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What Democracy Votes Like 

Could a new way of voting save our system?

Thursday, Jan 16 2003
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The first time Dave Robinson voted, he felt like a kid discovering there is no Santa Claus. “I had read all the grand ideas about representative democracy in school,” he says, but soon realized that “there was no way my vote was going to result in a representative I support.” In 1994, inspired by a finance class at Dartmouth, he became convinced that the political market ought to mimic the financial one -- in other words, people ought to be able choose the candidate they like the most, instead of settling for the one they despise the least. A few years later, while Robinson was working on a doctorate in chemistry at Stanford, voting-reform activist Steve Chessin managed to persuade the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to use instant runoff voting (IRV). Robinson was encouraged, and by the year 2000 he found himself heading up the California IRV Coalition. “Unlike Santa Claus,” he says, “the ideals I have about representative democracy really could come true.”

Robinson is part of a growing cadre of multipartisan activists who believe that voters are sufficiently fed up with the status quo that they’re willing to radicalize their voting systems. At the forefront of their efforts is IRV, a formula for elections invented in 1870 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor W.R. Ware. IRV sounds complex at first, but it‘s actually simple: Each voter ranks the candidates on their ballots in order of preference, and any candidate who gets a majority of first-place votes wins. If no candidate gets such a majority, the lowest-ranking candidate is eliminated, and the votes are counted again. The process is repeated until someone scores a majority of votes. In March 2002, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly agreed to elect future city council members by IRV (in part because it saves them a second runoff election in December), as Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been doing for half a century. European voters have been even more enthusiastic: Ireland elects a president in an instant runoff, London its mayors.

And in the wake of California’s last gubernatorial race -- a lackluster battle between major-party candidates so undistinguished only 55 percent of the electorate bothered to come to the polls -- Robinson and his ilk have never been more sanguine about their political ambitions; indeed, the Gray Davis--Bill Simon showdown, during which potential Green Party spoiler Peter Camejo was forced into the media shadows, set in relief the dire need for a better way to elect leaders. Latino Democrats faced a particularly tough decision in that race: They could cast their lot with an incumbent who had, just over a month earlier, deeply betrayed them by vetoing a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver‘s licenses, or risk the governorship falling by default to a man with even less sympathy to newcomers from Mexico. Davis, meanwhile, was left with little reason to court his natural constituency: While anti-immigrant conservatives could tolerate putting Republican Bill Simon in office, most Democrats could not.

“We’ve seen a surge since then in the number of people in our directory and mailing lists,” says Robinson, “as well as inquiries through our Web site and people volunteering to take action in their local communities. We‘re making progress.”

If IRV catches on, there will be no more spoilers, no more lesser of evils, and a much more expressive democracy. “If the gubernatorial election had been an IRV election,” says Steven Hill, author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner-Take-All Politics, “Peter Camejo still might not have won. But he might have got 20 percent of the vote, which I think would have been a more accurate reflection of the new face of California.” (Statewide, Camejo netted only 5.3 percent.) Latino Democrats could have ranked Camejo first, Davis second, giving voice to their objections to the governor without feeling they were sacrificing their united front with other Dem-ocrats. For that reason, Hill maintains, “IRV is a real turn-on for young people and minorities.”

Robinson and Hill are equally impassioned about IRV‘s companion, proportional representation (PR), a voting system used to distribute several legislative seats among various political interests according to the percentage of votes they get. (In other words, in an election with 10 open seats where 40 percent of the electorate votes Republican, four of the seats go to Republicans.) Robinson remembers hearing Harvard law professor Lani Guinier in 1993 give PR “a fleeting moment in the spotlight before getting drowned out by political noise,” and Guinier’s reasonable arguments caused her to be summarily dumped by Clinton before she got a chance to plead her case as a nominee for assistant attorney general. Now, however, proportional representation is a respectable enough method of choosing leaders that it‘s used to elect Germany’s parliament, where a customary 75 percent of the electorate makes it to the polls. In a political system where ignoring minority opinions would be perilous, proportional representation is a matter of political survival: Israel, for example, elects its Knesset by PR.

Right now, California IRV and PR supporters are stymied somewhat by irregularities in state law: Cities that govern by charter can change their voting procedure at any time, but “general law” cities and counties, whose political structure follows state law, would have to draw up entirely new charters to change the way they vote. Robinson and his allies are currently pushing a bill that would exempt voting law from that process, and allow general-law cities and counties to change their voting systems at the will of the electorate. And even if they succeed, there‘s no predicting how voters will react once the runoff results start rolling in. Ann Arbor, Michigan, tried IRV in 1975, but dropped it after a Democrat was elected in spite of a Republican having earned more first-choice votes. New York City tried a related system, choice voting, in the ’30s, but abandoned it for fear that it would put communists in high political office. And while Democrats might welcome electoral reform on the grounds that it will get out the typically alienated, liberal-sympathizing vote, they might also worry it will force the moderate left to acknowledge the radical fringe, or even be overtaken by it.

Robinson, however, would prefer to keep the voting-reform debate above partisan politics: He recently chastised Hill in a group e-mail discussion for suggesting in a proposed letter to the editor that IRV was more popular among “progressive” voters. (“Yikes!” he wrote. “We need to be defusing the claim that we have tilted the [San Francisco] electoral machinery in favor of progressives.”) Beyond voting reform, he keeps his political leanings to himself. “Liberals yell at me for being too conservative and conservatives yell at me for being too liberal,” Robinson gripes. “I like to think of myself as being somewhere off the line, connecting the two.”

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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