It’s great to see major media outlets support game-changing reforms like ranked choice voting (aka, “instant runoff voting”):
The next regular round of council and local elections is slated for next year. So it’s important to look beyond the personalities of the recent election to the processes that allowed a citywide representative to be elected by a tiny minority of voters. Unofficial returns from the D.C. Board of Elections show 49,869 people — less than 10 percent of the District’s registered 505,698 voters — participating in the special election. Moreover, the winner received just 16,054 votes, or less than a third of those cast. Clearly, it’s not much of a mandate when more than two-thirds of voters prefer someone else.
A better system would provide for an instant runoff, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice and it takes a majority, not a plurality, to win. If such a system had been in place Tuesday, the last-place candidate would have been eliminated and all ballots recounted, with the votes for the stricken candidate reassigned to the second choice of his voters. The process would have continued until a candidate reached a majority.
Click here for the original article:
A great visual showing how ranked choice voting works, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:
Well, it turns out our sitting senator once again voted against the needs of the electorate, just as he did in 2010. His two arguments against the bill this year are repeated verbatim from 2010. Namely, 1) the bill “does not do enough to require transparency, accountability, and fair play;” and 2) “key requirements of the bill would not have applied to labor unions and other special interest groups.” He also cites that 450 groups from “across the political spectrum” opposed the bill, and generally thinks that “the legislation attempts to advance the political agenda of one party and of certain special interests to gain a tactical advantage.”
So, let’s go into his arguments.
1) The bill “does not do enough to require transparency, accountability, and fair play.”
Senator Brown criticizes the bill for not doing enough to promote good disclosure practices, yet, what is his proposed alternative? Absolutely nothing. He offers no examples as to what would supposedly make the bill stronger. What’s worse, I’ve looked through his entire record of bill sponsorship and co-sponsorship as a US Senator. He has sponsored a grand total of zero bills which address independent spending on campaigns in any way, let alone those shining a light on the hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money currently flooding our elections since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. This fact suggests that he is arguing this point in obstinacy and bad faith.
2) “Key requirements of the bill would not have applied to labor unions and other special interest groups.”
This is where the propaganda begins. Although Senator Brown is mum on what “key requirements” he is specifically referencing, he is pointing to the requirement that a campaign-related donation to an organization must be a minimum of $10,000; otherwise a group is not burdened with reporting it. His oft-parroted argument that labor unions have some special carve-out is blatantly false. The $10,000 threshold would allow any organization relying on small-dollar membership dues to skip disclosing every single donor, as these tiny amounts are not helpful to the public’s knowledge of special-interest campaign spending. Lisa Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation illuminates further: “By setting the disclosure thresholds relatively high, the bill is intended to capture only contributions that, due to their size, could corrupt or appear to corrupt the political process. It is true that the names of average dues paying union members will not be listed on disclosure reports filed by unions, as individual dues will likely be far smaller than the $10,000 threshold. Neither will the names of donors to a nonprofit organization like the Sierra Club or a trade association like the Chamber of Commerce be listed if their dues or contributions do not exceed the $10,000 threshold. There is no differentiation based exclusively on union membership.”
For all of the campaign niceties about Scott Brown being able to work both sides of the aisle, working hard for the people of Massachusetts, and all the rest of it; in this instance, when it really matters to the health of our democracy and the power of voters to know who’s behind the hundreds of millions of dollars in post-Citizens United ad spending, Scott Brown has turned against us. In this instance he walks lock-step with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s and the Republican Party’s campaign of misinformation against disclosure, helping to keep voters dumb.
Here is Scott Brown’s letter to me about the DISCLOSE Act:
Dear Mr. Friedman,
Thank you for your letter regarding the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act (DISCLOSE) Act (S. 3369). As always, I value the input of my constituents on all issues, and appreciate hearing from you.
