Submitted this past week for Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes.
- Governments can mobilize far more resources and power to take on big problems to help people than philanthropy.
- Governments in representative democracies are subject to the consent of the governed. The rules of our elections greatly affect what that means.
- Some of the biggest topics of concern in the EA community are ones that do not yet command majority support in the public – and may not until there is sustained attention to them in campaigns and in government.
- Given these truths, it is worth investing in how to change election rules, especially in wealthy nations that could do so much more – even if a challenge, the payoff is big.
Given that I have spent the last 30 years as head of FairVote, it won’t come as a surprise that the cause area I urge Open Philanthropy to research is how best to structure our elections to create incentives for government to be a partner in core goals of the Effective Altruism movement. Private philanthropy is immensely valuable, but insufficient to the challenges we face. The sheer amount of resources and human capacity that governments can mobilize is immense -- and in nations with elections, the direction of those resources is governed by what voters can do within their electoral rules. A thousand dollars for 500 mosquito nets is one thing. But imagine how, over a longer period, a thousand dollars might lead to electoral reforms in wealthy nations like the United States that in turn could lead those governments to act on new priorities with resources that dwarf those of private philanthropy.
Like the great political philosopher John Stuart Mill, I believe that we need appropriate forms of proportional representation in every democracy. Like bioethics philosopher Peter Singer, I see ranked choice voting as a great step forward in our elections. Such changes create space in our politics and in our government for debate and ultimately action on challenging, but essential ideas – especially those that may seem to prioritize future generations over our own. For the United States in particular, I’ll argue that electoral reform would best be achieved by redefining voting as ranking, from electing presidents to local school boards. I’ll tell my story, share a few “greatest hits' ' that govern my own thinking, and briefly suggest what action might look like.
Dubbed the "Grandmother of the Conservation Movement,” Mardy Murie played a central role in passing the Wilderness Act. She once observed, “Environmentalists can be a pain in the ass. But they make great ancestors."
Murie’s clever line gets at a challenging political reality: telling hard truths about what we as a society might best do over time won’t necessarily earn lots of friends – nor votes. No matter what one might think about Green parties, they make us think hard about how we act to sustain our world’s people and ecosystems. Yet they rarely top ten percent of the vote - and rarely get close to even that level when winner-take-all, single-choice voting rules limit representation to the candidate with the most votes. Ditto for Libertarians and other parties trying to stretch our political imagination.
The Effective Altruism movement has its share of ideas that make eminent sense to those in the majority- - like how investments in mosquito nets can save millions of lives. But from my experience at the recent EA Global, other concerns are more challenging to how we live now and what we want to worry about -- whether it’s rethinking consumption patterns or anticipating the hazards of unregulated artificial intelligence.
That brings me back to how I came to help found FairVote and become its first director. Earlier this year, I spoke about our 30th anniversary, giving these remarks:
It was 1992, and I was 29 years old. For those counting, that puts me before Generations X, Y and Z…. Let’s call it “Generation Why Not.”
I was in Berlin just days after East Germans broke through the Wall and triggered the fall of the Soviet Union. I’d witnessed an ailing Nelson Mandela be released from jail – and then lead South Africa to its first democratic elections, grounded in full proportional representation. At home, I’d lived with my father Dave Richie as in the course of a decade he transformed a backwater National Park Service project into one of the largest initiatives in Park Service history – one that quadrupled the miles of the Appalachian Trail protected for future generations. When change is needed, don’t tell a member of Generation Why Not that it can’t be done.
In 1990, I devoted a whole issue of an environmental newsletter to the challenge of climate change. My search for getting to the core of what was needed led me to voting as an unrealized tool for collective voice and action. Electoral reform could be the lever to change the world, I realized. As FairVote’s founders came together with a fervent belief that our country could do so much more to create a healthy democracy for all, many dismissed the idea of changing winner-take-all voting as quixotic – that we might not last a year. But what defined FairVote from the start was that question: Why not? Why not seek the big changes that our times demand and find tangible ways to move toward them?
