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Progress on election reform

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

Progress on election reform

The major difference between the Republican and Democratic Presidential Primaries was that the Republican Party had a winner-take-all system while the Democratic Party used Proportional Representation to obtain delegates. The National Democratic Party now has its first African-American presidential nominee as a direct result of PR. Senator Barak Obama would not be the Democratic nominee without PR. ... The issue of PR is not about race. It is about fair and just representation for every voter.

Cincinnati NAACP Branch President Christopher Smitherman in a July 3 press release announcing a petition drive to put on the November 4 ballot a proposal to change Cincinnati’s city elections back to PR instead of winner-take-all.

This week, I met with FairVote director, Rob Richie, and asked him about what progress is being made on a range of election-related issues that FairVote champions. Also present was Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, who spoke about a meeting this week with Long Beach, CA, city representatives about a possible change to instant runoff voting there. The City of Los Angeles is also considering such a move.

::Rob Richie, FairVote::
FairVote has this multi-pronged democracy agenda involving some big ideas involving presidential elections, legislative elections, and voting rights. In presidential elections we've been involved in... the big effort we've been trying to push forward is the national popular vote plan for president. That's the idea of de-fanging the Electoral College and effectively establishing a national popular vote through using the power states already have, and are supposed to use under the Constitution, which is they're the ones who decide how they allocate electoral votes.

The idea of this plan is that they would award their electoral votes not to the winner of their statewide popular vote--which is just a state law--but to change their state law to have them give their electoral votes to the national vote popular winner in all 50 states. To do so once the number of participating states represents a majority of the Electoral College. So, states can pass this law one by one, and then at a certain point the threshold is reached, the critical mass of states involved, and then it governs the next election. I think it will affect the next election. We have legislative chambers out of 99 pass it. The Massachusetts House just passed it today, and I think that we'll probably get the requisite number of states by, say, 2010. So that's a big change. We're also involved in some of the changes on presidential primaries.

In legislative elections, we're most interested in proportional representation. The big effort we're excited about is Cincinnati. It has at-large winner-take-all elections and it used to have proportional representation in the form of a single transferable vote, or choice voting. That is now being put forward by a coalition led by the NAACP as a petition drive. We're helping that effort. I think it's going to be on the ballot, and that will be a really great opportunity to win in November. And also in just sort of putting out the analysis of why we need to change our winner-take-all system.

We're also doing some good work on voter registration, moving toward what is the international norm, but it's bizarre here, which is the idea of universal voter registration which the government should be a partner with the citizen in establishing full and accurate voter rolls. I know in New Zealand, say, you're required to register to vote and they make it pretty easy to register. Well, here you're not required and they make it pretty hard to register, often. So we only have seven in ten people registered. One simple change is we're trying to let people get registered earlier. They can start doing it in high school and when they first go to get their drivers license. That concept is beginning to pass in some states and we've been the leader on that. But it's part of a move towards universal registration.

And then instant runoff voting can be used for a range of elections. We're working both on the implementation side in places that are using it for the first time. The biggest of that is Pierce County in Washington, which has a county of about 800,000 people using it for their county executive race. It's a key opportunity. And then IRV is on the ballot in some big places, including Memphis, Tennessee, which is the second biggest city in the southeastern United States; Glendale, Arizona, where the SuperBowl was; and St. Paul, Minnesota, we hope it will be on the ballot. It should be on the ballot. The city council is sort of defying the law and trying not to put it on the ballot. All of those are winnable campaigns, but that's something we've really got to help win.

::Steve Chessin, Californians for Electoral Reform::
Long Beach has their elections... their first election is in April, and then a runoff election, if necessary, for the city council is in June, consolidated with the statewide election. Well, it's not really consolidated. It's at the same time. Which means voters go into the polling place and there are two tables. There's one table for the city election, where they have to sign in, get a ballot, vote, and cast that ballot. And then there's another table where they sign in and get a ballot for the county and state elections.

It's very unusual. It's because Los Angeles County has special dispensation because of limitations as to how many things they can get on their ballot. They're allowed to exclude cities from the county ballot. The city of Long Beach runs their own elections. They contract with a vendor separately from the vendor that the county uses, and their vendor... I think they just negotiated a contract with a different vendor than they used to use. They use Hart InterCivic. And Hart Intercivic is in the process of writing the software to process instant runoff voting ballots.

The city clerk at Long Beach is very interested in moving to instant runoff voting because that would save them the expense of a second election. If I remember correctly, a citywide runoff election costs $1.2 million. They elect their city council by districts. A runoff election in any one district is $165,000. So they could save a lot of money, and he figures that in two election cycles they recoup the non-recurring expenditure going to instant runoff voting in terms of equipment and first-time voter education.

On Tuesday, July 8, I attended a meeting of the Long Beach Elections Oversight Committee, which is composed of three of the nine city council members. It was encouraging. They had some questions. They wanted to know if there were other ways they could save the money without going to instant runoff voting. One of the expenses is when they have what they call the Two-Vote Tuesday, where their second election is the same time as the June statewide election. They do massive voter education to tell people every time, You have to vote twice on Tuesday.

They wanted to know if there were other ways they could avoid this by shifting their election date so that they didn't coincide, but it still has the expense of a second election. So we were encouraged. We have some information we need to obtain for that committee to consider before they pass the recommendation on to the City Council. But the city clerk is pushing for instant runoff voting, as is the elections department, so that's a good sign.



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