Thanksgiving 2000 Update
November 22, 2000
To: Friends of Fair Elections
As many of you head off for holidays with family, I wanted to alert you to the remarkable moment we have for proposing significant reforms to our electoral system. The drama in Florida has immediate consequences for control of the White House, but it also is triggering a spirited conversation about modernizing our frequently antiquated electoral rules and practices -- from outdated voting equipment to the Electoral College, plurality voting and winner-take-all elections themselves. In the past two weeks, our Center's staff has been on a rollercoaster ride of television (CNN, Fox, Cox Broadcasting, C-SPAN, Maryland Public TV), radio (NPR, Voice of America, BBC, Canadian Public Broadcasting, many talk programs) and newspaper interviews and outreach to a growing chorus of reformers and concerned citizens who support reform. Just tonight, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier will appear on PBS' Evening News Hour with Jim Lehrer to discuss proportional representation and fairer electoral rules.
I will send additional information next week, including fascinating election 2000 factoids and more information about reform energy and opportunities. As examples of surprising election 2000 statistics, note that
Al Gore ultimately will have received more popular votes than any presidential candidate in history except Ronald Reagan in 1984, but George Bush will have won more popular votes than Gore in four times as many counties across the nation.
The National Journal, in a special issue on the Electoral College that includes a photo of CVD's web site, reports that states without a single campaign visit from the presidential candidates between April 1 and the election included Idaho, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Carolina, Hawaii, Delaware and Vermont. In addition, four of the nation's top eight media markets -- Boston, Dallas, New York City, and Washington, DC -- had a grand total of six presidential ads aired, while eight media markets in battleground states each aired more than 6,500 presidential ads.
In the mostly overlooked U.S. House races, there was remarkable stasis once again, with a near 99% incumbency re- election rate and a great chance for us to pat ourselves on the back: of 237 House races that we predicted would be won by "landslides" of more than 20% in a publication distributed at our November 1998 conference in Minneapolis, fully 236 were indeed won by landslide -- with the remaining seat "only" being won by 18%.)
I hope that you also can take time to peruse the following information, both here and on the links provided....
The Presidential Election is Over! That is, the Center has made projections in most states in the 2004 elections in the event of a nationally competitive election and continued use of the Electoral College. To see whether your state is among the lucky few that could swing the presidential election that year and to see just how much partisan advantages are hardening in most states around the nation, please visit
Your Citizens' Guide to Voting Equipment: The drama in Florida: As evidenced by the controversy in Florida, the United States -- unlike nearly every other established democracy -- does not administer national elections on a national level. County election administrators often struggle for resources, meaning that much of the country uses aging equipment that causes serious problems in how we count votes. One welcome outcome of the Florida recount likely will be attempts to modernize equipment at all levels of government. The Center for Voting and Democracy strongly support such efforts, not only for better assurance that every vote will count, but because modern equipment allows implementation of ranked order ballot systems such as instant runoff voting (IRV) and choice voting. To find out more about what you should support in your state and city, please see:
IRV is the Law in Oakland, California: Voters passed charter amendments on instant runoff voting on November 8th in Oakland and San Leandro, California. The San Leandro measure creates an IRV option, while the Oakland measure enacts IRV for any special election to fill a city council vacancy. See also why the St. Petersburg Times, one of our most respected newspapers, believes IRV is better than runoffs.
Growing Call for IRV for President from the Wall Street Journal to the Village Voice: There is increasing talk of eliminating the "spoiler" charge and minority rule once and for all by adopting instant runoff voting for electing the president. Most advocate IRV in a direct election, but as argued by some proponents of maintaining the Electoral College, it also could be used on a state-by-state basis with mere statutory changes in states. U.S. PIRG has endorsed direct election with IRV, Common Cause expressed strong interest in the idea in a post- election release and many columns have run addressing the ideas. Among several recent excellent commentaries and news stories on IRV are ones by David Kairys in the Washington Post, by Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker magazine and by CVD's John Anderson, Rob Richie and Steve Hill in several publications. The Trenton Times reiterated its support in an editorial, the Wall Street Journal and Village Voice wrote indepth news article and much more. See:
New Legislation to Study Pro-Democracy Reforms, Including Proportional Representation and Instant Runoff Voting: Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Jim Leach (R-IA) have introduced HR 5631 to study proportional representation, instant runoff voting and other pro-democracy reforms in the wake of the Florida controversy. Urge your representative to support this legislation and find out more at: http://www.fairvote.org/library/statutes/ferc.htm
Columnists Learn Lessons from Florida: William Raspberry wrote powerfully about the need to question the winner-take-all principle, citing the work of CVD. A Seattle Times political writer also touts proportional representation, CVD board member George Pillsbury calls for reform in a Boston Globe commentary and four columnists in the Nation tout instant runoff voting and reform of winner-take-all elections. See Lani Guinier's piece below and http://www.fairvote.org/op_eds/florida.htm http://www.thenation.com [pieces in 12/4/00 issue by Christopher Hitchens, William Greider and Theodore Lowi]
Attention to No-Choice House Races: Strong articles and commentaries discuss the roots of the problem of little electoral competition in U.S. House races in USA Today, Reuters and Slate, with CVD featured
New CVD Staff Ready to Serve You : We have three very welcome additions to the CVD team. Terry Bouricius, who is stepping down as a state legislator in Vermont, has come on board as our New England Regional Director, with a particular focus on Vermont. Dan Johnson-Weinberger is our National Field Director. Dan is responsible for working with newly-inspired reformers in particular and for building on all the good work he and others have done in Illinois have done in the "drive to revive" cumulative voting -- to hear about what you can do in your area, write Dan at: mailto:[email protected].
