REVIEW OF FAIRVOTE.ORG BY THE CENTER FOR VOTING AND DEMOCRACY
A website full of information about the root problems in our democracy and offering and advocating for innovative solutions.
"You ask why we do not vote or participate actively in politics. I ask why should we choose between two evils, two wrongs...We know that, as voters, we do not have any real power of decision or choice. We know that we are only stooges playing along in a game that, in the end, will be our downfall." - Brenda Peterson, college student in the Center for Voting and Democracy's 2002 Student Essay Contest asking "Why don't we vote?".
- ``We often criticize citizens for not voting and they don't have many legitimate excuses, but this is one legitimate excuse. Why bother to vote if there is no contest, if there is no competition?'' - Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
- "It's a terrible system. Almost anything looks good compared to it." - Alexander Tabarrok, George Mason University economist and director of research for the Independent Institute on the American voting system.
- "For the first time, we have been seeing an increase in single-digit voter turnout levels all across the nation...our antiquated Winner Take All voting system is at the root of much of what is perplexing and polarizing about our politics today, not only in presidential elections but in legislative elections as well...Worse than antiquated, Winner Take All is downright dangerous, distorting national policy, robbing voters of representation. In short, Winner Take All is making losers of us all." - Prologue to Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics by Steven Hill, Senior Analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy.
- Voter turnout in the United States ranks 138th in the world, right between the African nations of Botswana and Chad -
“Voter Turnout for 1945 to 1997: A Global Report on Political Participation,” published and distributed by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
- "Not to consider sensible, readily available alternative voting systems as part of our election reform efforts does a disservice to the American electorate and to the future of American democracy." - Matthew Cossolotto, Vice President of Center for Voting and Democracy.
"The Great Democracy"
Did you know that in the 2002 U.S. Congressional elections, only 37% of eligible voters even bothered to vote? Even in 2000, one of closest presidential elections ever, barely over half of eligible voters voted. In fact, voter turnout in the U.S. rates at 138th in the world, right between the African nations of Botswana and Chad (not exactly traditional bastions of democracy)! Meanwhile, among young people - the future of the nation - turnout is even more abysmal. In the 1998 midterm election, only 12% of 18-24 year-olds and 8.5% of 18 and 19-year-olds voted. How many election cycles have gone by where you heard about how we should "rock the vote" and had people come out of the woodwork telling you how important it is that we vote? Yet, every election cycle, the polls in many areas remain almost ghost-towns. Pundits call the 50-65% of your family, friends and neighbors (surely not you!) who don't vote "apathetic", but does it really seem likely that 2/3 of the country doesn't care how their leaders run it? Or, rather, is it possible that those who don't vote are not so much irresponsible, apathetic citizens, but instead painfully aware of just how little our vote counts?
We know what you're thinking: This is "just the way it is" with voting. Yet, in Germany's 2002 elections, for example, 75% of eligible voters voted and in other nations voter turnout is even higher. So why is it that in a country like Germany, 3/4 of eligible voters feel that it is worth going to the polls, while here in "The Great Democracy" - a beacon of freedom and hope - more people vote for a television show, Survivor, than vote for President? And, more importantly, can it be fixed? Whether you are a worker worried about your job security, a single or elderly person concerned about health care, a student or parent who wants the best education for you or your children or just someone worried about your own pocketbook, these issues are crucial. Many of us have grown to feel that government does not affect us. But, regardless your personal view of tax issues, when you see that subtraction from each paycheck, you can see quite clearly that it does. In fact, those of us who are just making ends meet are often those hardest hit by the decisions of our leaders. Therefore, the questions involved in repairing our election process are crucial ones for all of us.
The Center for Voting and Democracy exists to answer these very questions, educating us about the root problems with American democracy, offering tangible solutions to these problems, and showing you how you can get involved in improving this situation that, like it or not, affects our lives greatly. It is a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C, and headed by former Congressman and presidential candidate John B. Anderson. Their website serves as a fantastic central resource if you are interested in learning the reality - in contrast to the vast mythology taught in school and on the evening news - about the state of our democracy and the real problems and solutions that exist. There is a lot of information, and it can seem intimidating at first, but if you haven't taken the time to really understand why our elections work so poorly, you may be shocked by what you learn. A couple hours spent on their page may teach you more than you learned in months of high school government class. So just what IS going wrong here?
