Janine Jackson: As media critics in election season, our preeminent concern is less how fair the press are to this or that candidate, than how fair they are to the public. That means substantive reporting, not just on candidates, their records and proposals, but on the voting process itself, and specifically the distance between the system we have and the democracy we rhetorically invoke, and that some of us actually seek. If corporate media typically underserve such process questions, the public increasingly sees their urgency, resulting in things like this month’s overwhelming passage, here in New York City, of a ballot initiative that will change the way we vote. Here to tell us about it and how it can matter is Rob Richie, co-founder and president of the group FairVote. He joins us by phone from Takoma Park, Maryland. Welcome back to “CounterSpin,” Rob Richie.
Rob Richie: Thank you, Janine.
We spoke with you in that weird, sad, hit-on-the-head moment in the immediate wake of the 2016 presidential election, when we were just trying to see a way forward. You talked then about ranked choice voting, which had just passed in Maine, as a meaningful reform of an electoral system that lets us down. I wonder if you could explain a little what you mean about the ways in which the current voting system lets us down?
Yeah, the current system creates incentives and outcomes that really limit what we as voters experience, both with the candidates who ultimately are seen as credible, or even offer themselves at all, and what we can do as voters in indicating our support for them. And when you have a single choice system, which people might think, “Oh, ‘one person, one vote,’ that has to be single choice.” And that’s not what “one person, one vote” means; it means that we all have equal voting power. But if you’re limited to that, then you are not very expressive; you’re just expressing one thing.
And if you only have two choices, expressing one thing is completely adequate. But if you have more than two choices, you’re sort of leaving your views on the table about everyone except the one person that you vote for.
And when you have big fields of candidates, like a lot of people running for president on the Democratic field right now, only being able to vote for one person can seem pretty limiting, and has certain outcomes on who ends up finishing at the top of the heap.
And then when you have a general election, most dramatically, in my lifetime, for a lot of people, was Ralph Nader and Al Gore and George Bush, and there were a couple other candidates as well that year. But there were a lot of people feeling torn about whether they would vote their heart, which for them might have been Ralph Nader, or their more pragmatic self, of like, “Well, I think Gore has the best chance to beat Bush.” And those who ultimately voted for Nader, say, in Florida, forfeited their chance to help Bush be defeated by Gore. And that’s the conundrum that comes up with our current system.
And ranked choice voting is really a win/win solution to those kinds of debates. It allows you to vote for the person you really like. And if that person ends up being not a particularly strong candidate, and doesn’t have a chance to win, your ballot goes to your backup choice. And when you get to what’s “an instant runoff,” you’re down to a one-on-one choice.
And that really can come up as an interesting idea in a number of settings, and New York City was a good example of it. It really passed in a huge way, and got out of a charter commission 13 to one, and just really very powerfully speaks to what’s going on in New York, but almost in a very straightforward, “this is just a better way to have an election.”
And then there’s other uses of it that I think are more dramatic, which would be, say, using it in presidential elections. That would offer the opportunity for third parties and independents to run without being quote unquote spoilers.
Right. I think we’ve all experienced this idea of people saying they feel like they’re only voting against something, they’re not really voting for something. And that leads to a kind of apathy. And that leads to not voting. And then folks get mad at them for that.
You as a candidate have a lot more reasons to have conversations and engagements with people. The candidates that run traditional campaigns that involve using money, and not using people, have not done as well.
I think for many people, that’s the exciting part, is really getting a truly more diverse field of candidates.
Yeah, often there’s this barrier to entry, or perception of entry, which is that, “Well, you don’t have a chance to win, you shouldn’t put your name forward.” Or, “I’m not going to vote for you because I don’t think you can win.” And those kinds of calculations go out the door with ranked choice voting, because you can vote for the person you want and have that backup.
What that means for the candidates that are trying to win is they now have to learn how to be second and third choices of backers of other candidates, right? And so, people who they might have just ignored in the past, because they felt that vote was locked up for that constituency, now they know they might need that vote to win. And so that’s where you become a better candidate, because you need to learn how to connect.
And the best way to connect is actually not with simple 30-second TV ads or something; you have to earn people’s trust. You have to show that you’re listening. And to do that, it really rewards a certain kind of campaigning that — particularly when you’re talking about, say, city council districts — involves direct, virtually a person-to-person connection of earning trust, or at least having your campaign engage directly with people. So it changes incentives in a positive way.
