On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Electoral reform movement spreading across United States

Amid one of the most turbulent periods in US political history, campaigns for reforming the nation’s legislative election systems have been springing up across the nation in recent years.

In as many as 25 US states, legislative proposals or active grassroots campaigns are gearing up, aiming to replace the single-member division plurality (first-past-the post) method of electing Congress and state legislatures.

Campaigners argue that shifting to preferential voting will give voters more choice, improve representation, and reduce the toxic partisanship seen in election campaigns and in legislatures.

State legislatures have the authority to set the electoral systems for all legislative and executive elections within their state, including elections for the national congress.

The US Congress however has an overriding power to legislate in regard to election systems for members of the Congress itself.

Current national legislation partially controls how the states manage their voter registration systems, and also attempts to prevent state legislation from effecting racial bias against African-American and other minority voters.

Congress has also made crucial use of its overriding power to shape the voting method, by legislating in 1967 that elections for each state’s members of the national House of Representatives must take place only in single-member districts.

The national single-member district rule – first put forward as far back as 1842 – was intended to eliminate the use of block voting in multi-member districts. Block voting was allowing states with one dominant political party to sweep all the available seats, and in some states the system was used to exclude African-Americans from representation.

The insistence on single-member districts was thus part of the period of reforming judicial decisions and legislative changes in the 1960s that aimed to remove inequalities and boost the representation of minorities in the nation’s legislatures.

Many of the current US electoral reform movements are willing to retain single-member districts, but insist on using the method of preferential voting, variously being called ‘instant runoff voting’ (IRV) or ‘ranked choice voting’ (RCV).

Voters in the state of Maine have already broken through on this front, with the passage last November of a citizen initiative to introduce ranked choice voting from elections in 2018.

Opponents of reform in the Maine legislature are fighting back, and there have been attempts to overturn the citizen-approved electoral legislation. The State’s Supreme Court has recently given an advisory opinion that preferential voting might be incompatible with elections for members of the two houses of the state legislature. But the law is apparently solid in its application to elections for US congressional representatives.

Calls for single-district preferential voting are gearing up in many states, and some reformers also call for ranked choice voting in multi-member districts. Based on the single transferable vote (STV) voting system, such multi-member district elections would be very different from the old block voting method.

Campaigners are also attempting to bring STV voting to elections for the national House of Representative itself. Recognizing that Congress would need to enact legislation replacing the 1967 single-member district law to facilitate such a reform, a bill to do just that was presented to Congress in June.

Introduced by Representative Don Beyer (Democrat, Virginia), the bill to enact a Fair Representation Act would essentially establish the STV electoral system for all congressional elections.

This form of ‘ranked choice voting’ would resemble the voting method long used in Ireland, and Australia, and during the 20th century also in many US metropolitan jurisdictions.

Under the proposed law all states allotted six or more seats in the House would be required to establish new larger electoral districts in which combinations of 3, 4 or 5 members would be elected.

States with between two and five members would form one multi-member district under the proposed system.

States allotted just one member of the House would at least elect such members using preferential instant runoff voting.

The system would largely eliminate the present one-party regions in the nation, and ensure that minority Democrat or Republican voting communities would be represented.

In larger districts, it would also become more realistic for representatives from outside the two dominant US political parties to be elected.

The bill for the Fair Representation Act includes a second reform, to end district gerrymandering by placing the task of drawing all congressional district boundaries into the hands of independent authorities.

Preferential voting is not novel to the United States, with some cities introducing it as early as the 1920s. But during the 1950s most of the preferential STV city electoral systems were repealed.

At present the city assemblies, and some mayors, in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro (in California) and Minneapolis and Saint Paul (in Minnesota) are elected using single-member districts IRV, while the council of the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts is elected using multi-member distract RCV (that is, the full STV voting system).

The leading national lobby group promoting a rebirth of preferential voting in the US is FairVote, led by seasoned campaigner Rob Richie.

FairVote campaigns generally for preferential voting in either single- or multi-member districts. FairVote also promotes the relatively new term ‘choice voting’ used to describe the STV system (see notes below on terminology).

FairVote is tracking at least 19 states where advocates have reached the point of putting forward state-level legislation to introduce ranked choice voting.

grab_FairVote map of states pushign RCV.png

States with RCV-related bills currently before their state legislatures

At least another 6 states have established RCV campaign groups.

But so far only in Maine and in several city municipalities have reforms actually been enacted.

The national electoral reform organization has seeded a number of state campaign entities using the FairVote brand, but several other local organisations are also in the field.

In Maine the state’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting has led the nation, with a voter initiative in 2016 approving legislation to adopt the new system for state and congressional elections.

Nevadans for Electoral Reform are generally in favour of what they term RCV or IRV.

Voter Choice Massachusetts is campaigning to introduce preferential ranked choice voting, and are open to continuing the use of single-member districts.

FairVote Minnesota campaigns for either single-or multi-seat districts so long as ranked choice ballots are used.

[update:] FairVote Washington is also campaigning generally for ranked choice voting in either single- or multi-member districts. A chapter is specifically working on city-level reform for Seattle.

