Category Archives: alternative voting systems

FairVote Report on the Use of Ranked Choice Voting in NYC

FairVote:

This report examines the first citywide ranked choice voting (RCV) elections in New York City, conducted in June 2021. FairVote analyzed campaign activity, voter turnout, demographic trends, and cast vote records.

We find that RCV helped elect the most diverse NYC government ever, voter turnout at its highest point in decades, voters in all demographic groups used rankings at a high rate, and RCV winners had broad consensus support from the voters. The report concludes with recommendations for best practices in future New York City RCV elections.

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Alaska Supreme Court upholds electoral reform

This order, with an opinion to follow, makes clear that Alaska will be using its new electoral system (nonpartisan primary, with top four candidates on the general election ballot and the winner based on ranked-choice ballots using Instant Runoff Voting) this year. It will be important to watch the campaign unfold under this new system, as well as the results it delivers. It’s also useful, I think, to imagine all the other elections to be held this year and to ask: to what extent would those campaigns, and outcomes, be different if those other elections were conduced using Alaska’s new system?

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Oral argument in Alaska RCV case

As Rick blogged earlier today, the Alaska Supreme Court heard oral argument in an important case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new electoral system, which has a nonpartisan primary that sends the top four candidates to the general election, in which a ranked-choice ballot is used to identify the winner (using the instant runoff voting computational method). Here’s video of the oral argument. [Update: at 41:45, counsel for the state encourages the court to read the law review article written by Rick and his co-author Michael Parson. One justice perhaps was a bit skeptical in questioning.]

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“Democracy is on the brink of disaster. For voters, it’s politics as usual.”

Rick P, in the previous blog post, was right to highlight Karen Tumulty’s column. The Washington Post today also has a piece presenting a rather depressing counterargument, by Colgate political scientist Sam Rosenfeld. The conclusion (although it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing):

“It would be helpful if more Republicans recognized that normal politics still gives them a perfectly good shot at victory — and that they don’t need to burn the house down to win power. But the party’s recent illiberal turn has deep roots, drawing on currents of extremism and procedural ruthlessness on the American right that stretch back many decades — and the very fact that the electoral punishment for transgressing democratic norms is so slight means Republicans have no need to grapple with the trade-off if they don’t wish to. And this is how electoral politics as usual might doom democracy itself.”

Accepting this as the reality, I see the potential solution only being the kind of structural reform of electoral systems that prevents anti-democracy Republicans from being the dominant force on the political right. For at least as long as “burn the house down” Republicans are not the majority preference among general-election voters in most states, it’s worth pursuing ways that the electoral process can be reformed so that “burn the house down” Republicans are not the only right-of-center options on November general-election ballots in states (and districts) that lean right-of-center. That way right-of-center voters can pursue their “normal politics” preferences with a candidate who, allied with with enough “left-of-center” preferences against burning the house down, can secure a Condorcet-majority victory.

Given the gravity of the threat, I’m eager to hear of other remedies for this disease. But as I tweeted on Thursday, Peter Baker accurately diagnoses the current pathology: “Those who speak against [Trump] are purged, and his endorsement is the most coveted asset in almost any Republican primary.” Consequently, in the second part of the two-tweet thread, if this is an accurate diagnosis, the cure must be structural reform that prevents an authoritarian like Trump from controlling which right-of-center candidates are on the November general-election ballot.

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The Big Lie & the Primary Problem

This new piece in The Washington Post, as well as several others including one in the N.Y. Times based on Jeremy Peters’ forthcoming book, confirms for me the connection between (1) the entrenchment of Trump’s false claim about the 2020 election being stolen and (2) the structural flaw of the existing plurality-winner electoral system that enables Trump to “primary” Republicans he considers disloyal and thereby prevent them from being viable general-election candidates in November. Given the initial response to January 6 by Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, followed by the snapback loyalty to Trump once he had proven his ongoing connection with the base and therefore his capacity to destroy in a primary any Republican disloyal to him, the conclusion to draw is that Republicans who might have been willing to speak out against the Big Lie if there weren’t this threat of being “primaried” quickly realized they needed to hold their tongues if they want to keep their careers.

Other Republicans eager for Trump’s endorsement in a primary starting embracing the Big Lie even if they otherwise would have been disinclined to do so. The Post’s description of Senate candidate Bernie Moreno is illustrative of this. Another Ohio Senate candidate, J.D. Vance, could also serve as an example, given the transformation of his views on Trump in his quest for the GOP nomination.

