A quest was hatched in the bowels of the downtown library to Make Democracy Great Again — by changing how we vote.
Some 50 Democrats, independents, Greens and Working Family Party members showed up for a meeting about launching a statewide campaign to bring “ranked-choice voting” (RCV) to Connecticut.
For the uninitiated, RCV is an umbrella term for systems that allow voters to choose from a list of candidates. Voters note their preferences for each candidate on a ballot, in ranked order. That way their preferred candidate gets the most votes. If no one gets a majority of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes gets knocked off the ballot. A second round of counting ensues, with the same process, until a single candidate is left standing and declared the winner.
Advocates argue that under that system — already adopted in Maine and some cities around the country — voters don’t feel a need to choose the “lesser of evils.” And candidates, who need second or third-choice votes, feel less of a need to attack opponents and instead focus on issues.
Those gathered for the late-December meeting at the library argued the current system of “winner takes all” elections is simply not working. They came from all over the state and as far away as Massachusetts to hear from Adam Friedman. Friedman is the executive director of Voter Choice Massachusetts, a nonprofit that has organized aggressively to get its lawmakers to either institute RCV through legislative measures or to put it on the ballot in that state in 2020.
Friedman’s message? Follow the North Star that is the state of Maine.
“I guess the gambit that we’re playing with is because of what happened in Maine, it creates a kind of sea change in American political culture for this issue,” he said.
Maine passed a ballot measure back in 2016 to use RCV for federal elections. Voters in that state got to use the system this year to elect their next U.S. representative. (Read here about the controversy that has erupted over the results.)
Friedman said prior to Maine adopting ranked-choice for federal elections, efforts to change how Americans vote were confined to local elections. RCV is currently used in 11 American cities including San Franciso, Oakland, and Minneapolis. He said it would take “a couple of centuries for that to actually have a national impact” without state-level adoptions. Maine’s success can become Massachusetts and Connecticut’s success if believers in the power of RCV are ready, he said.
“If we don’t have the activist infrastructure to capitalize on it and get enactment campaigns going, we’re going to miss that opportunity,” he said.
Voter Choice Massachusetts has spent two years creating a list of supporters with over 4,000 volunteers and 1,100 donors who have raised a half-million dollars. Trained speakers talk to every state lawmaker in Massachusetts about RCV and secure endorsements for a bill or a ballot measure. Voter Choice so far has the support of 47 out of 200 lawmakers, Friedman reported.
“Each state has its own unique political culture, so we’re not here to impose the political strategy on Connecticut,” Friedman said. “We’re here to just help to teach a little bit of what we know. You guys can take it or leave whatever you need and create some kind of structure that is sustainable. And just away you go and make it happen.”
Part of that the organizing will involve explaining RCV to people who already think it’s complicated. Friedman asked how many people in the room work in STEM fields. Many of the hands in the room went up.
“There are so many good punchy things that anyone who participates in politics in America can get behind on this issue,” he said. “And some of the mistakes that have been made is that the advocates who often hail from engineering, math, science, tech spaces conflate that good stuff with ‘I’m fascinated by the platonic beauty of how this algorithm works.’ And everyone is like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Keeping It Simple
Hamden State Rep. Josh Elliott, who introduced RCV legislation back in 2017 that he said got no traction, attested to the attention span of lawmakers.
“If it takes more than five minutes to explain forget it,” he said. His bill didn’t even get a public hearing that year. Elliott said it was valuable to have people in the room like Prospect Hill/Newhallville Alder Steve Winter. Winter spent time up in Hartford on behalf of the National Popular Vote, the compact that pledges the state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote. Gov. Dannell P. Malloy signed that legislation back in May; it takes effect if enough states join that compact to represent a majority of electoral votes.
“You’ve got to make that pitch immediately in a couple of sentences,” Winter said. “So having one new concept is enough for a year or two for a lot of these folks.”
Elliott said he was heartened to see so many people show up to start organizing for RCV. It lets him know that there is some momentum in the state, he said.