Earlier this month, Ana Aguilar started with us as Special Projects Manager here in the Takoma Park office.
Majority Rule Project director Caleb Kleppner, west coast director Steven Hill and deputy director Eric Olson have done a great job in these busy times as well -- hats off to all, and we're looking forward to a remarkable year in 2001.
Three recent commentaries
Finally, below you will find recent commentaries from David Kairys (Washington Post), John Anderson and Steven Hill (versions of which have appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, Denver Post, Hartford Courant, New York Daily News and more) and Lani Guinier (excerpt from Nation).
"What's the Fix? Take Your
The truth is that our electoral system has been surpassed by better systems now in place in almost every other democracy around the world.
Citizens of those democracies either vote directly for a president or, in parliamentary systems, elect legislators who select a prime minister based proportionately on electoral support. Either way, each person's vote carries the same weight and effect, and a head of state emerges with the support of a majority.
To see how badly our winner-take-all plurality system works in contrast, consider the 1992 election. In Colorado, where the vote was 40 percent for Bill Clinton, 36 percent for George Bush, and 23 percent for Ross Perot, Clinton got all of the electoral votes. Thus the votes of nearly 60 percent of Coloradans were negated.
Nationwide, Clinton won the presidency with just 43 percent of the popular vote; Bush got 37 percent and Perot 19. In most democracies, Perot would have joined either Bush or Clinton in a coalition, which would have majority support.
Similarly, this year, most democracies would interpret the election as a "center-left" win. Al Gore and Ralph Nader, together, got 52 percent of the popular vote and could form a majority coalition. This reflects a small but real shift to the left in popular political attitudes. We are so used to plurality winners and two-party dominance that we hardly pay attention to where the majority wound up.
We have a historic opportunity for democratic reform. The simplest way would be direct election with instant runoff voting, which gives weight to voters' second choices. More ambitiously, electors could be selected proportionately from each state; then they and their parties could form a majority coalition to elect a president.
Countries that use such systems make every vote count and have leaders who govern with majority support. Their people also tend to vote.
(David Kairys is a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and a member of the Center for Voting and Democracy's advisory committee)
Give Voters A Bigger
The presidential election roller coaster has taken one of its oddest turns. Imagine if, after the World Series, it was announced that the winner didn't really win, that instead the championship would be given to, well... the loser.
We have a long tradition: The person or team with the most points, runs or votes wins -- except when it comes to electing our President.
How do we explain that to young people, already so disengaged from politics?
It's like two elections taking place, side by side, one open, the other hidden. Suddenly the nation is realizing that the one that counts is the hidden one. Nothing less than the legitimacy of the presidency hangs in the balance.
The blame rests with that 18th century anachronism, the Electoral College. Created in less democratic times by our Founders, the Electoral College is a clumsy device that has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our Constitution.
Currently, each of the 50 states' presidential races are run as individual contests, with votes weighted to each state's population. The presidential winner does not need a majority of the national popular vote -- just more than other candidates, in any combination of states, to win a majority of electoral votes. A popular majority can be fractured easily by a third-party candidate, as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have demonstrated.
The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious this year. States like New York that are locked up early are effectively ignored by candidates. Voter turnout rose sharply by 10% to 15% in battleground states, but was down elsewhere. Nearly all campaign energy -- even candidate messages on how they plan to govern -- are pitched to swing voters in a few key states.
It's time to scrap the Electoral College and institute direct national elections. But there are important issues to resolve.
What if the top vote-getter received only 35% in a multi-candidate race? Such scenarios prompt some reformers to favor a second, runoff election between the top two finishers if no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote. But 40% is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the President should command majority support.
Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would need cash to run a second campaign, and additional costs to local election officials would top $100 million. Voters would have to trudge to the polls again.
Instant runoff voting is an efficient, inexpensive alternative. In one election, voters would rank on one ballot their top choice as well as second and third runoff choices. If no candidate won a majority of first choices, weak candidates would be eliminated and the ballots counted for the runoff choices. Counting would continue until there is a majority winner.