The upshot is that I’m even more convinced than I was a year ago that if we are going to solve the Big Lie problem, we must solve the “primary problem“. We need a lot more Republicans, besides Liz Cheney (who faces her own threat of being primaried by Trump), to denounce the Big Lie. But that’s not going to happen without structural reform that removes the effectiveness of this threat. Structural conditions have enabled the Big Lie to take hold over the last year, and thus there will need to be structural reform in order to undo the perniciousness of the Big Lie.

If every incumbent Republican had the benefit of Alaska’s new electoral system that Lisa Murkowski has, every incumbent Republican would be in a different posture with respect to the threat of being primaried than most currently are. Alaska’s system isn’t a perfect panacea for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere, but it is far better at counteracting the threat of the Big Lie than the plurality-winner system that operates in most states. Thus, as we reflect on how deeply ingrained the Big Lie has become over the last year and endeavor to find a solution, we can’t ignore the role that the existing plurality-winner electoral system has played (which enables primaries to have their effect of eliminating candidates who would be preferred by general-election voters) and thus must move to the center of the electoral-reform agenda the possibility of structural alternatives.

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“Can Ranked Choice Voting Work for Conservatives?”

Adam Kissel:

Conservatives give me the stink eye when I tell them I favor ranked-choice voting, which many jurisdictions are considering for 2022. But when combined with election integrity and voter education, this alternative voting process has advantages that outweigh its costs. …

Voters also become less likely to game their votes. Voters sometimes avoid “spoiler” candidates who “split” the vote away from a mainstream candidate. But being able to rank a first choice and a second choice lets you vote for the candidate you truly believe is best, even if you think they don’t have a real chance to win, since you know that your second-choice vote will count.

Why do conservatives raise their eyebrows at RCV in any form? They note that several jurisdictions that tried it didn’t like it and went back to winner-take-all. They are rightly concerned about opportunities for mistakes, like the utter failure of RCV in New York City when officials left more than 100,000 test votes in the system–and even fraud, as the counting process gets more complex.

Conservatives also note that the left often favors RCV. It is true that no voting process is without flaw, and whoever chooses the voting process can somewhat game the outcome. 

Conservatives sometimes say that RCV proponents want to confuse voters or otherwise make it easier for more progressive candidates to win. For example, if the left runs a large number of candidates and the right runs just one, candidates on the left will collectively get many more votes.

But in principle, RCV is neutral. And under single-elimination RCV, there is just one round of the runoff, avoiding these issues….

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Could bipartisan democracy-protection have worked? Could it still?

There has been skepticism voiced by some about my suggestion that, after January 6, Democrats in Congress should have pursued a strategy of finding at least ten GOP Senators to support the kind of structural electoral reform, like a majority-winner rule, that would help protect the traditional wing of the Republican Party–and thus the nation’s system of democratic competition–from Trump and Trumpism.

While it’s always prudent to avoid excessive optimism about the possibility of electoral reform, especially given the predisposition of incumbents to stick with the system in which they won their own elections, why is it unreasonable to think that a deal might have been possible if focused on the specific idea of helping the traditional GOP avoid a hostile takeover from the MAGA movement? It would have been in the rational self-interest of traditional Republicans, like Senator Roy Blunt (ranking member of the Rules Committee) and even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to be open to that kind of conversation if pursued by Democrats in good faith.

Moreover, it would have been easy to point to Alaska as an example of how structural electoral reform can help traditional Republicans from attack by Trump. Lisa Murkowski is in a much better position to survive Trump’s attack on her than Liz Cheney, for example, for the simple reason that Alaska has a adopted a different electoral system (“top 4 with RCV”) than the conventional system that Wyoming has (a partisan primary followed by a plurality-winner general election). If Democrats had attempted to work with Murkowski to educate other traditional Republicans on how this kind of electoral reform could benefit their brand of Republicanism–indeed, protect it from threatened extinction at the hands of Trump and his acolytes–a total of ten GOP Senators might have become open to the idea.