Friedman urged attendees to stick to the message of the problems that RCV could solve, like tamping down on negative campaigning. Leave the love for algorithms for later.
“The argument that it’s too complicated is good for us because it’s an easy argument for us to knock out,” he said. “Because they’ve never seen a new way to vote, it immediately seems more complicated.
“But a better argument is, ‘Don’t listen to me. Look at the data. Look at voter behavior around the country that have used this,” he added. “Eighty-seven percent of voters in Maine’s first statewide ranked choice primary used the rankings. The secretary of state had predicted less than 50 percent would use the rankings. He was off by a pretty massive amount, and he’s supposed to be the head brain on elections and voter behavior. In Minneapolis, 95 percent found the ballot to be easy and intuitive to use.”
In a room full of lefties, someone asked what the outlook is for getting conservatives to support RCV. Friedman’s answer: better than you might think. RCV has about 60 percent support with Democrats, while roughly 40 percent of Republicans support it, he said. Friedman cheekily said ranked-choice voting might have made a little bit of difference in the who ended up being Connecticut’s Republican candidate for governor (in a five-way primary).
Someone asked what the probabilities were that RCV would have produced a different governor. “The tragic thing about trying to second-guess elections,” someone from the back responded for Friedman, “is that we never bother to ask people what their second choice is.”
Proportional representation is the real deal.Along with.
The Choice of goin out to geting signatures or pay a Filing fee.
posted by: Noteworthy on January 2, 2019 2:01pm
This ranks up there with same day registration. It creates chaos because you don’t demand that voters actively participate, be informed and be ready for election day. You can just wing it on election day.
The idea that this will cut down on negative campaigning is laughable. When pigs fly….this is another leftie idea and if Josh Elliott is pushing it - you know it is.
posted by: mspepper on January 2, 2019 2:28pm
This sounds great. How can we get involved? Is there an organization like Voter Choice MA promoting RCV in CT yet?
posted by: AverageTaxpayer on January 2, 2019 4:06pm
I love Winters and Elliott, but this effort is DOA due to Connecticut’s lack of voter referendum or ballot initiative.
Bottom line is that the partisan State Legislatures aren’t going to do anything g that makes it easier for independent candidacies, third parties, or crowded fields. It is not in the legislators self-interest, and the topic is too archaic to ever gain overwhelming support.
If Winters, Elliott, etc want to see CT become more progressive, the push should be for the means to get this type of stuff enacted, — which is BALLOT INITIATIVE.
posted by: publikskooled on January 2, 2019 4:20pm
this is way too confusing for a local populace that can barely make it to the polls in the first place. from the looks of the pictures provided it looks like there are no people of color. just an observation.
posted by: stevenbwinter on January 2, 2019 4:30pm
@mspepper - this is Steve Winter. Please text me your name and email and I’ll add you to the organizing list. 203-903-4342
posted by: 1644 on January 2, 2019 4:35pm
Noteworthy: Lots of voters just wing it on Election Day. In this area, the Democrats in particular try to get voters not to look at individual candidates or issue positions, but to blindly vote a party line. If we wanted informed voters, we would have some form of literacy or knowledge test: e.g., who is your State Senator? Such tests have been badly abused, however, so are illegal. Nonetheless, ranked voting would give voters the chance to show whom they really wanted, whether it be Angela Davis or Donald Trump, and to vote for a second choice. The current electoral strategy of both parties seems to be to maximize “base” turnout and forsake the less energized moderate voter. If we had ranked voting, we might actually get someone who appealed to the middle, perhaps no one’s first choice, but a consensus second choice.
posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on January 2, 2019 4:36pm
What part of the constitutionally guaranteed right to vote also requires voters to “actively participate, be informed and be ready for election day?” And even if such things were required, precisely who would determine how these highly subjective concepts are applied?
posted by: 1644 on January 2, 2019 4:46pm
FYI, ranked choice changed to outcome of the Aroostook election: the Republican won a plurality, but the Democrat was the second choice of more voters who voted for one of the tow independent candidates. When independent candidates votes were reallocated to the second choice, the Democrat had a majority and got the seat.
