Editor’s note: Nearly a year ago, we wrote this article about thinkers and journalists paying more attention to voting system reforms that give people more choices and more voice in elections. It felt like the first bubbling of what we hoped would become a wave of momentum. A couple recent victories for democracy reform show that little wave building to a sizeable force.
This week, voters in New York City adopted ranked-choice voting for local elections—and the ballot measure didn’t just pass, it won by a landslide, with over 70 percent voting yes! The Big Apple joins 20 other cities around the country that use ranked ballots, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, Cambridge, and Santa Fe. Maine is the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting for federal elections. As the US’s most populous city and top economic and cultural center, NYC may prove the most visible success story yet, going a long way to familiarize people across the country with fair voting systems. New Yorkers are likely to experience, as voters in Maine and in other cities have, more positive campaigns and more representative winners.
And earlier this year, Eastpointe, Michigan, switched to multi-winner ranked-choice voting (proportional representation!) in a city council election. The city made the change to address racial discrimination charges in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
Gerrymandered, single-member, winner-take-all districts shut out minority voters, whether by race or party, and invite influence-peddling by big money interests. Ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts give voters their voices back, eliminating spoilers, gerrymander-proofing districts, encouraging more women, people of color, and lower income candidates, boosting participation, and making campaigns more about solutions and less about partisan divisions. Keep your eye on this wave of momentum as voters in places like New York City and Eastpointe and Maine reap the benefits of injecting more choice and more voice into elections.
Here’s the January 2019 article:
Heavy hitters slug for electoral system reforms
When Sightline first started working on advanced voting systems, our main goal was for more people to know that they exist, and how they can improve democracy. In 2018, major media outlets helped us get the word out by publishing a slew of articles about and editorials in favor of ranked choice voting and proportional representation.
Washington policymakers and voters have made great strides on democracy reforms in recent years, implementing automatic voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, passing the Washington Voting Rights Act, and making it easier for people to vote by increasing the number of ballot drop boxes and pre-paying postage for vote-at-home ballots.
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The next step for reformers could be implementing ranked-choice voting and proportional representation systems that give voters more choice and more voice in elections. These are proven, common-sense solutions to some of voters’ biggest concerns about democracy, including gerrymandering, negative campaigning, bitter partisanship, voter apathy, “safe” seats, lack of accountability, and unfair representation. But voters don’t know about them. Last year ranked choice voting and proportional representation seemed to take leaps and strides into the mainstream consciousness, with reporters from some of the biggest media outlets in the country writing favorably about them.
“There’s a reason voters in proportional representation countries are less disenchanted with politics than we are. Their systems work better.” — David Brooks, New York Times, May 2018
“If this (proportional representation) reform were implemented throughout the country, it should result in a House of Representatives that actually looks and thinks like America. It would be a House that represents all views and all demographic characteristics in close proportion to their shares in the whole adult population of the United States.” — American Prospect, October 2018
“RCV may be unable to force liberals and conservatives to like each other, but it could at least blunt the electoral effects of hyperpartisanship.” — The Economist, June 2018
“One quick result of this would be that no seat is truly safe. Some states would be reliably conservative and others reliably liberal, but any given member would need to retain a reputation for being hard-working and honest to avoid falling just off the bubble.” — Vox, October 2018
Success stories familiarize voters with upgraded systems
Washington State has made great progress on democracy reform, and it could take the next step towards ranked choice voting and proportional representation. The Local Options Bill, which lawmakers will consider during this legislative session, would free Washington cities, counties, and school boards to act as laboratories of democracy and try out ranked-choice voting here in the Pacific Northwest. Just as Portland, Maine, piloted ranked choice voting before the entire state adopted it, localities in Washington might take the lead and find solutions that could work for the whole state. At the moment, local jurisdictions’ hands are tied by state law. The Local Options Bill would change that. This kind of solution got ink too:
“Localities should consider a reform that empowers the majority by allowing voters to rank their choices. Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, has been used successfully in other countries as well as a growing number of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Santa Fe, N.M., and Minneapolis.” — Washington Post, June 2018.
“Other cities, countries and organizations already use ranked-choice voting, including San Francisco, Australia and the Academy Awards’ best picture category. Proponents of the system say that it fosters majority rule by design, can cultivate more centrist candidates and more civilized campaigns and opens the door for stronger third-party candidates — or at the very least removes the fear of ‘vote splitting.’” — Washington Post, November 2018
Maine’s path to statewide ranked-choice voting wasn’t easy—voters and courts had to re-affirm it many times in the face of fierce opposition by the two major political parties. But in the end, it worked—Mainers elected Representative Golden by a majority, rather than a plurality. More voters had a voice, the election was competitive but civil, and the Representative is accountable to a majority of voters. Washington’s path to better voting may also be hard-fought, but the results could be just as positive.
Ranked-choice voting “in Maine is a real ray of hope in dark times: If it is emulated elsewhere, it is much more likely to create real political competition and empower the kinds of leaders who actually might have the will to solve the biggest challenges we now face.” — Slate, June 2018
Kristin Eberhard is a senior researcher at Sightline. She analyzes, writes about, and speaks about climate change policy and democracy reform. Find her latest research here. If you have questions or would like to speak with Kristin for background or interviews, contact Sightline’s Communications Manager Anne Christnovich, anne (@) sightline[dot] org.
I appreciate why, in a two-party country like the USA, you would treat ranked ballots in single-member districts and proportional representation as similar improvements. However, I hope you understand that, in a multi-party country like Canada or the United Kingdom, they are very different things. In Canada, ranked ballots in single-member districts would actually produce poorer representation than first-past-the-post. Many studies have verified the well-known fact that it would favour the centrist Liberal Party and hurt all other parties.