There is no doubt that citizens in the U.S. are disillusioned and increasingly disengaged with a Congress that does not accurately represent the nation’s demographics. That story isn’t new.
However, what is new is the amount of success grassroots efforts are seeing in their pursuit of more representative election systems, like ranked choice voting and nonpartisan election reform.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is used in a number of local governments in the United States. Upcoming implementations of RCV are expected in Santa Fe, N.M., Memphis, Tenn., and possibly Sarasota, Fla.
RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are then redistributed based on their second choice. This simple process -- yet often criticized for its complexity -- is repeated until a candidate has a majority of the votes.Supporters argue that there are multiple benefits to ranked choice voting, all based on the assumption that elected officials represent all of their constituents and should be elected by more than half of the electorate.
According to organizations like FairVote, ranked choice voting accommodates multiple candidates better than plurality voting, without experiencing the “spoiler effect” that so many third party candidates face today. If RCV was used in presidential races, for instance, independents like Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson might not have had to change their party affiliation to compete against the two major parties.
Additionally, supporters argue that there are less negative campaigns as candidates are competing for people's second and third choices as well. Voters have more power to choose who they want without feeling like their vote has been wasted.
RCV elections can be administered with any voting equipment or by hand count, but according to FairVote, some equipment works much more efficiently than others.
The simplest way to acquire RCV-ready machines is to request that this software be installed in new equipment purchases or upload software to in-use machines that are RCV capable.
However, for those governments not in the process of updating or purchasing new machines, hand counts using RCV are extremely plausible, says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote.
Ireland uses RCV hand counts for its national elections and results are in by the end of the next business day. In fact, most overseas nations utilize hand counts for all their elections, Richie added.
Sounds simple, yes? So, why is there such a large lag time between voter approval and implementation of RCV? The answer: there may be a bug in the system.
In Santa Fe, for example, where 65% of voters passed RCV in 2008, voting machines with available software to conduct a RCV election are still not available.
Back in 2013, in an effort to update New Mexico’s voting machines, the Voting System Certification Committee met and discussed three new applications. Yet, none of these options had ranked choice voting software. To date, despite the will of voters, Santa Fe still does not use ranked choice voting.
Christy McCormick, chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), told NPR that further funding for state and local election offices to update or purchase new machines will not be provided.
This comes after the Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued a warning in 2014 stating that there is an “impending crisis...from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.”
Voting machines purchased after the 2000 election, but designed in the 1990s, are now coming to the end of their lives. Instead of purchasing new machines, the EAC is offering tips on how to maintain the old ones, including suggestions for election agencies to buy parts on eBay.
“We’re providing checklists of preventive maintenance tips and things that they can do for their equipment that will address issues before they happen, so we aren’t dealing with a crisis on Election Day,” McCormick added.
This lack of federal funding, due to a Congress that has previously threatened to dissolve the EAC, has forced some cities to develop their own methods. In 2014, Los Angeles County took steps to partner with Palo Alto consultant Ideo for the design of a more modern voting system.
As support for RCV methods grows, the machinery needs to catch up.
Yet, Richie explains that this process is a vicious cycle that is beginning to transform into a virtuous circle. The more places that approve and implement RCV, the more companies will enter into the game of developing RCV software.
This is part of the process and we need to get through this first phase. Once it’s passed and on the radar, we can consider [RCV] on its merits. - Rob Richie
There is a large and growing effort by grassroots campaigns and some public officials to fix the problem of inadequate representation. However, without adequate funding (private or public), the technical challenges to adopting voting reform like ranked choice voting on a broader scale won't be easy to overcome.
Still, the movement to implement ranked choice voting in more states and local municipalities may soon receive the boost supporters believe it needs. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV Maine) turned in over 70,000 signatures on Monday to place RCV on the November 2016 ballot in Maine. If passed, Maine would be the first state to implement RCV in all state and congressional elections.