posted by: Patricia Kane on January 2, 2019 5:12pm
NH resident Caleb Kleppner, who works in running union elections using RCV, did a demonstration to one of the workshop groups and it was easily demonstrated. IndependentVoting.org has successfully worked with groups to pass RCV and the reports show greater voter satisfaction with the outcomes as well as an increase in civility because it is NOT a good strategy to alienate your opponents’ base. Ever since Nader was unfairly labeled a “spoiler” by the inept Democrats who decided to press for a full vote count in Florida, (read Greg Palast’s research), those who believe we can have too much democracy when more than 2 people are candidates for an office will be happy to see that the “spoiler” effect is eliminated. CT is hardly “still revolutionary” as the tourism motto would have you believe, but it certainly is moving in a good direction.
posted by: Bill Saunders on January 2, 2019 7:31pm
The tourism slogan should be ‘Drink the Nutmeg’!
posted by: chapillsbury on January 2, 2019 8:26pm
I think pursuing ranked choice voting (RCV) in CT is a great idea whose time has come. Indeed, what struck me most about the 2018 state elections was the failure of the Republican Party to replace a very unpopular Democratic Governor, I would argue due to the absence of RCV, especially in party primaries. Just consider what happened to the Republicans whose primary votes to choose their gubernatorial candidate were split among 5 candidates, and their standard bearer was elected by less than 30% of Republican primary voters. Bob Stefanowski 42,138 29% Mark Boughton 30,520 21% David Stemerman 26,243 18% Timothy Herbst 25,165 17% Steve Obsitnik 19,163 13% We will never know, but I would wager that had RCV been used Boughton, Stemerman, or Herbst would have been the Republican candidate for Governor, and, had that been the case, might then have won last November. What RCV empowers voters to do is in the first round to vote with their heart, and after that to vote with their head. If you take a close look at the Maine party primaries, especially their Democratic gubernatorial primary last spring, you will see that in the end RCV favors the election of more moderate candidates who appeal to unaffiliated voters.
The Republican Party has struggled to figure out how they lost an election that was almost a gimme. It wasn’t their fault; they were screwed by an election system of their own making. Now consider what might have happened had the Republican Party used RCV in their Presidential primaries in 2016…
posted by: Noteworthy on January 2, 2019 9:33pm
Take one out of three - register on time. Plan to vote. Know where you vote. If you can’t do these basic things, you don’t deserve a vote.
posted by: loki on January 2, 2019 9:53pm
it’s nothing but white people in those photos. where are the 2/3rds voters of color in New Haven?
posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 3, 2019 9:09am
I support RCV. But in states like CT, it would have little impact in the short to medium term. In most cases, primary and general elections for state legislators and local officials have two candidates (there is usually only candidate in New Haven districts) and RCV would have no effect in such races. Third party candidates are common in gubernatorial and federal general elections. But the winner normally gets the majority of the vote and RCV again would have no effect. RCV would be useful in supporting alternatives to the Democrat and Republican parties. But it would not be sufficient to create viable alternatives.
As Chapillsbury suggests, RCV could be a significant factor in gubernatorial and presidential primaries. And it would be useful to have RCV in place for the upcoming mayoral primary. But given its limited near-term impact, I doubt the legislature will pass an RCV bill this session.
1644, your 3:46 comment is correct. But in Maine, participation in RCV is voluntary for individual voters. Mathematically. the law does not preclude a candidate being elected with a plurality rather than majority of the vote. It is also interesting that RCV was not used in Maine’s state legislative or gubernatorial races.
