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 Voting and Democracy Review October 1999

In this issue:
Instant Runoff: Past, Future... and Now!
Congress Debates PR!
  Notable Quotes
Voting System Reform Update
Notes from the Director

Instant Runoff: Past, Future... and Now!

Expect Big Breakthroughs on Reform to Energize Campaigns

The Center for Voting and Democracy advocates representation of the full spectrum of political opinion in the United States through adoption of forms of proportional representation (PR) for legislative elections.

But "PR" is not our only interest, particularly given that such important offices as governor and president are inherently "winner-take-all" -- one can't have PR when only one candidate wins. Two of PR's chief virtues, majority rule and expanded participation, are well addressed by instant runoff voting (IRV), a majority vote system that dramatically improves winner-take-all elections.

Advances for PR and fairer methods of redistricting in the U.S. have been steady and important, as detailed in this newsletter. But IRV is bursting onto our political landscape, with exponentially growing interest and action.

In 1997, Texas became the first state in decades to consider IRV. Now three states are positioned to adopt IRV for their most powerful offices, and several cities and counties are conducting or planning IRV campaigns. The Reform Party has adopted IRV for its national presidential primary in 2000.

Caleb Kleppner directs the Center's Majority Rule project. Working with other staff members and Vermont consultant Terrill Bouricius, Kleppner is addressing the full range of political, technical, historical and administrative issues involving IRV. The Center's web site ( has more details.

The IRV System: Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a majority voting system, as opposed to the plurality system used in most American elections. In plurality voting, voters can indicate only one preference, and the candidate with the most votes wins -- even with less than a majority of votes cast.

In contrast, IRV increases voters' options by allowing them to rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 and so on. If a candidate has a majority of first choices, that candidate wins. If not, ballots for the last-place candidate are added to the vote totals of the candidate listed next on each ballot. The process continues until a candidate wins with a majority of votes. IRV simulates a series of traditional runoff elections.


Used to elect Australia's parliament, Ireland's president and, starting in 2000, London's mayor, IRV is a winner-take-all system that alone is unlikely to end two-party domination of representation. But it expands the spectrum of choice in campaigns and has clear benefits for our politics. Among them are:

  • IRV preserves majority rule even if minor party and independent "spoiler" candidates run and split the vote.
  • IRV boosts participation by allowing more diverse candidates to run, deepen campaign debate and mobilize currently disaffected voters.
  • In comparison to two-round runoffs, IRV shortens the campaign season, saves tax dollars and maximizes turnout.

IRV's Past: IRV was devised by W.R. Ware, an MIT professor, in 1870. Its first known use in a governmental election was in 1893 in Australia, which in 1918 adopted IRV for national elections. Great Britain has twice nearly adopted IRV, and it remains popular there. Just last year, a high-profile commission led by Lord Roy Jenkins recommended a version of IRV, combined with an element of proportional representation, be put to a national referendum.

The most recent use of IRV for a governmental election in the United States was in Ann Arbor (MI). Adopted by voters in 1974, IRV was used to elect the mayor in 1975. It produced a majority winner in a three-way race where no candidate won a majority of first choices. But the candidate who would have won under plurality rules spearheaded a repeal campaign. IRV withstood a court challenge, but lost in a low-turnout special election that focused on problems with counting ballots by hand -- problems that are easy to address with modern technology.

IRV's Present: Voters in Vancouver (WA) will vote this November to amend their charter to make IRV an option, as voters did in Santa Clara County (CA) in 1998. In 2000, measures to adopt IRV for all statewide and federal elections may be on the ballot in at least three states. Prominent Republicans in Alaska are backing an initiative; signatures will be turned in by January. With the backing of former Democratic and Republican governors, the New Mexico state senate approved IRV legislation in 1999; supporters will try again in 2000. Legislation to enact IRV in Vermont has support from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and top legislators, parked by concern about the vote-splitting impact of more candidates seeking office under the new public financing law.

The North Carolina state legislature this year created an election laws commission that will consider IRV. Other states likely to debate IRV legislation in 2000 include California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Among several cities looking seriously at IRV, San Francisco is the most likely to vote on it in 2000 -- perhaps by as soon as March, with implementation in November 2000 city races.

These efforts are all the more promising due to recent advances in the technology of ballot-counting. Given that IRV has no ideological bias and so clearly is superior to plurality voting -- if only as an efficient means to produce majority winners -- the capacities of voting systems may be the biggest barrier to its swift enactment. Fortunately, new machines are being adopted in more states and localities that are compatible with IRV (see for more details).

IRV's Future: Growing use of IRV will create a new opportunity for Americans to debate the electoral college. The United States presidency is the most powerful office in the nation -- yet also the only office of any significance in which a candidate can be elected with fewer votes than an opponent. The electoral college remains an accident waiting to happen.