The DISCLOSE Act was originally introduced in 2010, purportedly as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. While small changes were made to superficially address certain concerns, the newest version, introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), does not do enough to require transparency, accountability and fair play. Rather than reform our campaign finance laws and provide increased transparency, the legislation attempts to advance the political agenda of one party and of certain special interests to gain a tactical advantage.
My election to the U.S. Senate sent a message that the people of Massachusetts are tired of the politics-as-usual, but the action of the majority to force repeated consideration of the DISCLOSE Act ignores this message. One especially troubling aspect of the DISCLOSE Act is that it does not treat all organizations equally. For example, because of the way certain organizations are funded, key requirements of the bill would not have applied to labor unions and other special interest groups. Transparency that is good for some, should be good for all.
These and other troubling provisions are why more than 450 other groups from across the political spectrum—ranging from such ideological opposites as the National Right to Life Committee and the ACLU—opposed the bill. These groups recognized that the DISCLOSE Act was based on partisan politics instead of sound policy. I could not agree more. When dealing with rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, we should look to adopt a higher standard than the one in this bill. The people of Massachusetts expect and deserve better. It is for these reasons that on July 17, 2012, I along with 44 of my Senate colleagues voted against S. 3369.
Again, thank you for sharing your views with me. If I can be of further assistance, do not hesitate to contact me or visit my website at www.scottbrown.senate.gov.
Scott P. Brown
United States Senator
Just as tobacco companies are allowed to sell products that endanger our physical health, so are we permitting any corporation to pour millions into ad campaigns to endanger the health of our political discourse — with their profit-driven, special-interest propaganda. Fine, let’s just ensure they all come tagged with a nifty “Attorney General’s warning,” to protect citizens’ sense of perspective. Here’s a sample I just mocked up. Can we make this federal law, please?
According to Honest Graft a compendium of evidence of special-interest corruption decaying our democracy, author and Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson aptly synthesizes a complex entanglement that many do-good liberals don’t realize they are funding, when they support their local union PAC or Democratic campaign committee:
“[The need to raise money] does affect legislation. You don’t have the people feeling they can be creative…because they’ve got to raise this fifty thousand, and they don’t want to turn people off.” [(according to Rep. Anthony Coelho, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee)]
Too often, moneyed interest prevail by blocking legislation they don’t want. Consider housing, as Coelho suggested. Homeless people and unskilled, jobless youths crowd our cities. Yet the AFL-CIO, financial backbone of the Democratic party, insists on applying Depression-era regulations to federally subsidized housing, pushing up labor costs and reducing the number of apartments that can be built for the poor. Real-estate developers, a rich source of money for both parties, look for subsidies and tax write-offs as the price for building any such housing at all. The obvious becomes unthinkable: Congress dare not consider training jobless ghetto youths in the construction trades and employing them directly at low but decent wages to build no-frills apartments for low-income renters and buyers. Such a direct program would produce more and cheaper housing units than at present and in the bargain create productive citizens from among the tax-eating welfare class. But it would infuriate moneyed interests.
From page 108-109
Dear Occupy Boston,
I am honored and blessed to stand with Occupy. Together we are reawakening the nation, and the world, to go straight to the heart of our collective political life to demand with urgency and conviction: Democracy is for people!
Consider this our formal introduction. I write to you as a democracy reformer of seven years. I sit on the board of MassVOTE, and I’m a volunteering member of Common Cause, The League of Women Voters, and MassPIRG. I also run Citizens for Voter Choice. These organizations have spent decades fighting to reform democracy to make it more honest, responsive, and inclusive. These groups are strictly non-partisan in their goals, and only MassPIRG and LWV take positions on bread-and-butter issues like health care, jobs, and education.
We need to study these organizations and their full history of political struggle. Their staffers and board members are older and in many ways wiser than many of us. And in my opinion, they hold the golden lesson for our activism: we must dig deeper to help people better access the power-infrastructure which undergirds our shared plight. We must act to change our democratic system itself. The victory does not lay in winning Wall Street regulatory reform, or full funding of public schools, or even a health care system that puts people before profits. These issues are all crops, and a farmer who merely inspects her crops for good health will not succeed. The farmer must be utterly obsessed with the soil, to ensure the crops are getting what they need to grow. Thus, I urge us to invest most of our energy in tilling and enriching this soil — this soil of democracy.