3 Election Problems That Leave Americans DissatisfiedLately, you have probably heard a lot of talk about problems with elections - ballots that are hard to read, machines that don't work, and who could forget those hanging chads? While these are important problems, and have received significant coverage in the media, they are actually taking the focus away from far more fundamental problems in how we vote and in how the votes are counted. You may be surprised to learn that, even if every machine and ballot worked perfectly, we still wouldn't have anything near a working democracy. This idea was summed up wonderfully in a Science News article entitled "Election Selection: Are We Using The Worst Voting Procedure?":
"As Election Day approaches, voters must be feeling a sense of déjà vu. With recent reports of malfunctioning voter machines and uncounted votes during primaries in Florida, Maryland, and elsewhere, reformers are once again clamoring for extensive changes. But while attention is focused on these familiar irregularities, a much more serious problem is being neglected: the fundamental flaws of the voting procedure itself, say various researchers who study voting."These fundamental flaws in how elections are run in America form the focus of the Center for Voting and Democracy. While the problems may sound extremely complicated, they can really be boiled down to three fundamental concepts that lie at the root of our dissatisfaction with voting:
- Winner-Take-All Leaves Many Unrepresented - Most people assume that whatever voting system they grow up with is the only way it could be done. And, to most Americans, it sounds fair that if one candidate wins 51% of the vote, while his or her opponent wins 49%, the winning candidate goes into office, while the loser goes home. However, a closer look at the situation reveals the potential for a major problem. While the winner was only supported by 2% more people, he or she gets 100% of the voice of the people. This means that nearly half the people are left with no voice at all. For example, say 51% of the people in your district of 100,000 voters vote for the Republican and 49% vote for the Democrat. That means that 49,000 people are left "unrepresented" by the winner. Of course, the representative is supposed to speak for everyone in his district, but we all know how rare that is in this age of partisan politics.
To put it another way, imagine you are in a group of 10 people and you are voting on which flavor of ice cream to get: chocolate or vanilla. Chocolate wins 6-4. That means 4 people, just under half, are forced to eat a flavor that they don't really want. Is it any wonder that so many people feel their voice is not heard? In fact, this way of voting leaves so many people unrepresented that it has been called the "tyranny of the majority".
In today's age of statistical analysis and computerized exit polls, we know that this system is extremely ineffective at giving people adequate representation. No wonder. It was created in the 18th century to work in an era of small towns and villages. While we've moved from horses and buggies to cars and from mechanical machines to hi-tech computers, we are still using a voting system that is over 200 years old! Many are used to it because we've always used it, but imagine if we applied that logic in choosing our cars or computers. Luckily, a solution exists so that we can please both the 6 who want chocolate and the 4 who want vanilla..
- Our Leaders Are Often Not Supported By The Majority of Voters - That's right, you heard correctly. In the United States of America, despite the popular phrase "majority rules", that is simply not always the case. As we've seen, it is bad enough that when one candidate does have a majority, the winner-take-all system leaves a great deal of voters unhappy. But, the situation gets even worse when a third or fourth candidate gets into the race. In that situation, a candidate doesn't even need a majority of votes to win. The result can be a winner that most voters, often by a substantial margin, don't want.
Let's take another example. Say you are in a group of 11 people that is voting on what flavor of ice cream they want. You vote for Chocolate, and it wins 6-5 over Vanilla. While 5 people are left unhappy, at least 6 of you, the majority (over half), are pleased. However, now assume a third flavor is introduced: Chocolate Fudge. You like Chocolate Fudge even better than Chocolate, and so does one other person. As you see it, it's twice as good as regular Chocolate. You vote again and now the vote is Vanilla-5, Chocolate-4, and Chocolate Fudge-2.
As you can see, what happened is that the original Chocolate voters were split between which of the two types of Chocolate ice cream they preferred. Some wanted Chocolate, while others wanted DOUBLE the Chocolate. Yet, according to the current U.S. election system, the winner would be Vanilla, since it had the most votes. But let's look at the percentages. Only 45.4% wanted Vanilla, while 54.5% preferred some type of Chocolate. That means that now over 54%, a wide majority, are left unhappy simply because two of you preferred a different KIND of Chocolate. In fact you wanted a kind that had even MORE Chocolate! But, in the typical American style election, you are stuck with Vanilla.
This same phenomenon happens in real elections when a third or fourth candidate is thrown into the mix. It can work against both major parties, and almost always works against the public's right to elect the leaders they prefer. In 1992's Presidential election, 19% of us chose to vote for Ross Perot of the Reform Party. Based on his views, which were more similar to Republican views, most of these voters would otherwise have voted for George Bush, the Republican. In the end, Bill Clinton won with 43% vs. 38% for George Bush. As you can see, like the ice cream scenario, no candidate has a majority of 51%. And, like the ice cream scenario, the 38% who voted for Bush (the Republican) combined with most of the 19% who voted for Perot (similar to Republican) leaves well over 50% of us unhappy with the Democratic victory. The majority of us wanted some kind of Republican-type views, they simply were divided on which kind. Majority did not rule.