And indeed that’s true. My quest to decide to have an impact dated back to being a teenager in the 1970s struggling with information I was absorbing about the deterioration of our ecosystem. I went from a cheery wannabe star athlete to a brooding pessimist – leaving early for college only to restlessly take three years off in search for how I could more quickly have an impact. I asked what might be fulcrum to change the world. Might it be starting my own cable news network? (I missed out on that one, and Rupert Murdoch with a very different world vision filled the gap.) Could I write a novel that popularized a new way of seeing our world? Er, no. But I did eventually find a possible answer. Trailing along after my now-wife Cynthia Terrell, I worked on a couple political campaigns and saw the promise of elections where you must engage with whole communities in efforts to form electoral coalitions – but also experienced viscerally the disappointment of how that promise so often falls abysmally short in winner-take-all elections.
I had found a possible fulcrum: the vote, reimagined to truly count and to create conditions for hard conversations and better government actions. I wasn’t looking for rules that only meant my views would “win”; rather, I wanted a fair shake such that the best ideas could be crowdsourced. I wanted a government from the political center – but with elections and representation that enable that center to be transformed and revitalized with ongoing new expressions of political energy.
What Do Better Elections Look Like – and Why Voting Should Equal Ranking
I'll return to my April speech.
What has centered FairVote’s work through thick and thin has been relentless focus on what we’re best known for - the way electoral rules translate our votes into power. When you go to vote, and there are more than two choices, why not give the voter the power to do more than tick a single box? Why not open the ballot to the freedom of ranking candidates – to ranked choice voting, that holds the promise of elections providing greater choices, stronger voices, and fair elections for all? And let’s go further: Why not take that same insight about the power of offering more than a single choice to enable Americans to have more than a single representative in the “people’s house” - to provide all voters with real chances to elect someone no matter where they live? Why not create electoral incentives for our leaders to truly represent us - and take on and solve our era’s daunting challenges - by passing the Fair Representation Act?
To be sure, the journey to make ranked choice voting the national norm and the Fair Representation Act the law of the land has taken time. My 29-year old self of 1992 would be appalled by the barriers we’ve faced – of antiquated voting equipment, fearful officeholders, and sheer institutional inertia. But my 50-year-old self of 2012 would be thrilled. Two states now use ranked choice voting for their presidential and congressional elections. More than 50 cities just used ranked choice voting– and yes folks, that includes right here in New York.
So wait a second, some of you might ask. Why ranked choice voting (RCV) over systems like approval voting? Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote this spring about my own journey toward that conclusion.
I've wanted to replace winner-take-all elections in the United States for more than three decades. In1990, proportional voting already was the international norm among established democracies, and nearly every emerging democracy in Eastern Europe and Latin America was rejecting US-style winner-take-all elections. I wanted a politics where our public debates were enhanced by having more voices at the table, and you could join with like-minded allies to earn a fair share of seats grounded in the power of your ideas: 51% wins a majority, but 20% wins about a fifth of the seats….
..So what do we do? On April 19, I joined Harvard’s Archon Fung and Danielle Allen and former Utah state legislator Rebecca Chavez Houck for a rich conversation headlined Beyond Winner-Take-All: Possibilities for Proportional Voting in the United States. You can watch the webinar online. Archon’s first question to me was what form of proportional voting I support for the United States.
My youthful answer would have been Germany’s mixed-member proportional system. As I’d learned about the many forms of PR around the world, the German approach — one that combines American-style single-seat districts with “compensatory seats” to ensure that overall seat shares reflect voters’ party preferences — represented an elegant compromise between those seeking local representation and those wanting party fairness.
And why not? Americans had played a huge role in establishing mixed-member PR in post-war Germany, and it has taken off as a model in familiar democracies like New Zealand and Scotland.
That’s why in 1991 I excitedly mailed (no emails yet!) my first published oped on the German system to the venerable Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom. A few weeks later, I received a stern letter from Enid Lakeman, the legendary 87-year-old British reform champion. While appreciating my enthusiasm and connection to my great uncle George Hallett, a pioneer in proportional representation advocacy (and a good subject for a future post), she chided me for backing Germany’s model. The one form of proportional representation I should support, she wrote, was the single transferable vote, which the Society had championed since the days of one of its great backers, political philosopher John Stuart Mill. I confess to some youthful eye-rolling in response.
So what was my answer to Archon this week? Why, that the United States should adopt Enid’s favorite, the single transferable vote – that is, the proportional form of RCV, as reflected in Congressman Don Beyer’s Fair Representation Act.