Nearly all proposed constitutional amendments for direct election of the president provide for two-round runoffs. Yet such runoffs would be a logistical and expensive nightmare in a nation as large as the United States. IRV is a simpler solution, as may become clear once more states exercise their right to enact IRV to allocate their state's electoral college votes.

In the short term, prospects for increased adoption of IRV are so strong because it solves problems that officials often face. In partisan races, IRV's solution to the "spoiler" problem has spurred political leaders in Alaska and New Mexico to action. In non-partisan races, IRV saves the cost of runoff elections and ensures a majority winner in one decisive election; cost-saving is prompting campaigns for IRV in several cities.

IRV is a powerful reform in itself, but also may pave the way for future efforts for proportional representation. IRV introduces voters to ranked ballots (as used in the choice voting method of PR) and likely will introduce them to thoughtful minor party and independent candidates who people may come to believe deserve a voice in government. Stay tuned for IRV victories -- coming soon to an election near you!

(Please contact the Center for educational materials on IRV, including a persuasive video narrated by actress Kelly Lynch.)

Congress Debates PR!

On September 23, 1999 the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution held a dignified hearing on the States' Choice of Voting Systems Act (HR 1173), a bill which would allow states to elect their House members by proportional representation (PR).

PR was discussed more than had occurred in Congress for years -- it isn't every day that House members solemnly ask witnesses to explain their five favorite voting methods.

The most powerful testimony (see below) was provided by Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA), Theodore Arrington (UNC-Charlotte), Nathaniel Persily (Brennan Center for Justice) and Anita Hodgkiss (on behalf of the Department of Justice, which provided critically important support for the legislation).

Rep. Campbell's endorsement was instructive. Growing up in Illinois, Campbell experienced cumulative voting directly -- an experience with a proportional system that is exactly what we expect many Americans to share in the new century.

Notable Quotes
From Hearing on HR 1173, 9/23/99

"The Dept. of Justice supports this legislation as a valuable way to give state legislatures additional flexibility in the redistricting process...
"The bill appears to contemplate the use of alternative voting systems for multi-member districts. These systems would replace the traditional "winner-take-all" method of vote counting with other means, such as cumulative voting, limited voting, and [choice voting]. These methods are designed to allow fuller expression of the votes of cohesive numerical minorities of every kind, whether racial or otherwise."
Anita Hodgkiss (Deputy Attorney General, Civil Rights
Division of the Department of Justice)

"I am honored that you have invited me to testify before this Committee concerning what might be the most important piece of election-related legislation considered by this body in 25 years. The importance of the bill, however, is matched only by its brevity and simplicity. After all, [it] would merely give back to the states a power... to craft congressional electoral systems with multi-member districts that are tailored to the unique political cultures of each state."
Nathaniel Persily (staff attorney, Brennan Center for Justice)

"My concern is to further the process of representative government, to make the election system more effective in translating votes into seats on governmental bodies. Single-member district systems may be less reliable in performing this task because of the increase in diversity within this country and the decrease in geographically defined communities of interest... State legislatures should be given the freedom to experiment with [proportional election systems]."
Theodore Arrington (professor of political science, UNC-Charlotte)

Voting System Reform Update

  •    Amarillo (TX) now biggest city with cumulative voting:
    This spring the Amarillo school district adopted cumulative voting for May 2000 elections to settle a voting rights suit brought by the NAACP and LULAC. More than 50 Texas jurisdictions use cumulative voting to boost minority representation; in 1995, Gov. George W. Bush signed legislation to allow school districts to enact PR voting methods.
  •    DOJ upholds PR in New York City:
    In February, the U.S. Justice Department raised its first-ever lasting objection (under the Voting Rights Act) to a PR or semi-PR system. It rejected New York City's plan to adopt limited voting for community school board elections because the City already has choice voting -- a fully proportional system that in May once again elected the most representative assemblies in New York.
  •    Governor supports cumulative voting in Illinois:
    Illinois Governor George Ryan (R) is the latest public advocate of restoring cumulative voting for state assembly elections in Illinois. He joins a remarkable, bi-partisan group of supporters of a "drive to revive" that includes the Democratic leader of the senate Emil Jones, Republican Congress-man John Porter, former comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch and former federal judge and Congressman Abner Mikva. The Center soon will release a video on cumulative voting in Illinois, produced with the Midwest Democracy Center.
  •    International News:
    Joining all other nations in Europe, the United Kingdom this year finally used a PR system to elect its representatives to the European Parliament. Assemblies in Scotland and Wales also were elected by PR.
    In South Africa, PR was used in national elections in June. More than 99% of voters elected representatives from a wide spectrum of choices. That, combined with high turnout, meant that more than four of five South African adults cast a vote that directly won representation. In contrast, fewer than one in four American adults elected anyone to the U.S. House in 1998.
    In general, pro-democracy forces sought more proportional systems, and authoritarian regimes sought winner-take-all elections -- the trend spanned from South Korea to Serbia, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the Philippines and Indonesia.
  •    Major organizations act on PR:
    In September, the National Organization for Women endorsed PR. The ACLU at its national biennial conference voted to study PR. The League of Women Voters at biennial conferences in California, Georgia and Washington launched formal, two-year studies into the full range of voting systems; the LWV in Illinois will study cumulative voting.
  •    Essay Contest: "Why Don't We Vote?"
    $1000 for 1000 words on Empowering Youth:

    A new essay contest sponsored by the Center for Voting and Democracy and Midwest Democracy Center challenges America's youth to answer the vexing question: "Why don't we vote?" Short essays are due in February 2000; the impressive array of judges includes former Congressmen John Anderson and Abner Mikva and authors Jane Byrant Quinn, Hendrik Hertzberg and Arianna Huffington. For full details, please see or call 312-587-7060.


Note from the Director

The past year has proven to be a momentous one for the Center. At its start, western region director Steven Hill and I had the pleasure of seeing our book Reflecting All of Us: The Case for Proportional Representation (Beacon Press) appear in major bookstores. We also continued our work with many reformers, legislators and scholars -- helping to spark a near-win for instant runoff voting in New Mexico and the introduction of Congressman Mel Watt's bill to allow states to use different voting systems for U.S. House elections.

In May, we began a heady transition, increasing the size of our staff from two members to eight. Eric Olson and Fred McBride were the first on board. Our deputy director, Eric is a city councilor (in College Park, Md.) who came to us from Capitol Hill. He is coordinating outreach to city officials about instant runoff voting (IRV), proportional representation (PR) and redistricting reform and preparing our upcoming release of Monopoly Politics 2000 -- a report highlighting our predictions in U.S. House races in November 2000 and the reasons so few voters have real choices. His writings on reform already have run twice in the Washington Post.

Our southern regional director, Fred soon should receive his doctorate in political science from Clark-Atlanta. He has good connections throughout the south, a strong understanding of voting systems (he wrote his dissertation on cumulative voting) and stints as both a grade school teacher and college professor. Among many presentations this fall, he will address the NAACP board, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights' voting rights conference and the National Civic League's conference.

In June, we moved into new, larger offices just outside Washington, D.C. Our two summer interns started, and Robert Loring began managing our library of resources and web site. To witness Rob's excellent work, I urge you to browse We also helped found the Midwest Democracy Center in Illinois and hired Hortencia Quinonez Wrampelmeier, who has done excellent outreach work in Amarillo (TX) and numerous nearby communities that have adopted cumulative voting in recent years.

In July, we hired Caleb Kleppner to direct our Majority Rule Project. Formerly director of Voice of the Environment, Kleppner brings great energy, skill and focus to the job; he is based in the Bay Area, where he helped spur the current effort for IRV in San Francisco. State legislator Terrill Bouricius also began a six-month stint as a consultant on voting system reform in New England; his efforts are creating serious momentum for IRV there.

Finally, in August we hired Caryl-Sue Micalizio to be our special projects manager. A former public school teacher in California, Micalizio is pursuing outreach to women's organizations and editing a state-by-state guide to redistricting in 2001, future issues of Voting and Democracy Review and our new Perspectives on Democracy series.

CVD's fine new team has a great deal of concrete work to pursue. In the coming months we will produce a rush of new educational materials, ranging from short factsheets to stylish brochures, provocative pamphlets, thoughtful videos and substantial reports.

Our growth is largely due to a leap in foundation support: a two-year grant in 1998 from the Ford Foundation, generous support since 1997 from the Open Society Institute, grants in 1998-99 from the Arca Foundation for work on IRV and grants in 1999 from the HKH Foundation and Solidago Foundation.

But foundation support ebbs and flows. Membership support remains critical. We have expanded based on a belief that our increased level of activity and the clear importance of that activity will generate new sources of funds. If not, we will need to scale back, even as the demand for our services will be greater than ever. For that reason, please consider supporting us with volunteer time or a contribution. Many thanks!

    Rob Richie


Proportional representation (PR): Voting systems in which groupings of voters win representation in proportion to their voting strength: 20% of votes wins two (20%) of 10 seats, 50% of votes wins five (50%) of 10 seats.

  • Multi-seat districts: An electoral constituency with more than one representative, in contrast to single-seat districts, where one winner "represents" all. If the size of a legislature remains constant, conversion to a PR system leads to fewer, but bigger districts.
  • Choice voting: A proportional system also known as "single transferable vote" and "preference voting." Voters rank the candidates they like in order. Ballots are allocated to first choices, but may go to next choices in order to elect someone. Because all seats are weighted equally, candidates win by reaching a "threshold" that is roughly equal to the number of votes cast divided by the number of seats elected.
  • Cumulative voting: A semi-proportional system in which voters have as many votes as there are seats in a multi-seat district and can give all their votes to one or more candidates. The candidates with the most votes win..

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