FairVote New Mexico is a project of the FairVote organisation advocating generally for ranked choice voting, and they currently have a specific political battle to fight. A citizen’s initiative for elections in the city of Santa Fe approved the reformed voting method as far back as 2008, but a for a decade opponents have blocked and delayed implementing the change in the legislature and the through the state courts. A court ruling just this week seems to be finally forcing the initiative to take effect for the next city municipal elections.

Real Choice Voting Colorado is working on general ranked choice voting for either single-or multi-member district elections.

RCV Virginia is a Twitter group committed to supporting the introduction of ranked choice voting, and in particular supporting the current congressional Fair Representation Act bill.

The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform emphasizes ranked choice voting in multi-member districts, but is also active in campaigning to stop gerrymandering, reform campaign finance laws, address voter disenfranchisement under current laws, and open up the current system of closed primaries to create wider ballot access.

FairVote California is campaigning for preferential voting generally, and is comfortable with instituting single-member district RCV in local and state elections.

A second group, the Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER) also supports both IRV (single-winner RCV) and STV PR (proportional representation).

“IRV makes sense for elections for offices such as Mayor and Governor, where there can only be a single winner,” said CfER president Steve Chessin. “For cities that already have (single-member) district elections for their city councils, we also support IRV, although we would like to see them switch over to STV.”

In addition to the voting system reforms, major efforts are being undertaken by US reformers to address issues such as the insecure right to vote itself, disenfranchisement under state laws, practices which hinder actual voting, and the egregious district boundary gerrymandering which is currently in place in many states after the 2011-12 round of post-census boundary revisions. The Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University Law School is probably the premier non-partisan organization active in the field.

Other campaign groups are giving specialized focus on reforms such as internet voting, or complex attempts to change the way the presidential Electoral College is elected.


Alternative terminology around the world

The terminology used in the United States for preferential voting systems is not entirely settled, and comparing notes across nations requires some translation of differently used technical terms.

In the United States, almost all current electoral reformers refer to “instant runoff voting” (IRV) and “ranked choice voting” (RCV).

But among the people who currently use these voting methods the most – the Irish and Australians – these terms are not used at all.

The simplest description of the voting systems being sought by US reformers is just to call them “preferential”. All preferential voting has in common that voters rank the available candidates by number, marking the candidates with 1, 2, 3, 4 etc on their ballots.

The single-member winner version of voting this way has come to be known in Britain and Canada as the “alternative vote” method (AV). But in the United States the term “instant runoff voting” has become the norm.

Preferential voting in multi-member districts, which was first described in Britain in the 1850s, has always been termed the method of the “single transferable vote” (STV) in political literature, and is known this way in Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

In the US the term “ranked choice voting” is effectively a broader term embracing both single-member district IRV and multi-member district STV.

Some US campaigners also now use the term “choice voting” to refer to the multi-member STV system.

Ironically in the one nation that has comprehensively adopted both forms of preferential voting – Australia – there really is no acronym used to describe this way of voting. Perhaps because the system has been used for nearly a century, the need for a descriptor has dropped out. Australians certainly understand how to vote preferentially, however, and the use of the term “preferences” to describe the ranking numbers is commonplace in Australia.

Just to finally complicate matters, for multi-member preferential voting the Australians have themselves largely dropped the original title “STV” in favour of the term “Hare-Clark system”, after the system’s most prominent designers.

Thomas Hare was the English theorist who first described STV in the 1850s. Andrew Inglis Clark – one of the original drafters of the Australian Constitution – was the Attorney-General of Tasmania who introduced the system to elections in that colony (later state) in the 1890s. Sadly forgotten in the Australian term is the surname “Spence”, which would appropriately honour Catherine Helen Spence, the South Australian social reformer who campaigned to see STV used in Australian elections from the 1870s to early in the 20th century. Spence even visited the United States to campaign for the adoption of STV there.


(This post was updated to include comments from Steve Chessin, CfER.)

(The name of congressional Representative Don Beyer was misstated as “Dan” Beyer in the original text of this post)

3 comments on “Electoral reform movement spreading across United States

  1. Steve Chessin
    September 6, 2017

    Since all local elections in California are non-partisan, STV is the only form of proportional representation (PR) that is available at the local level. However, for the California legislature, since candidates in those elections can carry party labels, we support whatever form of PR (Party List, either open or closed; MMP; or STV) that a majority of the Californian electorate would support, as it would take a vote of the people to amend the California Constitution to establish PR. (SMDs are written into the California Constitution so to change that language and establish PR requires an amendment.) While I personally think the STV form of PR would be the one most acceptable to the California electorate, we have no data to support that assumption, and among our membership you’ll find support for each method.

  2. Will
    September 8, 2017

    You forgot to mention FairVote Washington! Fairrvote Seattle is launching an RCV ballot initiative in 2 weeks. And a similar innitiative is planned in Pierce County.

    • Malcolm Baalman
      September 10, 2017

      Added a linked reference to FairVote Washington and to Seattle!

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