The soil of democracy is how democracy works. There are rules to the game that will make the difference between passing a good bill into law this year, in three years, in ten years, or not at all. As most of you know, business interests in Washington have spent billions of dollars to study and master these rules, to ensure that bills favorable to the 1% pass this year; and bills unfavorable to the 1% are stymied indefinitely until they either pass under public pressure, sometimes with watered-down language; or, more commonly, they just never pass at all.
Understanding what we, the 99%, are up against in the political arena, I would like to emphasize: whatever the specific policies that we demand and win, we must ensure that our democratic system will keep these victories protected, lest they fall prey to future influxes of special interest money to dismantle our gains. It is in the understanding of this danger that I strongly urge the Occupy movement to make democracy reform the central policy demand, and view our other demands as secondary spokes to this wheel, as they will become attainable and maintainable — once we win a more responsive democratic process.
Here are what I identify as the most urgent problems at the core of our democracy, and the best working solutions:
Citizen-Funded Elections: Get Money out of Politics and People Back In
Problem: A culture of corruption has embedded itself in Washington in which well-meaning elected officials survive by exchanging legislative favors for campaign contributions. Candidates and office-holders are corrupted by unlimited private donations and by independent ad spending from allies.
Solution: A Citizen-Funded Election System (aka “Clean Elections,” “Fair Elections”, or public financing of elections) at the federal and state levels, as well as mandated disclosure of all independent political spending (e.g the DISCLOSE Act). Clean Elections works by requiring candidates to qualify for a taxpayer-funded campaign grant by raising a large number of small-dollar (e.g, $5) contributions from individuals. Once the campaign is over, all money raised is returned to the public treasury, which would put an end to massive campaign war chests. Clean Elections thereby breaks the dependency of legislators on lobbyist and special-interest funding, and incentivizes candidates to engage with a very broad base of small-dollar-contributing supporters rather than big-dollar bundling and fund-raising dinners for the wealthy.
Clean Elections has already been implemented successfully in Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona, and between 60-80% of all state legislators chose to run using this system.
Capitol Punishment by Jack Abramoff
So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser
Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig
More on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_finance#Further_reading
Ranked Choice Voting: End the Party Duopoly and Make Elections More Competitive
Problem: In the most diverse nation in the world, we, the voters, typically have a mere two choices in our general elections. Worse off are the people of Massachusetts, wherein a single political party controls about 90% of the state legislature, and about 70% of our state legislative seats go uncontested in general elections. Even competitive races leave us, the voters, with the feeling that we’re not getting the best choices. A critical “design flaw” of our current voting system is known as the “spoiler effect.” In our most competitive elections, there are oftentimes two candidates who are ideologically similar. So the weaker candidate’s presence in the race siphons off needed votes from their stronger counterpart, votes crucial to win the election. The result? The candidate who is ideologically opposed to both of them ends up winning, and s/he is not the candidate that a majority of voters actually want. (The most famous example is Bush, Gore, and Nader competing in Florida in the 2000 Presidential election.)
Solution: Ranked Choice Voting (aka “Instant Runoff Voting”) and Proportional Representation (aka “Choice Voting”) provide the proper incentives for voters to vote their values with a smart ballot on which they rank their preferences in numerical order. The design of RCV/PR eliminates the spoiler effect entirely, and encourages more candidates to run for office who previously wouldn’t, since never again would they be pressured to drop out of a race for fear of being a spoiler. RCV/PR can radically improve our elections with healthy competition, more public debate, a more diverse menu of candidates, majority winners; and consequently, better representation.