More recently, the same situation left the majority of us dissatisfied in 2000. In the pivotal state of Florida, Al Gore, the Democrat, lost by only a few hundred votes. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader of the Green Party (similar views to the Democrats) received 95,000 votes in that state. Almost all of Nader's voters preferred Gore over Bush. But, since our election system does not require a majority, Bush was able to win Florida even though many thousands more voters preferred more Democratic ideas.
The result of this entire fiasco is that voters from all over the country - Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Independents and others - all end up with leaders who most of the country or state may not support. For instance, Jesse Ventura became Governor of Minnesota while winning only 37% of the vote. Due to the flaws in the current system, we are unable to find out whether over 60% of Minnesotans actually preferred someone else. You may be surprised to learn that 18 times, our President has been elected without a majority, including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In fact, in 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected with only 29.8% of the popular vote! So much for majority rule. Again, is it any wonder that people feel their vote doesn't really seem to count?
A final problem that arises from this phenomenon is known as the "spoiler effect". We saw how Perot's voters and Nader's voters seemed to "take votes away" from the more successful candidate with similar views (much as Chocolate Fudge "took away" two votes from Chocolate, "spoiling" the day for you Chocolate supporters and allowing Vanilla to win). Knowing this, you might feel that by voting for Perot you are actually hurting Bush or that by voting for Nader you are hurting Gore, and be unsure of what to do. If you prefer Ralph Nader, but you are even more afraid of George W. Bush winning, you may vote for Al Gore simply because he has a better chance to defeat Bush. Similarly, if you prefer Chocolate Fudge, you may feel pressured to settle for Chocolate simply to avoid being stuck with Vanilla. In other words, the "spoiler effect" forces you to vote for whoever has the best chance of defeating the candidate you dislike (out of fear) rather than voting for the candidate you truly like the best (out of hope).
Luckily, once again, there is a better method that ensures majority rule, eliminates the spoiler effect and at the same time improves the quality of campaigning that a candidate must do to win office.
- The Winners Make the Rules to Ensure Continued Wins - Imagine if you were playing basketball, and as you were about to begin, the other team started redrawing the lines on the court to make it easier for them to win. Sounds like cheating, doesn't it? But, this is exactly what goes on in the politics of our House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives was the branch of government created to closely mirror the population. In order to do that, it is important for it to continuously change to reflect the growth of some areas and movement of people from one place to another. To ensure that this happens, a process called redistricting is used to reset the lines of the districts every 10 years, giving more seats to places with more people.
The problem, however, is that in most areas it is the party in power themselves who pick how the districts are laid out. Today, rather than using fair population data to determine the districts, the majority party uses advanced software to tell them how many of their voters are in which places and draw the lines to ensure that they continue to win. The practice is so prevalent that it has a name: gerrymandering. This name is a combination of the last name of Elbridge Gerry - a Massachussets governor who used the process - and the word "salamander", describing the shape of the bizarre district that he drew to include as many friendly voters as possible.
The Center for Voting and Democracy explains that it is a process where "Legislators choose their constituents before their constituents choose them." Nathaniel Persily, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor who acts as a court-appointed expert in redistricting cases, explained in a USA Today article - ''Normally, we think of democracy as voters choosing their representatives. Actually, the redistricting process is about representatives choosing their voters. That decision has as much if not more effect on democracy than the actual elections themselves.'' And, once chosen, these lines remain in place for another 10 years, solidifying the biased divisions laid out by the party in power.
How bad is this problem of legislators choosing their voters before we choose them? By drawing the lines to suit themselves, incumbents were able to win re-election more than 98% of the time in 1998 and 2000, and few races were even close. The problem is so bad that in many districts, nobody is even willing to challenge the incumbent, knowing the game is rigged, so that we receive no choice at all on the ballot.
In fact, this process of redistricting has made elections so predictable that the Center for Voting and Democracy is able to predict most U.S. House election results with almost perfect accuracy. This was displayed in their recent report Monopoly Politics 2002: How "No Choice" Elections Rule in a Competitive House, where they predicted 333 U.S. House Races with 100% accuracy. Just for good measure, they've already predicted the 2004 elections, as well! Just view the projections to see who will win the election for your representative in 2004. That's right, they can tell two years before the election is even held! Is this democracy?
The problems of redistricting are well known and are receiving more and more attention in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and in many other publications. But, despite such coverage, few are yet aware of the steps that can be taken to solve this problem.
