A Good Day in the Life of CVD

Published in the Baltimore Sun, November 16, 2000

Stand and be counted
Election madness gives the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park a chance to run off at the mouth about its favorite issue, ballot reform.

By Gary Dorsey
Baltimore Sun Staff
Originally published Nov 16 2000

In demand: Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, is on the phone with news organizations from "Nightline" to the Arizona Republic as a result of the attention being focused on the election. (Sun photo by John Makely)

TAKOMA PARK - Just days after the election and the Center for Voting and Democracy looked like the aftermath of a flood in a copy shop. The phones had gone crazy. The coffee pot was burbling for a refill. The three-person staff, besotted with French roast, though bleary-eyed and frazzled, seemed strangely exhilarated.

"Before the election we had all these stupid calls from people who wanted us to tell them where to go to vote," said Eric Olson, the idealistic 30-year-old deputy director who wears his hair in a ponytail. "But now we've got a chance to talk about reform. It's awful to have to wait for a train wreck like this to get the word out, but that's the reality."

For the first time since its opening in 1992, the center has seen a chance to take its message to the masses. The crisis in American electoral politics definitely has been good for the election reform business.

"Hey, Rob, I just got off the phone with 'Nightline'!" Olson shouted to his boss down a narrow hallway clogged with boxes. "They want us for the show tonight."

Robert Richie, the center's director and co-founder, couldn't stop to answer. He had William Greider of the Nation on the line talking about the "seething fury against Nader" for spoiling Al Gore's bid for the White House. As he had done repeatedly over the last 48 hours, he found a way in the conversation to pitch the center's centerpiece reform, a very simple idea known as Instant Run-off Voting.

The idea itself is a neat trick that simulates a run-off with just a single round of voting by letting each voter mark a second choice on the ballot as well as a first. In the recent election, for instance, a Ralph Nader supporter could have voted for Nader but also could have chosen a second candidate - Al Gore, let's say. Since Nader came in third place, he would drop out of the contest. But his supporters who picked Gore as their second choice would see those votes automatically shifted to the vice president in the automatic "run-off."

This past week's message to the media was: The disaster could have been averted.

Used already in Ireland, England and Australia, the instant run-off also would presumably end the "spoiler" stigma of third-party candidates and eliminate the oddity of plurality elections that put some politicians in office with less than 50 percent of the vote. (Bill Clinton is a favorite example, since he went to the White House in 1992 with only 43 percent of the popular vote.) Richie likes to say an instant run-off would mean that voting for your favorite candidate no longer results in the election of your least favorite candidate.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Richie was telling Greider. "There will be a lot of discussion about the Electoral College, and we could take care of the spoiler issue."

Next door, Olson had finished with the Arizona Republic and had a call from the Biloxi Sun-Herald. "... And if you need us this weekend, let me give you our home numbers," he said. "Have you seen our Web site? That's www.fairvote.org."

In demand

A lot of reporters found the center for the first time last week surfing the Web for experts who could explain the "train wreck" - how Gore could win the popular vote but still lose the presidency. In three days, the Center for Voting and Democracy had talked to National Public Radio, Newsweek, ABC and NBC news, CNN, the San Francisco Chronicle, the BBC, the Boston Phoenix and a teeming array of radio stations and smaller newspapers around the country. They had produced packets for newspaper columnists like Molly Ivins and Ellen Goodman, written their own op-ed columns that were now appearing in papers like the Hartford Courant and trying to get the ear of influential opinion leaders, like Greider and the Washington Post's David Broder.

"Hey Rob, the woman from 'Nightline's' on hold," Olson shouted. "They want four of us tonight." About 3 o'clock, the mailman came by. Finding no one to take the packet of letters, he paused to scan the mess and laughed.

"I saw them on C-SPAN," he said. "I bet they haven't slept all week."

Richie, in particular, looked haggard. Balding and scrappy, he had spent days at his desk, answering e-mail, talking to sources in Florida, galvanizing the center's 500 members and planning strategies with his two-person staff on the West Coast. He had a more preppy appearance than Olson, with his neatly cropped hair, blue blazer, dress pants and tie, but by mid-afternoon, his socks were sagging and his eyes looked like boiled shrimp.

"What about 'Nightline'?" Olson asked, when the two finally met in the hallway over the coffee pot around 4.

It turned out that the show needed a live audience to ask questions of a group of legal scholars at Georgetown Law School at 11:30 p.m. The center would get four seats and one shot at asking a question about instant run-offs.

"Just be ready," Richie said.

"Fun, huh?" Olson said, as he filled his cup. "I guess. I've just got all this stuff piling up."

Fielding questions

Few callers asked specifically about instant run-offs. Part of the week's strategy was to post a position statement on the Web site about the Electoral College, which caught the eye of reporters as they surfed for expert sources, so some calls came in asking about that. But Olson and Richie also fielded calls about voting machines, voting behavior, third-party voting, voter turn-out and voters' rights.

In one case, Richie couldn't answer a reporter's question about the behavior of election officials, so he scrolled through his electronic Rolodex to find someone who could. "OK," he said, "here's a guy in New York who can accurately portray the real bureaucratic nature of election administrators and their bunker mentality."

As it grew dark outside, Olson bit into a granola bar. His lunch, a cup of instant soup and an apple, still sat uneaten while he conducted interviews.

His computer monitor was plastered with yellow stick-on notes to remind him of things yet to do.

"Hey, we're going to that 'Nightline' thing," he said, phoning a friend to join them. "Business casual will be fine ... Black pants? Sure. You'll be cute. We'll have fun."

The rest of the building emptied as other offices - the Alliance for Microbicide Development, the Center for Health and Gender Equity and the Willow Street Yoga Center - closed for the night. Richie was still referring callers to a column published that day by political commentator William Raspberry, who mentioned one of the center's ideas for electoral reform. Olson was hunting down a legal scholar at Yale University to join their crusade.

Shortly after midnight at the Georgetown Law School, "Nightline" host Ted Koppel looked out into the audience and pointed to a thin, balding man who leaned into a standing microphone with a question for the evening's legal scholars.

For less than 10 seconds, Richie appeared on network television asking a question, still trying mightily to squeeze a novel idea onto the nation's agenda.