When you say that candidates that run campaigns that involve using money more than people don’t do as well, that suggests to me some powerful opponents for ranked choice voting. And, indeed, Maine Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin said that people were so “confused” by ranked choice voting that he didn’t win the election! And he filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of ranked choice; he called it “exotic,” which I find kind of telling. But a federal judge slapped him down, so that seems to bode well for the expanded use, maybe, of rank choice.
Yeah, that was a somewhat nervous moment, because the judge had just been appointed by Donald Trump, and had been recommended by Maine’s governor, the former governor, who was a very angry opponent of ranked choice voting, and seen as kind of a Donald Trump of Maine. And so there was a sense of, like, “Well, is this judge going to give it a fair shake?”
And he did just an excellent opinion. I mean, not just because we won, but he really addressed it and took on the issues and knocked them down one-by-one, and really, in a sense, took away these arguments, that it’s not constitutional, it’s not a “one person, one vote” system. That had been dealt with by other judges, too, but just to have a judge on “that side of the spectrum” take that perspective and do such a strong opinion… you know, it’s a rhetorical device of the opposition, but it isn’t a real argument.
We certainly have our opponents, but it’s interesting: This can be attractive to all kinds of people in different settings. Like, there’s a lot of unhappy Republicans right now because of the Kentucky governor’s race, where a Libertarian candidate got much more votes than the margin of victory between the Democrat over the Republican. Some Republicans wish that Libertarian voters had had a backup choice, and that would have been fair, right?
And so having a politics where you get outcomes that are, in a sense, “accurate” is good, but one that changes incentives for candidates to really build a true majority, is something we find supporters for from across the spectrum.
One of the barriers to it over the years has been logistical and administrative, and that’s one of the big things that’s happened since we last spoke, is that we’re now removing most of those barriers. So jurisdictions can say, “This is a good idea,” and relatively quickly and straightforwardly implement it, and implement it effectively. And that’s going to really open the door toward expanding this in a lot of different places.
The main dig, as we’ve seen it, has been that it’s confusing, and that’s what the judge was addressing in part in Maine. In These Times’ Adam Eichen made, I thought, an insightful point, that passage in New York City, besides tripling, maybe, the number of folks who use ranked choice voting, also exposes the reform, he wrote, to all of the journalists and all of the media that live in New York, and that that sets them up better to cover it moving forward.
And, although voters who use it say, “It’s not actually that confusing, we got it, we can handle it,” it is something that requires thoughtful coverage, and particularly coverage that considers as it as a process, and doesn’t just dissolve it into whatever particular election is happening at the time.
So I did see some coverage. I mean, The New York Times endorsed ranked choice. I saw you cited a piece from NBC’s Dasha Burns on Maine, I saw a thoughtful piece in Fortune magazine. But the thing is, I didn’t learn about it from media; that’s not where I heard that it was happening, that it was something that I could vote on, that it was something I could be part of. And so I guess maybe, finally, the big thing about media coverage would be just to have more of it.
Yeah, no, I think that is true. And it is an interesting trajectory. We are pleased with the trajectory’s direction. But I think the natural inclination of reporters is to marginalize a new idea until it becomes inevitable. Individual reporters excepting, there is a general perception of, well, “that’s exotic, let’s not really look at that yet; it’s not credible.” And I think that’s the challenge of breaking into being perceived as serious. And I think that has really started happening.
Now, we’re going to have four states, state Democratic parties are going to use it in the presidential primaries next year. Maine has now extended it to president itself, so when the Electoral College votes are decided in Maine next November, it’s going to be with ranked choice voting, in a close state. US Senate, that big Susan Collins race where she’s running for reelection, could be the swing state that controls the Senate; that’s going to be with ranked choice voting in a multi-candidate race.
So there will be these opportunities for people to take it seriously. And I think it’s a fun topic, actually; the more they get into it, I think the more that they’ll actually realize it provides a much richer set of data for understanding the elections and what voters want, and actually get some more interesting candidates to get outside of the binary positioning when you’re only limited to two.
And it shouldn’t need saying, but we’re not saying it’s the answer to all that bedevils the democratic project.
This is true. Yes.
We’ve been speaking with Rob Richie, co-founder and president of FairVote.org. You can learn more about their work online at FairVote.org. Rob Richie, thank you so much for joining us this week on “CounterSpin.”
Thank you, Janine, and keep up the great work.