Noteworthy, there was Election Day registration in 169 towns. There were significant issues in one of them. The New Haven registrars need to get their act together; it is not a statewide problem.
posted by: Patricia Kane on January 3, 2019 12:14pm
@Kevin McCarthy: I’m not sure what you mean by “impact”. The fact that there are usually 1 or 2 candidates for a given office only demonstrates how difficult it is for new parties to break into the process. This is especially glaring when you look at public funding for State offices. Greens, Independents, Unaffiliateds, Libertarians, etc. have a higher bar to reach than do the the formerly dominant 2 parties which continue to lose members nationally. RCV is not a panacea, but an improvement over the “winner take all” approach that leaves a significant minority disgruntled and allows for a popular 2nd or 3rd choice to prevail. We agree that it would be most helpful in the upcoming NH Democratic primary. The State would have to authorize its use. Let the lobbying begin! PS Word is that Maine plans to expand RCV into the other elections.
posted by: SparkJames on January 3, 2019 3:35pm
Good. That’s one of the benefits of RCV.
Candidates will “fight” for second place if they can’t be first.
It also shows what direction the literal majority of the populace is leaning if they choose two hippies in front of the democrat.
Of course, the same benefit can happen for a Republican as well.
posted by: LPallandre on January 3, 2019 9:26pm
@publikskooled, My name is Laura Pallandre. I’m on the outreach committee for this group. If you would like to get involved to make this effort more intersectional please contact me at 443 sdlkfjsldkjf 362 slkdjflsdkjf 2034. If you’re not able to join us, then your point is taken and we’ll get on it!
posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 3, 2019 10:58pm
Patricia, we agree that RCV would be an improvement. But even with it, third parties face a chicken and egg problem. People have sorted themselves geographically with regard to how they vote, and in most districts the winner has a healthy majority. (This phenomenon has been exacerbated by gerrymandering.) If the winning candidate in a district historically gets 60% of the vote, the emergence of a third party that gets 5% of the vote won’t make any difference even with RCV. If a party cannot win elections or get the winning party to make significant policy changes that it favors, it is going to have a hard time sustaining itself. But unless there are alternative parties that voters view as plausible, they will stick with the Democrats and Republicans even though do not fully represent the voters’ views.
And then there is Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. If there are three or more candidates, there will be circumstances where any electoral system (including RCV and first past the post) produces results that violate democratic principles.
posted by: publikskooled on January 4, 2019 1:25pm
Laura, thank you for your generous offer however 1-im so white that im just about invisible in moderate snow ans 2- i have no interest in the new math witchcraft offered up in this piece. but thank you. i would suggest your group actively seek out diversity though so you dont suffer the same fate as Bernie Sanders did in the last presidential primary.
posted by: Patricia Kane on January 4, 2019 4:19pm
I personally invited several people of color to attend. One planned to, but got the location wrong and missed the event. If you care about inclusion, then share the contact info for people to get involved. Organizing to pass RCV was not a one shot event. It will be going on until it is passed at every level of government. It is understandable that issues like the Civilian Review Board may be more compelling, but there was outreach and it will be ongoing.
posted by: Bill Saunders on January 4, 2019 4:40pm
The only ‘electoral process that is not ‘one person/one vote’ is the Presidential Election. Reform THAT on a National Level. None of these individual ‘state level’ fixes. It falls under the category of ‘needless tinkering’.
Politicians just need to grow ‘some’, and add a simple lawyerly clause in the appropriate place.
“The Electoral College Vote will be considered VALID unless it it usurped by the POPULAR VOTE”.
That, and the Democratic Party needs to nix their Super Delegates tout suite!
Aside from that, these politicians and activists should spend the rest of their energy getting people to actually vote….part of that is about good candidates that challenge the status quo on a local level.
Speaking of good candidates, did you know that the biggest factor that increases voter turn-out in a New Haven Mayoral Election is a good Ward Level challengers for Alder?
Are there 27 Elmers out there interested challenging 27 Alders? You have some time to think about it!!!!
ps. Also notice my tacit endorsement of three of our elected public servants.
posted by: Bill Saunders on January 4, 2019 6:08pm
And as a practical note:
Given the recent incompetence in the Registrar of Voters here in New Haven, under this more ‘complicated’ system, we may never see the Ballot Results!