RCV has been implemented successfully in several US cities to elect their mayor and other offices, including Cambridge, MA; Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkley, CA; Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN; Portland, ME, and others. RCV is also used nationally in Australia, Ireland, and Malta; as well as in various localities around the world.
Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone
“Rank the Vote” by Nicholas Stephanopoulos (The New Republic, October 1, 2010)
More on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote#External_links
More Democracy Reforms
There are many other policies in the areas of transparency, ethics, and elections which would benefit every hard-working family in the United States by making government more accountable, accessible, and responsive. I’ve decided to highlight the two game-changing policies above to ensure my contribution stays as focused as possible. However, I am happy to help the Occupy movement to organize behind any of the following:
- Public Official-to-Lobbyist Ban (end the “revolving door”)
- Same-Day Voter Registration
- Early Voting
- Election Day as a National Holiday or Weekend Voting
- People’s Hours (evening-time bill hearings and other public meetings)
- Candidate “Common Application” (a standard assessment package for each candidate that requires full itemization of work history and topical essay questions).
- Public Records Online (in a timely manner and in accessible, easy-to-navigate formats)
- Participatory Budgeting
- Term Limits (for legislators)
- And much more!
I am here to serve the movement in the best way that I can. Let us work together to create lasting change for our nation, and for the world.
[Adam's note: Just found this gem on the web while doing research for my upcoming workshop on IRV at the 2012 College Convention. My own Congressman (Capuano) won the Dem primary with 23 percent of the vote -- a paltry mandate.]
Boston Globe, 4/15/2001 — written by Brian C. Mooney
Democracy is imperfect, as last fall’s presidential election demonstrated. Divining the will of the body politic can be an inexact science, even a messy business.
Unquestionably, the Florida recount fiasco shook many Americans’ confidence in our electoral system. But it has also propelled efforts to overhaul and fine-tune the ”winner-take-all” tradition in US politics.
At least five states are considering proposals to establish so-called ”instant runoff elections,” also known as ”preferential voting.” Under this system, voters rank the candidates in multiple-candidate fields by preference, rather than voting for just one person. When no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the first tally, the secondary preferences are counted to determine the winner.
This election method, proponents argue vigorously, provides a way to reflect majority sentiment, even in a 10-candidate race.
Instant runoffs would also eliminate the either-or burden borne by ”spoiler” candidates like Ralph Nader of the Green Party faced. In last year’s presidential election, had Nader been able to urge his supporters to cast their second-preference vote for Al Gore, the Democrat would probably be president, and Nader would be a hero, not a pariah, to Democratic stalwarts.
Preferential voting has been used since 1918 in Australia and for many years in Ireland. In 1990, second-preference votes lifted Mary Robinson to become the first woman president of the Republic of Ireland. She was second among three candidates who failed to win a majority of first-preference votes.
Vermont is among the five states contemplating instant runoffs; the others are Washington, New Mexico, California, and Alaska. The idea may be worth a serious look in Massachusetts, too, because on the 2002 Democratic primary ballot, there could be four or more candidates for each of four constitutional offices and one or two congressional seats.
Under current state law, the leading vote-getter in those primaries could skate to the final election, perhaps with 30 percent of the vote or less. With a weak Republican Party in the state, most, if not all, of the Democratic primary victors would become odds-on favorites in the November election.
That scenario has played out many times here and across the country as plurality winners were nominated by their parties or elected outright. Current New England governors who won their first term with slim pluralities include Connecticut Republican John Rowland (36 percent in 1994) and Maine independent Angus King (35 percent the same year).
In the Bay State, there have been many plurality winners, particularly in party primaries. In 1998, Somerville Mayor Michael E. Capuano, with 23 percent of the vote, won a 10-candidate Democratic primary in the 8th Congressional District. In the lopsidedly Democratic 8th, it was tantamount to election.
