FairVote e-News

FairVote’s 2009: A Midterm Report
June 17, 2009


As we approach the year’s longest day on June 21st, I thought it timely to share a “mid-term” report on FairVote and our work in 2009. As a catalyst for electoral reform and voting rights, FairVote educates and enlivens discourse on how best to achieve a democracy that respects every voice and every vote. We pursue innovative research, strategic outreach and civic education in order to promote fair access to political participation, fair elections with transparent election administration and meaningful choices, and fair representation grounded in majority rule and proportional representation for all. We have played a pivotal role in moving into the mainstream such “unrealistic” reform proposals as instant runoff voting, the National Popular Vote plan for president, proportional voting, universal voter registration and a constitutional right to vote.

Our staff and volunteers have been busy working for change this year. New legislation triggered by our outreach and analysis has been introduced at all levels of government and passed several state legislative chambers. We’ve testified to Congress, been published and quoted in publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post and appeared prominently on outlets like C-SPAN and National Public Radio. New charter commissions are preparing to recommend instant runoff voting and several cities, parties and groups have used IRV this year for the first time thanks to our efforts. New writings and research have strengthened the case for transforming elections. I’m also pleased with important internal changes that are strengthening FairVote, highlighted by a redesigned website to be unveiled this August.

Following are some of the highlights of our work in 2009. We also suggest reading our archive of FairVote Reformer e-newsletters and editions of Innovative Analysis.

All the best,

Rob Richie
Executive Director

Instant Runoff Voting: New Uses, New Interest

In March, voters in Burlington (VT) elected their mayor using IRV for the second time. The race was unique in that it featured four candidates with a legitimate shot at winning, and no candidate won even a third of the first round vote. In most American elections, there would have been fear of "spoiler" candidates and quite possibly an undemocratic result, but not with IRV. The candidate initially in second place after the first count proved to have majority support over the first round leader, and IRV was credited with making the race more civil and substantive. City councilor Bill Keogh said the race was "the most respectful and informative campaign in Burlington in a long time,” while former Vermont governor Howard Dean touted IRV after the election on a local radio program. Showing an ongoing trend in IRV races highlighted in Rob Richie’s recent commentary in Yes Magazine, the winning candidate succeeded despite being heavily outspent.

IRV also allowed voters in Aspen (CO) to choose freely among four mayoral candidates, electing a majority winner on the second round of counting. Three days later, the Democratic Party of Charlottesville, Virginia for the first time used IRV in a “firehouse primary,” with turnout quadrupled from the previous nominating convention. It was a change election that swept out a long-term city council incumbent and nominated a young police officer in an upset in the sheriff’s race. IRV also will be used this November in communities like Hendersonville (NC), Pierce County (WA), San Francisco (CA) and Minneapolis (MN) – the latter in large part due to the perseverance and terrific work by FairVote Minnesota, which has garnered remarkable state media for IRV and intervened in a legal challenge against IRV that was dismissed unanimously by the Minnesota state Supreme Court. IRV also is making progress for potential future use in such cities as Los Angeles County (CA), Duluth (MN), St. Paul (MN), San Jose (CA) and Hoboken (NJ).

FairVote’s Rob Richie teamed up with South Carolina State Rep. Bill Herbkersman for an op-ed published in The State in Columbia (SC) on how IRV can solve the problem of turnout drop-offs in primary runoffs, relying on information from our new study of 116 federal primary runoffs from 1994 to 2008. In California, the Assembly unanimously voted in favor of sending ranked choice ballots with regular absentee ballots for overseas voters, in the case of runoff elections back home – following a best practice modeled by Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina. The League of Women Voters of Oregon and the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County (one of the nation's largest local leagues) this spring adopted favorable positions on instant runoff voting. See a full list of League positions here.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is being used widely among organizations and campuses across the country. This spring we updated our list of groups using IRV, including several major organizations like the American Association of University Women, American Chemical Society, American Medial Student Association, American Mensa, American Political Science Association and American Psychiatric Association. At least 51 colleges and universities use IRV for student elections, including new adoptions this year at Columbia and Georgetown universities. Internationally, instant runoff voting is garnering growing support from government leaders in the United Kingdom, potentially for use in next year’s general elections to the House of Commons.