Continue reading Could bipartisan democracy-protection have worked? Could it still?
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Trump’s primary power

Henry Olsen for the Washington Post updates his top 5 list of the GOP primaries that will show Trump’s influence in the midterms. His new rankings list the Perdue-Kemp gubernatorial primary in Georgia first. When I contemplate this race, as well as the rest of Olsen’s list, I think it’s important to consider that the extent of Trump’s power is a function of not only voter preferences but also the institutional structures that convert those voter preferences into electoral outcomes. For example, what if Georgia used Alaska’s new electoral system (“top 4 with RCV”) of a nonpartisan primary that sends four finalists to the November general election, the winner of which is chosen using Instant Runoff Voting? What would be the extent of Trump’s power over the outcome of Georgia’s gubernatorial election in that situation? There is reason to believe that it would be greatly diminished, relative to the current electoral system in Georgia with its traditional party primary, because both Perdue and Kemp would likely be among the four finalists to compete for the preferences of Georgia’s entire electorate (not just its Republican voters). Kemp, in other words, would have the same relative advantage against this Trump-endorsed opponent that Lisa Murkowski will have in Alaska. The Alaska electoral system hardly guarantees the defeat of the Trump-endorsed candidate (much less victory for a Trump-opposed Republican like Kemp–in Georgia, Stacey Abrams might win), but Alaska’s system does tend to reduce Trump’s leverage over the process. (The system of Tournament Elections with Round-Robin Primaries would do this even more.)

If one fears Trump’s capacity to influence the outcome of GOP primaries and then have his endorsed candidates win general elections in red and even purple states, with the consequent threat to democracy from having a Trump-led party in power, then one ought to put at the top of one’s list of election reform priorities the kind of structural change that would reduce the leverage that Trump has based on the existing system of partisan primaries followed by plurality-winner general elections. Whether to replace it with Alaska’s new system or something else is another matter. But one should still see Trump’s present political strength as a consequence, at least in large part, of an existing electoral system that is not inevitable but is instead itself a political choice.

The Democratic Party has spent the entirety of 2021, in the aftermath of January 6, as if the top electoral reform priority must be to make sure that it is easy as possible for voters to cast a ballot. Democrats continue to emphasize this as their highest priority as they search for a way to negate the unified GOP opposition, through means of a filibuster, to their Freedom to Vote bill. But if Trump and a Trump-dominated GOP ends up controlling American government again, to the long-term detriment of American democracy, the culprit likely will be not the inability of voters to cast a ballot if they wish to do so, but instead the particular electoral system that converts the ballots cast by voters into the outcomes that identify which candidates are entitled to hold office as a result of elections.

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“As the GOP sheds its moderates, a whirlwind approaches”

This Washington Post op-ed, by Democratic consultant Doug Sosnik, is a counterpoint to the Virginia GOP self-description of Younkin’s victory there, as posted by Rick Pildes.

While ranked-choice voting enabled Virginia Republicans to choose a gubernatorial nominee who was broadly acceptable in that still-purplish state, traditional party primaries may cause the GOP to pick nominees for Senate seats who identify themselves as the most Trump-aligned of candidates. (But, as the Washington Post elsewhere reports about Alabama’s upcoming Senate race, this will not occur without an all-out fight.)

Sosnick’s point is that which kind of GOP candidate wins the party’s nomination may have huge consequences for governance. An extreme GOP nominee might lose the general election in a more blue-leaning state, like Pennsylvania. But in places like Missouri and Ohio, a super-Trumpy nominee could win the general election. Whether or not the GOP wins control of the Senate after the 2022 midterms, the type of GOP Senators elected (Trumpy versus traditional) may make a big difference in the capacity of the Senate, and therefore of Congress, to function.

Sosnick singles out the retirement of five traditional GOP Senators (Blunt of Missouri, Burr of North Carolinia, Portman of Ohio, Shelby of Atlanta, and Toomey of Pennsylvania) as particular cause for concern. I, too, have been especially concerned about this, and start my law review article on the need for Requiring Majority Winners in Senate elections with this point.

While a majority-winner rule is not a cure-all, and while the specific electoral method of round-robin-voting likely would do more to protect traditionalist Republicans from decimation as a consequence of Trump’s use of the current party primary system (combined with plurality-winner general elections) to purge the party from anyone insufficiently loyal to Trump, a federal majority-winner requirement at least would require most states to consider potential reforms that would give less extreme candidates more of a chance.

Why should Democrats care which type of Republican are their general-election opponents? And why would Democrats want to help traditionalist Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, escape extinction at the hands of Trump and his MAGA movement?

The reason is that Democrats care about saving small-d democracy, or at least they claim to. If one of the two major parties becomes thoroughly anti-democratic (small-d), then the system is unsustainable. The Democratic Party can’t save democracy by claiming only it is capable of winning elections and running the government.