When you see all of these problems laid out one after another, it's easy to think they can't be solved. But, the truth is the solutions are simple - so simple that much of the world already uses them - and they are just waiting to be implemented in the U.S.
3 Proven Methods to Restore Your Voice
- Proportional Representation - We have seen how, in our current winner-take-all system, the candidate with the most votes gets 100% of the voice and the candidates with less votes get no voice. We have also seen how this system leaves a great number of us unrepresented and feeling that our vote makes no difference. Meanwhile, we have also seen how, in Germany, for example, many more people vote and feel that their voice does count. One of the main reasons for this is proportional representation.
Proportional representation makes it so that each group is represented in proportion to its support among the population. This means that if one group has 51% of the vote and the other has 49% of the vote, they each get that percentage of a voice in the government. Doesn't it seem fairer that a group who is supported by 51% of your community should receive 51% of the power rather than 100% of the power? There are several different forms of proportional representation, but all have in common the ability to more accurately portray true public sentiment when compared to winner-take-all elections, allowing more voters to feel they are making a difference.
Since you are probably used to the traditional winner-take-all system, this may sound strange, even radical. However, the fact is that of the 41 democracies with over 2 million people and a strong human rights record, the United States and Canada are the only two countries that do not use proportional representation. Could this have anything to do with why so many of our friends and neighbors don't vote? We believe it does, and that proportional representation, while not perfect, is an improvement over winner-take-all elections.
- Instant Runoff Voting (a.k.a. Preferential Voting) - We saw earlier how, when more than two candidates are involved in an election, we often end up with a winner who the majority of us do not actually prefer. We also saw how, due to the "spoiler effect", you may feel unable to vote for who you truly believe in the most, and feel pressured to vote against the worst candidate rather than for the best candidate. Voting becomes driven by fear more than hope. Some actually give these situations as arguments for limiting participation to two candidates. And while it is true that limiting races to two candidates would force the winner to have a majority, and eliminate the "spoiler effect", doesn't it strike you as undemocratic and counterproductive to prevent more than two people from running for office?
As in all of these cases, there is a much better solution that allows a wide array of candidates to run, while ensuring the winner has majority support. As an added bonus, this solution eliminates the "spoiler effect". The solution is known as Instant Runoff Voting or Preferential Voting and it works like this: Rather than simply mark your first preference on the ballot, you have the option to rank the candidates in your order of preference: first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. When the votes are counted, if no candidate has a majority of the votes, the last place finisher is eliminated, and the ballots are counted again. In this "runoff" count, those who had chosen the eliminated candidate as their first choice then have their second choice counted. If no candidate has a majority after this round, then another "runoff" count is done, again eliminating the last place finisher and counting the second or third place votes of those ballots which ranked him first. This continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes.
This may sound complicated at first, but it is actually quite simple once you see it in action. So, let's look at how this would work using the ice cream example. Imagine again that your group of 11 people voted: 5 for Vanilla, 4 for Chocolate and 2 (you and a friend) for Chocolate Fudge. If Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) was used, you and your fellow Chocolate Fudge fan could have ranked your choices. So, you would have ranked Chocolate Fudge first and Chocolate second. Like we saw earlier, you definitely want some kind of Chocolate, but you prefer one type over the other. You clearly don't want Vanilla. Since Vanilla only has 5 of 11 votes, less than a majority, it is possible that 6 people, more than half, prefer something other than Vanilla. We have to do a runoff to determine which of the top two choices people actually prefer.
Since Chocolate Fudge had the least votes, we eliminate it and look at your second choices. Both you and your fellow Chocolate Fudge fan ranked Chocolate second. Counting your second place votes, Chocolate now has 6 votes out of 11, more than a majority, and Chocolate is the winner. As you can see, the flavor with the majority preference won using IRV, whereas without it, all 6 of you Chocolate-lovers would have been forced to eat Vanilla. Similarly, using IRV, those of us who voted for Perot in 1992 would have had our second choice counted for George Bush in the runoff, and those who voted for Nader in 2000 would have had ours counted for Gore in the runoff. In the end, in both cases, the person who the majority truly preferred - George Bush in 1992 and Al Gore in 2000 - would have won handily.
It should be noted that it is not only the "Runoff" portion of the name that is important, but also the "Instant" part. There are some who have already recognized the importance of having a runoff to ensure that the majority view is served. For example, in Louisiana's Senate race, the highest vote-getter did not have a majority in 2002. They held a runoff. But, rather than an instant runoff, they actually had a whole separate runoff election, forcing millions of people to return to the polls, the state to pay for an entire new set of ballots and pay all of the election workers to work another day. This is very expensive and it is notoriously hard to get people to the polls a second time, considering how hard it is to get them there even once. Instant Runoff Voting saves this trouble by simply having people rank their preferences the first time they are at the poll, leaving no need to get them all back to the polls to vote again. If a runoff turns out to be necessary, it can just be done instantly.
