Jersey to allow fusion voting, a practice the state banned in the 1920s. It’s legal in only a few states, including Connecticut, New York and Oregon.

Under fusion voting, multiple parties can nominate the same candidate, who then appears more than once on the ballot. Proponents say it allows voters who don’t feel comfortable with either major party to express their preferences without “wasting” votes on candidates with no hope of winning.

In New York, there are two prominent fusion parties: the Working Families Party, which often endorses Democratic candidates, and the Conservative Party, which typically backs Republicans.

What’s different about the New Jersey effort is that it is driven by the political center; the Moderate Party was co-founded by Richard A. Wolfe, a partner at the law firm Fried Frank and a former small-town mayor who told me he was repulsed by the Republican Party’s embrace of conspiracy theories and its fealty toward Donald Trump, but could not stomach voting for a Democrat.

Wolfe was a supporter of Representative Tom Malinowski, a moderate Democrat who lost his re-election bid to Thomas Kean Jr., a Republican. But when the Moderate Party petitioned the New Jersey secretary of state to allow Malinowski to be nominated on its ballot line, she ruled the move illegal.

The Moderate Party and Protect Democracy had originally hoped to file their suits appealing the ruling months ago, but held off amid concerns that the courts would not want to weigh in until after the election. Republicans also raised questions about the Moderate Party when news reports emerged that the House Majority PAC, a Democratic-aligned outside group linked to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was underwriting the party’s ads in support of Malinowski.

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Rank Choice Voting: A Scaleable Reform?

As more jurisdictions are considering introducing rank choice voting (the issue will be on the ballot in Nevada this fall), Politico offers this long-form essay on Alaska’s experience. Can Alaska “point the way to a more moderate, more nuanced way of doing politics”? Or is rank choice voting a product of Alaska’s uniquely independent culture? Politico spoke to Ivan Moore, “a longtime Alaska pollster who is considered one of the foremost experts on the state’s politics.”

“Number one, that ranked choice voting worked well. Pretty flawless performance by the Alaska Division of Elections.

. . .

[Sarah Palin lost because] Sarah Palin is indeed very unpopular.”

Interestingly, the relationship of a state’s culture to the potential for reform is a longstanding question. Early adopters of vote by mail, early voting, and same-day registration, for example, were often states that already had high turnout. This often led political scientists (and I believed them) to conclude the reforms were not scaleable. But 2020 seems to have proved them wrong.

By way of clarification, even if the Nevada ballot initiative is successful, the earliest the reform could be implemented is 2026. Amendment to the state constitution must be passed in two consecutive cycles. Rank choice voting is on the ballot in nine jurisdictions this fall, but the rest are at the municipal level.

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“Scholars Ask Congress to Scrap Winner-Take-All Political System”


If there’s one thing we know about America’s creaking democracy, it’s this: Whenever it seems fundamentally broken, people get together to try to fix it.

That’s happening now. We’re living through one of the United States’ periodic bursts of reformist energy, with various groups pushing to alter the structure of our elections even as — or rather because — millions of voters on both sides of our partisan divide question the integrity of the system.

The latest entry is a roster of more than 200 American political scientists who have put forward a sweeping proposal to change the way the United States has conducted its federal elections for nearly 250 years.

In a sharply written open letter to Congress published on Monday and shared in advance with The New York Times, the scholars tell lawmakers, “It is clear that our winner-take-all system — where each U.S. House district is represented by a single person — is fundamentally broken.” They call on Congress to “adopt inclusive, multimember districts with competitive and responsive proportional representation.”

The list of signatories includes nine of the 18 living U.S.-based winners of the Johan Skytte Prize, a prestigious Swedish award that has become a kind of unofficial Nobel for political science: Robert Axelrod, Francis Fukuyama, Peter J. Katzenstein, Robert Keohane, David D. Laitin, Margaret Levi, Arend Lijphart, Philippe C. Schmitter and Rein Taagepera.

“Our arcane, single-member districting process divides, polarizes and isolates us from each other,” the professors write. “It has effectively extinguished competitive elections for most Americans, and produced a deeply divided political system that is incapable of responding to changing demands and emerging challenges with necessary legitimacy.”

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