Right to Vote: Youth Voting Legislation & Congressional Testimony

2009 is proving to be a watershed year for expanding youth access to voting and registration. In May, FairVote’s proposal of advance registration for 16 and 17-year-olds overwhelmingly passed both the North Carolina and Michigan houses and also was passed this spring by the California Assembly and the Rhode Island House and Senate. At least 15 states are considering various forms of legislation to expand democratic opportunity for young voters this year alone. Read more about youth voting legislation in our May 26th Innovative Analysis. One highlighted statistic: between 2006 and 2009, there have been 979 floor votes cast in state legislatures in favor of establishing 16 as a uniform voter registration age, with only 158 cast in opposition.

FairVote for years has touted universal voter registration, believing that an essential ingredient for a healthy representative democracy is having every eligible voter registered to vote and only registered once. “Voter registration modernization,” as it is now typically called, has grown in support remarkably quickly, led by reform allies such as the Brennan Center. Our contributions to the debate this year included a 20-page report [PDF] on voter registration around the world and Adam Fogel’s Washington Post April 2009 op-ed.

A basic part of the right to vote is having the right to elect one’s representatives. In 2007 FairVote was the lead group to raise the point that it’s inherently undemocratic to have had nearly a quarter of U.S. Senators in the past century first appointed by governors rather than elected by voters. Last winter’s scandal in Illinois has helped trigger legislation at both a state and federal level. Rhode Island legislation that we helped craft in 2008 has overwhelmingly passed both houses in that state, while our analyst David Segal had opeds in the New York Times and Baltimore Sun and in March testified before Congress.

Looking forward, on June 30th FairVote and the New America Foundation’s Political Reform Program will hold a major conference on the future of voting rights. On July 17, FairVote’s Adam Fogel will speak in Minneapolis about advance voter registration at the National Civic Summit. Our outreach with FairVote’s Learning Democracy curriculum has made great headway in Rhode Island, and has attracted new partners like the Marshall Brennan Program.

National Popular Vote: 11 State Chamber Wins, High-Profile Media

In April Washington governor Christine Gregoire signed the National Popular Vote (NPV) legislation that seeks to defang the Electoral College system and ensure every vote is equal in presidential elections. Washington, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey together have nearly a quarter of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring the compact into effect for the 2012 presidential election. Just three years after FairVote's leaders joined National Popular Vote for its kickoff news conference, 28 state legislative chambers in 18 states have passed NPV, including Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont this year alone – the latter two states saw FairVote-backed reformers taking the lead role in pushing for reform. Introduced in 49 legislatures, the bill has earned the support of more than 1,700 state representatives. Recent polls indicate more than 70% of voters across a full range of states support a national popular vote of the president.

FairVote has been a key leader in supporting NPV and making the case against the current system. This summer we will release a new and expanded edition of Presidential Election Inequality with eye-opening information about problems with the current system. We also have produced a comprehensive new FAQ for those wanting to learn more about why their state should join this effort. FairVote is stirring more debate in the media as well. The San Diego Union-Tribune ran a series of opinion pieces on the way we elect the president, featuring commentary by FairVote’s Rob Richie on the National Popular Vote plan and the problems of the current system, while The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel joined the call for the NPV plan in an editorial highlighting FairVote’s research. Last winter Richie was featured in NPR’s All  Things Considered and on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal.

Proportional Voting in the U.S. and Abroad

Proportional voting systems have found their way into national discussions surrounding ways to improve the makeup of the U.S. House and the Voting Rights Act. The New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen spotlighted cumulative voting as a potentially helpful voting system for racial minorities, while prominent blogger Matthew Yglesias cited multiple-member districts elected via choice voting (also called the single transferable vote) as a means to reduce polarization in Congress. A Los Angeles Times editorial noted that a “cutting edge” proposal for proportional representation is in the growing call for a state constitutional convention in California. Fair Vote Lowell has done a great job launching an effort to win the choice voting form of proportional voting in that Massachusetts city, and federal judges are considering imposing forms of proportional voting in at least two jurisdictions in voting rights cases brought by the Department of Justice.

Internationally, proportional voting failed to reach the 60% winning threshold in British Columbia, but is gaining strong support in the British parliament in tandem with instant runoff voting, and forms of proportional voting were used by every European nation in June 2009 elections to the European Parliament. FairVote’s interns have been particularly busy, astutely blogging on proportional voting around the world.