While all of this may sound very new and strange to you, it is actually being talked about more and more. IRV:
- Has been featured in articles in the New York Times, Time Magazine and USA Today.
- Has been endorsed by Senator John McCain of Arizona.
- Has been implemented in San Francisco, where it will be used for city elections.
- Was recently on the ballot in Alaska.
- Has been used for decades in Australia and Ireland.
- Is used to elect the mayor of London.
- Has been used to elect the City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts for 60 years.
- Is being adopted on campuses such as the Universities of Maryland and Illinois, through support from The Center for Voting and Democracy.
There is a reason that IRV has receieved so much attention lately. It is a very tangible solution to several fundamental problems at once. It ensures that winners truly are supported by the majority of us, eliminates the "spoiler effect" and, because second and third place votes count, it forces candidates to appeal to the whole public, not just a narrow segment as many do now. Even Robert's Rules of Order, the famous procedural guidebook, supports Preferential Voting stating "It makes possible a more representative result than under a rule that a plurality shall elect..... This type of preferential ballot is preferable to an election by plurality." We agree that Instant Runoff Voting or Preferential Voting is indeed preferable.
- Fair Redistricting Policies - We have seen how, in our current system, we have a policy that allows the winning party to draw the lines for the next ten years of future House elections. We have also seen how these parties have stopped using basic population data to draw the lines, and instead now use maps of where their supporters are to include as many of them as they can in each district. As mentioned, this is like letting a winning basketball team redesign the court into a completely different shape that makes it easier for them to win. Obviously, a system where the players of one team set the rules that everyone else is forced to play by is unfair and biased. And this bias shows in the inability of newcomers to even have a chance of winning in most races, which become utterly predictable.
For instance, in the 2002 Congressional elections, California had 53 House races. Due to biased redistricting, only 1 of those races was even competitive, and that was only because one candidate in that race, Gary Condit, was involved in a scandal involving the death of an intern. This demonstrates the lengths to which an incumbent must go to truly risk being voted out in most cases. Again there is a solution, and it comes from looking at one of the few places in the U.S. where this problem is less prominent. While our most populous state, California, had just one competitive House race, the relatively tiny state of Iowa had 3 competitive races out of its 5 total. A look at Iowa's redistricting policy explains how this small state can have more competition than the entire state of California.
In Iowa, the districts are redrawn not by the winning political party, but by an outside bureau. The bureau draws the lines based on demographics and population, NOT based on how many people of each party are within the lines. While no bureau can ever be assumed completely unbiased, this is surely an improvement over the winning party itself drawing the lines. Isn't it more fair to have even an average referee make the rules than to let one of the participating teams make them? More states should move to a system like Iowa's, taking the power of redistricting out of the hands of the players themselves. This is a country of checks and balances, where no group or individual is to have too much power that goes unchecked. However, as long as we allow the winning parties to set up the playing field to suit themselves, we can look forward to many years of nearly 100% predictable U.S. House races. It's time to change these redistricting laws to open up competition so that we can have some real, meaningful choices on the ballot.
Help Bring Fair Elections to Your Community
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. More and more people are becoming aware of these problems, the press is giving them more coverage, and there are many of us working to correct them. Much of the progress that has been made, such as the use of IRV in San Francisco, was the result of a small group of committed people like you. If you, like us, are fed up with the poor and limited array of options on your ballot, and the feeling that your leaders are not really hearing your voice, get in touch with the Center for Voting and Democracy. They can provide ideas for you to get involved in your community and take real action to fix the problems at the root of this broken system. In doing so, we can open up the system to more quality candidates and insure that our leaders are responsive to what we have to say. Working together on the root problems, rather than the symptoms, we can improve our ability to demand what we truly deserve from our leaders: fair working conditions, fair taxes, adequate health care and, most importantly, the voice that we were always promised in this "Great Democracy".
Resources Related to Fairvote.Org
- My Politics Section - Discusses many issues relevant to the work of Fairvote.
- Politics Section of my Bookstore
- Travelogue of my Trip to Fairvote's 2003 Claim Democracy Conference - Journal of my trip to this great conference about how to improve our democracy, along with many lessons learned there from expert reformers.
- Review of Crashing the Party by Ralph Nader - Goes into great depth about issues raised in Nader's 2000 presidential campaign, many of which are highly relevant to Fairvote's work.
Main Writings & Creative Work Page