If preferential voting had been in effect in 1996, Philip W. Johnston would almost certainly be the congressman from the 10th Congressional District today, instead of chairman of the state Democratic Party. Johnston lost by 119 votes in a three-way primary to William D. Delahunt, who won 38 percent of the vote in a contest that went to a Florida-style recount, complete with chads and dimples and pregnant punchcard ballots. Newcomer Ian Bowles was out of the running with 22 percent of the vote but ran a strong second to Johnston in the Cape Cod and Islands region of the district. If Bowles’s backers had been allowed to express a second preference, it’s a pretty safe bet most would have chosen Johnston, thus giving him the edge.
Individuals can decide whether it’s good or bad, but it’s hard to argue against the proposition that preferential voting provides a better vehicle to reflect public sentiment.
”I think any election system that doesn’t produce a majority winner is a disservice to the voters,” said George Pillsbury, policy director of Boston Vote, a nonpartisan organization working to increase voter participation in Boston and other urban areas.
”The current system opens the door for a very unpopular candidate in a very crowded field,” he said.
Mickey Edwards, the former eight-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma, is amazed that Massachusetts does not employ runoffs, either of the instant or traditional variety, meaning a second primary election with the top two finishers facing off.
”It seems to me it’s the only legitimate way of conducting an election,” said Edwards, who for seven years has been John Quincy Adams lecturer in legislative politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. ”That way the majority of voters are not cut out of the process, represented by somebody most of them didn’t want.” Oklahoma is one of the 11 states that use traditional, not instant, runoffs to ensure majority winners in party primaries.
Instant runoffs preserve the winner-take-all concept but greatly refine it by factoring in the second choice (or in larger fields, even more choices) of voters whose favorite is a weaker candidate. And they eliminate the more conventional runoff elections, which are expensive and often draw skimpy turnouts.
The concept was actually invented in Massachusetts around 1870 by professor W.R. Ware of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy, an instant runoff advocacy group.
It could be a tough sell today in its birthplace, however. Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s chief election officer, said there are ”very real and practical problems” to implementing such a system here.
”The first problem is you have to get a law passed” by the Legislature, Galvin said. ”The second is you have to educate the populace about how it works.”
Let the education begin: Here are details on how an instant runoff might work in Massachusetts.
If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is nominated or elected, and that’s it. But, in a multi-candidate field, if no candidate receives a majority, the preference voting kicks in.
Let’s say three candidates are running for office. On the ballot, which resembles a State Lottery betting slip, there will be next to each name three ovals, numbered 1, 2, and 3.
Using a special pen, voters color in the oval numbered ”1” next to their top choice, the oval numbered ”2” next to their second choice.
Suppose candidate A receives 39 percent of the first-preference votes (number ones), candidate B 34 percent, and candidate C 27 percent. No one tops 50 percent, so the instant runoff begins.
Candidate C is eliminated, and his or her second-preference votes are apportioned to his rivals. If they split evenly, candidates A and B each receive another 14 percent, and A beats B, 52-48 percent.
It works the same way in larger fields. Using ”sequential elimination” of weaker candidates, one per round, backup votes are transferred to other candidates until one tops 50 percent.
But what if B and C were both conservative candidates and A was the lone liberal? In that case, B probably would receive most of the second preferences on C’s ballots. Maybe they would break B’s way in a ratio of 2 to 1. In that case, B would win, 52-48, and an aggregated conservative majority would prevail.
It happens all the time in states that now hold conventional runoff elections, so-called second primaries. For example, in Florida, Lawton Chiles became US senator and Bob Graham governor by overcoming second-place first-primary finishes with runoff victories.
A full-blown second election isn’t necessary anymore. Modern optical scanning technology and computer software permit the results of large-field preferential voting to be calculated rapidly.
The City of Cambridge uses such technology for its ”proportional representation” elections of city councilors and school committee members. The old manual counts took about a week. The computerized counts, according to Teresa Neighbor, executive director of the city’s election commission, take minutes.
