Resuscitating democracy: Q & A with Fair Vote’s Rob Richie

Rob Richie is executive director of Fair Vote, a Washington-DC-based non-profit focused on “reforming our elections to respect every vote and every voice through bold approaches to increase voter turnout, meaningful ballot choices and fair representation.” In a recent interview, Richie [RR] shared his views with Occasional Planet [OP].

[OP] Why is it so difficult to change our election system?

[RR] Hyper-partisanship makes every electoral reform harder. What’s best for voters is not the first calculation that politicians make. Political parties look at reforms and evaluate them in the light of, “Will this hurt us more than the other party?” That view is trans-party. Most Democratic and Republican leaders tend to elevate party interests over the interests of the voter.

[OP] Is there any hope for election reform in the US?

[RR] Yes. There’s been a sea change in how people perceive what can happen, a different degree of hope. One example is Electoral College reform – -the National Popular Vote plan for president. The movement started in 2006, and there already have been bills introduced in 50 states and passed at least one chamber in 20 of them. [Editor’s note: National Popular Vote is a state-based plan to guarantee election of the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. New York’s state senate recently passed a national popular vote measure by a 52-7 vote, and Massachusetts’ recent passage of NPV makes it the sixth state to enact the law.] I think there’s a real chance that we’ll get meaningful change by 2016, and perhaps even 2012.

[OP] What progress has been made toward Instant Runoff Voting?

[RR] Instant runoff voting is one of the good ideas that speak directly to problems people have with our politics: It upholds majority rule and makes it possible to have third party and independents to run without being attacked as spoilers. It’s in an entirely different place from when we started. More than a dozen cities have instituted instant runoff voting, and it’s gaining traction in several states.

A good example of how IRV could benefit voters is in Missouri. In 2000, one candidate won the Republican primary for a US Congressional seat with only 26% of the vote, because Missouri does not require a majority to win the primary. In this case, as in others around the country, a relatively small minority of voters chose the candidate. Instant Runoff Voting would assure that a candidate would reflect the preferences of a majority of voters in the primary election.

[OP] What misconceptions about our election system do you have to overcome in your work?

[RR] People often say that Congress does its job poorly, at the same time that they say that our Constitution is “great.” They don’t see that the system creates the rules that prevent it from working well. But when change is suggested, they don’t want to change what they think the Founding Fathers created.  In fact, the Founding Fathers were a lot more courageous than we’re willing to be. They would be appalled at how timid we are at reviewing our procedures and rules. They were bold, innovative thinkers who didn’t stick with the way things had always been done before. Their role is being misinterpreted.

[OP] What’s your view of the Top 2 election structure recently implemented in California?

[RR] “Open primaries” have the advantage of creating a majority winner in the final round and giving more voters a chance to help elect their representatives, but we’re recommending some changes in the system. Under Top 2, you could end up with an unrepresentative race between two candidates from the same party. The 2008 presidential primary in New Hampshire is an example: The top two finishers there were Obama and Clinton. If that had been the presidential election, the voters would have had to make a choice between two relatively similar candidates, and no Republican.  One of our suggestions is to change it to Top 3 and use instant runoff voting in the final round.

[OP]How does the US stack up against other countries regarding the fairness of elections?

[RR] Among other, well-established, long-term democracies, we rank near the bottom. Other countries have voter rolls that are more accurate and complete. The international norm for voter-roll accuracy is more than 90 percent of eligible voters. We’re at about 70 percent. Also, most other countries’ elections require candidates to get a 50% majority to win executive office, and they use proportional representation for legislative elections rather than a winner-take-all system.

Our democracy is stronger in other areas than elections. We have a lot of media coverage and openness; we have a lot of non-profits watch-dogging and working on improvements. As to elections, it probably is one saving grace that we elect so many people. Most everyone typically can help someone do something, and our elected representatives kind of check each other and recharge the system frequently. But it’s far from ideal.

[OP] What impacts have evolving technologies had on our election system?

The question we need to be asking is, “Who should own the process?” The outsourcing of election technology to private, profit-driven companies is very problematic. One company, ES&S controls a huge portion of our voting equipment and administration of elections: While they no longer own 70% of the voting equipment, because the Department of Justice forced them to divest, they still play a key role administering most elections. Plus, regulating and certifying technologies is all done haphazardly, state by state. Our whole model needs to be rethought.

Fair Vote is proposing a public option for voting equipment. We’d like to see technologies and equipment developed by groups that are not driven by profit, with open-source software. In a public option, the states would own the equipment. We’d have a national system, developed and run by a nonpartisan consortium, using open source software and responsive to public needs.

[OP] How well-informed are Americans about our election system?

[RR] There’s a lot that people don’t know. For example, there’s no affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution. Because of that omission, there are some 9 million US citizens who can’t vote where they live, but who could vote if they lived somewhere else. Examples are the citizens of District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other US territories. If you move to France, you can vote as an American citizen abroad, but if you move to Puerto Rico, you can’t vote for president. Also, because states determine who can vote, 4 million citizens lose their right to vote because of current state laws that limit voting rights for people with felony convictions.  One of our goals is to put a right to vote into the US Constitution.

Here’s an example of how our patchwork of 13,000 different voting jurisdictions works. Earlier this year [June 2010] in an election in Riverside, California, about twelve thousand absentee votes were filed at the local post office. But the local election authority forgot to pick them up. They realized their mistake, but by the time they did, it was already 8 pm, and the deadline for absentee ballots had passed, so they weren’t going to be counted. It took a lawsuit, using state laws, to get them into the tally. Voters should have had a constitutional right to uphold their voting rights in that situation – and many more.

[OP] What needs to be done to increase voter participation in US elections?

[RR] First, get everyone registered, and do it once. [One of Fair Vote’s projects is universal voter registration.] Also, we need to make Election Day work better, by paying election workers better, training them better and considering making Election Day for big elections a national holiday.

But beyond those things, we need to look at the basic motivation to vote. We need a system in which there are candidates that voters can believe in. Most races for Congress aren’t competitive: We need to embrace competitiveness in our elections, with a greater range of candidates and a wider range of issues being discussed. For us, that means replacing winner-take-all elections with systems of proportional representation – of which there are many variations, some of which are working quite well at a local level in the United States.We need to create an atmosphere of more positive politics, where it’s not all about fighting one another. We need voters to believe that voting is a positive aspect of government. Nothing else can improve our system as well as that change in attitude would.