The lesson of 2021 is that Democrats have to figure out a way to save democracy that accepts the possibility of Republicans winning the 2022 midterms and potentially the 2024 races. Have Democrats come to terms with that?

The evidence suggests not, because if they had they’d be searching for reforms (like the majority-winner rule) that would increase the likelihood that the Republicans who win elections would be of the traditional type willing to abide by small-d democracy, rather than Trumpist insurgents who have no compunction against subverting democracy.

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The Problem with Plurality-Winner Elections

Election Law at Ohio State is pleased to present a one-hour webinar on the issue of electoral system design: The Problem with Plurality-Winner Elections – And Can Requiring Majority Winners Help Save Democracy? It’s scheduled for Friday, November 19, at noon ET.

Steve Huefner will moderate the discussion. I’ll present some research we’ve been doing here at Ohio State on this topic. Franita Tolson and Derek Muller, both familiar to readers of this blog, with comment as panelists. We are are delighted that Rachel Kleinfeld, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, who has been studying the relationship of electoral systems to political conflict, will also participate as a panelist.

The webinar will examine the role that the plurality-winner rule for congressional elections has in causing incumbents, like Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (both of Ohio), to decide against running for reelection–regardless of being popular with their constituents–just because they have become out-of-step with their own party. The webinar will also explore whether alternative majority-winner electoral systems, like various versions of Ranked Choice Voting, might improve representation and reduce the risk of democratic decline in the U.S.

To register for the webinar (and more info), please click here.

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“The $100 Million Plan to Completely Fix Washington”

Teddy Schleifer for PUCK:

One afternoon earlier this month, a source sent me a note on Signal asking an unexpected question. They wanted my take on an invitation they had received to meet with a political group that had a name so inscrutable that it sounded like a new moonshot from Google X: The Institute for Political Innovation. Had I heard of it? I cover the world of Silicon Valley fundraising pretty closely, but no, I apparently was not read in on the Peninsula’s latest, greatest innovation. I’d figure it out and get back to him. After all, with a name like that, how lame could this be?

But the group, whose strategy hasn’t been reported, is one of the most ambitious, if quixotic, political attempts to come through Silicon Valley—a Grand Unified Theory to fix everything that is wrong with American politics. With heavyweight co-chairs including Reid Hoffman and the Sobrato familythe billionaire real estate dynasty, the Institute has all the right connections as it sets out to raise $100 million over the next year to run ballot initiatives and legislative campaigns in up to a dozen states across the country. Next week, the group will be introduced at a private event to some of Silicon Valley’s biggest donors, who, in the throes of Donald Trump’s takeover of the G.O.P., are grappling with whether they want to invest even more in tackling the fundamental problems in American democracy—or cut and run altogether….

The animating idea of I.P.I. is that the American election system is broken. States and congressional districts over-produce extreme general-election candidates, I.P.I contends, because of flaws within the party primary system, which encourages hopefuls to appeal to their party’s fringes to capture nominations. Instead, these reformers want states to ditch party primaries and allow the five most popular candidates in an open contest to appear on a general-election ballot, and then to use ranked-choice voting to determine which of them has the broadest support… 

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Three fixes Congress should make to save democracy

Here’s a new Washington Post column summarizing my takeaways from the conference that Rick organized and led last week. These are the three italicized headings for the congressional reforms that would help reduce the danger of election subversion specifically in the context of the 2024 presidential election:

Modernizing the antiquated and ambiguous Electoral Count Act of 1887.

Focus on enacting those parts of the Freedom to Vote bill that directly safeguard the honest counting of votes and certification of results.

Changing election rules to require that members of Congress win a majority in the general election, not just a mere plurality.

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Democracy Protection Requires More than Voting Rights

Senator Tim Kaine has a new Washington Post op-ed entitled The Jan. 6 attack demands that we protect voting rightsin which he says: “Only by passing comprehensive voting rights legislation can we live up to th[e] responsibility” to protect democracy from another attempt to subvert it like the one that occurred on January 6. 

The problem with Kaine’s argument is that while the right to cast a ballot, and to have it counted as cast, is necessary if democracy is to survive in the United States, safeguarding these voting rights does not suffice.  Perfect protection of these essential voting rights does not address what I’ve called the “Portman problem” and now “the Gonzalez problem”: the structural flaw of partisan primaries combined with plurality-winner general elections.