The Occupy movement is awakening our nation to the rotten nut of our current democracy. The energy and fury is palpable, and it is growing by the day. Yet, still, national media personalities are criticizing the movement as lacking a demands or specificity. My response: just wait. The movement is evolving organically, and this very process of slow deliberate consensus-building steps is a core part of the message itself. Maybe it’ll take another two weeks, or two months, or heck, maybe even two years.
Even so, that’s not the point, not yet. We as the 99% need to gain a bit of self-awareness first, an orientation of why we are in the position that we are in in this country. I can understand onlookers being impatient and wanting them to produce their demands and show their teeth. I am actually chomping at the bit myself to ensure that the Occupy in Boston gives serious consideration to fundamental money-in-politics reforms (like citizen-funded elections), competitive-elections reforms (like ranked choice voting) and other great voter empowering policies.
The critique with which I have the most impatience, however, is this notion that the Occupiers don’t really have a clear sense of what their grievances are, or what they are protesting. Are you kidding me?
And how about the way the financial sector extracted trillions of dollars in corporate welfare — welfare — from we the people, when their shoddy investments went south, and of the TARP itself, the American taxpayer is still out $235 billion.
Then there’s the problem of the top income earners having in many cases a lower tax rate than wage-earning people, as billionaire Warren Buffet has explained, urging Congress to raise his taxes. He flatly states how “these [extraordinary tax-breaks] and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.”
Now, why exactly do legislators in Washington coddle the rich? Take a walk around Capitol Hill some day, and maybe you’ll see why.
11,000+ lobbyists spent $1.6 billion on influencing our federal legislators in 2011, and we still have three months to go. The money pours in when Congress works on major industry-specific bills. This results in some of the most blatant legislative special-interest manipulations I’ve seen in my lifetime.
And let’s take a look at income disparity across the population since the 1920s (see below). Bottom 80%: flat. Above that, inched higher. Top 1%? Skyrocketed. Wait… haven’t we been in a recession?
And what kind of legal structure would allow this kind of income inequality to spiral so incredibly? Isn’t a rising tide supposed to lift all boats? Or was it, “yachts”?
Here is a little bit of analysis from The Economist.
What you’ve read above is just a smattering of thoughts I could jot down. I’ll add more to this list when I have more time. But folks, please, do some research on how the sausage is actually made in Washington before you swallow the bait of the “critics” and turn against your own allies, taking time and energy to go out and fight for the people’s interests — your interests.
Published as an Op-Ed in the Boston Herald:
Boston taxpayers, take heed: You just paid $29 per ballot to elect a city councilor. You probably could’ve used that extra money for a half-tank of gas, or a night out at your favorite restaurant. Instead, you spent an estimated $83,000 so that 7 percent (2,886) of District 7’s registered voters could brave the cold last Tuesday to elect Chuck Turner’s successor. At that price, those must have been some pretty nice ballots.
If you thought John Kerry was a flip-flopper, then get a load of the candidates for the Massachusetts 10th Congressional open seat: Republican Jeff Perry caught fire and began peeling support away from his Democratic opponent, William Keating. Then, out of nowhere, two lifelong career Democrats entered the race as un-enrolled candidates with tea party platforms. MaryAnne Lewis, a Democratic activist, lobbyist and former assistant to disgraced ex-Speaker Tom Finneran, came out staunchly in favor of 2nd Amendment and against Obamacare and amnesty for illegal immigrants. Jim Sheets, the 74-year-old Democrat who served six terms as mayor of Quincy, parroted Lewis’s platform while opposing runaway federal spending and cap-and-trade. Now, if Democrats wouldn’t be caught dead at a tea party, then why, by God, did these two run as tea party candidates?
For the same reason Arizona Republicans recruited a tarot card reader and a homeless street performer to run for office on the Green Party ticket. And for the same reason the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dispatched an operative to manufacture a tea party candidate to “spice up” the election of a freshman New Jersey incumbent: to sabotage their opponent’s chances by leveraging fake spoiler candidates.