The challenge now is to bring the nation together. What better message than providing for direct popular election of the President -- preferably using instant runoff voting -- to ensure that our leader commands support from a majority of voters? Let's join together and abolish this 18th-century dinosaur.
(John Anderson, a former congressman and independent presidential candidate, is president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, of which Hill is western regional director.)
Making Every Vote
For years many of us have called for a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy. We have enumerated the glaring flaws inherent in our winner-take-all form of voting, which has produced a steady decline in voter participation, underrepresentation of racial minorities in office, lack of meaningful competition and choice in most elections, and the general failure of politics to mobilize, inform and inspire half the eligible electorate. But nothing changed. Democracy was an asterisk in political debate, typically encompassed in a vague reference to "campaign finance reform." Enter Florida. The fiasco there provides a rare opportunity to rethink and improve our voting practices in a way that reflects our professed desire to have "every vote count."... We must not let this once-in-a-generation moment pass without addressing the basic questions these impassioned citizens are raising: Who votes, how do they vote, whom do they vote for, how are their votes counted and what happens after the voting? These questions go to the very legitimacy of our democratic procedures, not just in Florida but nationwide--and the answers could lead to profound but eminently achievable reforms.
* Who votes--and doesn't? As with the rest of the nation, in Florida only about half of all adults vote, about the same as the national average. Even more disturbing, nonvoters are increasingly low-income, young and less educated.....
* How do they vote? Florida now abounds with stories of long poll lines, confusing ballots and strict limitations on how long voters could spend in the voting booth. The shocking number of invalid ballots--more ballots were "spoiled" in the presidential race than were cast for "spoiler" Ralph Nader -- are a direct result of antiquated voting mechanics that would shame any nation....
* Whom do they vote for? Obviously, Florida voters chose among Al Gore, George Bush and a handful of minor-party candidates who, given their status as unlikely to win, were generally ignored and at best chastised as spoilers. But as many voters are now realizing, in the presidential race they were voting not for the candidates whose name they selected (or attempted to select) but for "electors" to that opaque institution, the Electoral College....
* How are their votes counted? The presidency rests on a handful of votes in Florida because allocation of electoral votes is winner-take-all -- if Gore wins by ten votes out of 6 million, he will win 100 percent of the state's twenty-five electoral votes. The ballots cast for a losing candidate are always "invalid" for the purposes of representation; only those cast for the winner actually "count." Thus winner-take-all elections underrepresent the voice of the minority and exaggerate the power of one state's razor-thin majority. Winner-take-all is the great barrier to representation of political and racial minorities at both the federal and the state level. No blacks or Latinos serve in the US Senate or in any governor's mansion. Third-party candidates did not win a single state legislature race except for a handful in Vermont.
Given the national questioning of the Electoral College sparked by the anomalous gap between the popular vote and the college's vote in the presidential election, those committed to real representative democracy now have a chance to shine a spotlight on the glaring flaws and disfranchisement inherent in winner-take-all practices and to propose important reforms.
What we need are election rules that encourage voter turnout rather than suppress it. A system of proportional representation -- which would allocate seats to parties based on their proportion of the total vote -- would more fairly reflect intense feeling within the electorate, mobilize more people to participate and even encourage those who do participate to do so beyond just the single act of voting on Election Day. Most democracies around the world have some form of proportional voting and manage to engage a much greater percentage of their citizens in elections. Proportional representation in South Africa, for example, allows the white Afrikaner parties and the ANC to gain seats in the national legislature commensurate with the total number of votes cast for each party. Under this system, third parties are a plausible alternative. Moreover, to allow third parties to run presidential candidates without being "spoilers," some advocate instant-runoff elections in which voters would rank their choices for President. That way, even voters whose top choice loses the election could influence the race among the other candidates.
Winner-take-all elections, by contrast, encourage the two major parties to concentrate primarily on the "undecideds" and to take tens of millions of dollars of corporate and special-interest contributions to broadcast ads on the public airwaves appealing to the center of the political spectrum. Winner-take-all incentives discourage either of the two major parties from trying to learn, through organizing and door-knocking, how to mobilize the vast numbers of disengaged poor and working- class voters. Rather than develop a vision, they produce a product and fail to build political capacity from the ground up....
Before the lessons of Florida are forgotten, let us use this window of opportunity to forge a strong pro-democracy coalition to rally around "one vote, one value." The value of a vote depends on its being fairly counted but also on its counting toward the election of the person the voter chose as her representative. This can happen only if we recognize the excesses of winner-take-all voting and stop exaggerating the power of the winner by denying the loser any voice at all.
(Lani Guinier is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. Her latest book is The Miner's Canary: Rethinking Race and Power (Harvard, 2001). Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) provided invaluable assistance in the preparation of this essay.)