This structural flaw enables an authoritarian-leaning faction within one of the two major parties to win for its candidate the party’s nomination in its primary, beating a non-authoritarian primary opponent who would have been the “Condorcet winner” in the general election.  The authoritarian-leaning major-party nominee then goes on to prevail in the plurality-winner general election, because the “Condorcet winner” was knocked out in the primary and has no way of prevailing in the general election as most majority-preferred candidate (which the Condorcet winner is) given that the general election awards the office to a plurality winner and does not require a show of majority support.  In this way, the plurality-winner rule for general elections, combined with the antecedent partisan primaries, enables an authoritarian faction that only has minority support within the electorate overall (and whose candidate is not the Condorcet winner) to capture government power.

If America is going to protect itself from the risk of another January 6, it is going to need to fix this structural flaw. As is altogether too obvious, and is exemplified by Anthony Gonzales withdrawing from his reelection bid to avoid a Trump-inspired primary fight, Trump is endeavoring to exploit this structural flaw to recapture political power even though he represents only a minority faction and lacks majority support in the November electorate (statewide or district-specific, as in the Portman or Gonzalez examples). If he is able to use this structural flaw to take control of Secretary of State offices, governorships, and U.S. Senate and House seats, then his authoritarian-leaning minority faction is positioned to repudiate the result of the 2024 presidential election based on a “Big Lie 2.0” and the systematic plague of electoral McCarthyism he has been spreading.

 I have no doubt Senator Kaine is well-intentioned. But he is misdiagnosing the threat and the remedy necessary to address it.  Making sure every voter can cast a ballot in the midterms, and counting those ballots correctly, does not solve the Portman-Gonzalez problem.  (Even ending gerrymandering does not suffice, since the “Portman problem” applies to statewide as well as district-specific elections.) To adequately address the current danger of incipient authoritarianism to America democracy, it is necessary to eliminate plurality-winner general elections, which Congress is constitutionally empowered to do for U.S. Senate and House seats.  Regrettably, however, Senator Kaine’s Freedom to Vote bill makes no effort to do that. 

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The “Portman problem” is now also the “Gonzalez problem”

Earlier today, I did a post explaining why, if the goal is to reduce the risk of Republicans repudiating the result of a valid victory in the 2024 presidential election by the Democratic candidate, the highest electoral reform priority for Congress right now should be to enact the “majority winner rule” I’ve advocated previously–and elaborated upon in a forthcoming law review article. What I describe as “the Portman problem” (referring to Senator Rob Portman’s decision to abandon his Senate seat rather than facing a Trump-dominated GOP primary, even though he most likely would win the November election if it were a one-one-one race against either the Trump-backed candidate or the Democratic nominee) can be remedied, not by the various make-it-easier-to-cast-a-ballot provisions of the newly unveiled Freedom to Vote bill, but instead by structural reform that would replace plurality-winner general elections with the requirement that a general election winner must receive over 50%. This kind of majority-winner rule would enable a GOP moderate, like Portman, to compete in the general election even if unable to prevail in a Trump-dominated GOP primary.

Now, as if on cue, we get the news that Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, like Portman, won’t run for reelection next year. It’s the same problem: Gonzales likely could beat either the Trump-backed candidate or the Democratic nominee one-on-one (as thus is technically “the Condorcet candidate” for reasons that I explained in my earlier post today), but is structurally boxed out under the current system of a partisan primary followed by a plurality-winner general election. According to an interview Gonzales gave to The NY Times, Gonzalez laments the fact that “the congressional wing of the [Republican] party will become only more thoroughly Trumpified” as a result of his bowing out of the race. To Gonzalez, “Trump represents nothing less than a threat to American democracy,” calling him a “cancer for the country.” Even so, the structural combination of the partisan primary and the plurality-winner general election prevents Gonzales from trying to stay in Congress to avoid “a Trump-dominated House Republican caucus.”

This news of Gonzalez’s decision, coming in the same week that Senate Democrats release their Freedom to Vote bill, ought to be an alarming signal that they haven’t focused on the electoral reform most needed to protect American democracy from Trump-instigated election subversion. If the Senate next week is going to debate what congressional legislation is absolutely essential to safeguarding democracy, it should make sure to consider the kind of structural reform that would let the likes of Portman and Gonzalez–as well as Liz Cheney and so many other threatened non-Trump Republicans–prove themselves to be the most majority-preferred candidate in the general election even if they can’t win a Trump-dominated GOP primary.

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