What explains my change of view is not reduced appreciation for the myriad forms of party-based proportional voting systems. There is a great conversation to be had about what different countries might use, and the many models worthy of support. But there are powerful reasons for adopting the proportional form of RCV in the United States:
Proportional RCV depends on a ranked ballot we can use for all elections: Unlike parliamentary democracies, the United States has directly elected executive offices - starting with the president, but including governors, mayors, district attorneys, and so on. RCV is a powerful improvement over single-choice systems and “delayed runoff” elections for such elections, which explains why it’s now law for presidential elections in two states and in local elections in more than 50 cities.
Proportional RCV can be used for both partisan and nonpartisan elections: Most local elections in the United States are nonpartisan. Proportional RCV works quite well in nonpartisan elections, as shown in cities like Cambridge (MA) and Minneapolis (MN). Having a uniform voting ballot regardless of office adds to ease-of-use for voters, meaning that proportional RCV will create incentives for our cities to move to proportional voting as well.
Proportional RCV enables politicians to act on their own views: In many democracies, the idea of representatives voting against their leadership is rare on anything that matters. It’s the party leaders that negotiate together to get things done. But many Americans want representatives to legislate based more on their own views and those of their constituents -- that is, as they still can today without excessive fear of party retribution. Proportional RCV would maintain this traditional balance, with representatives typically working within their party caucuses while still being able to vote their own views and find legislative partners of their own choosing.
Proportional RCV allows independent candidates and voters to participate on an equal basis: Tens of millions of American voters are proud to be unaffiliated, and many candidates run as independents. Proportional RCV gives them a level playing field to compete in general elections without needing to affiliate with a party.
Proportional RCV is still fair when winning requires a large percentage of votes: Nearly half of our states have fewer than six U.S. House seats, meaning that winning in a proportional system will require a relatively substantial share of the vote — that’s more than 20% to win one of Kansas’s four seats. It’s high time we talk about adding 100-150 House seats, but doing so won’t change the fundamentals. RCV will allow major party nominees with new ideas, minor party candidates, and independents to put their best foot forward without splitting the vote
Proportional RCV transparently upholds the Voting Rights Act: Because proportional RCV involves voting directly for candidates, racial minority voters can elect candidates of choice directly, At the same time, RCV means they can indicate backup choices that will count if their first choice falls short, which increases the power of their vote and opportunities for inclusion. It’s a proven voting rights remedy that already had been upheld in federal and state courts.
Proportional RCV fits our political culture of “big tent” parties that encompass diverse perspectives: American parties traditionally encompass major internal differences spread across our vast national geography. Proportional RCV would allow that big tent to be filled with the range of views that truly co-exist within the major parties – especially because proportional RCV in primaries (as proposed in the Fair Representation Act) will ensure a party’s nominees fully reflect their party’s internal diversity. Illinois for more than a century showcased this kind of politics when electing its state legislature with a similar proportional system (“cumulative voting”), and accounts of its impact show it promoted better, more inclusive governance.
I’m far from alone in concluding that the proportional form of RCV would be a powerful change in the United States. As FairVote pivoted to a strategy to win change nationally, we were part of two important exercises in 2015 where proportional RCV tested well against reform alternatives.
- In one major project on structural electoral reform, we had 14 leading political scientists and election law professors evaluate 37 different electoral reforms across 16 different dimensions of impact. The single most impactful change? Proportional RCV.
- In a spirited “Democracy Slam”, where NBC’s Chuck Todd moderated the final panel and then-law professor Jamie Raskin hosted and convened scores of students, proportional RCV was the most highly rated reform.
Congressman Don Beyer was quick to see the logic of proportional RCV when we met to talk about its potential in the United States, and later introduced the Fair Representation Act in 2017. Backers include columnist David Brooks, the New York Times editorial board and growing numbers of Members of Congress.
So now it’s time to scale the push for change. As Danielle Allen said in the Beyond Winner-Take-All panel, that should at a minimum mean working hard to normalize the RCV ballot. It also means keeping a clear eye on the urgent need to challenge winner-take-all elections as our national politics deteriorate. It’s taken 30 years to get to where FairVote is today, with our signature reforms on the cusp of new viability. Within the coming decade, an expanded coalition can get the Fair Representation Act into law.
If you don't believe me, how about John Stuart Mill?
In the 19th century, political philosopher and utilitarian John Stuart Mill grappled deeply with both the promise and peril of representative democracy. While a believer in universal suffrage, including men without property and women, he also worried that the new surge of less educated voters might overwhelm good decision-making. But deeply committed to the ideas of representative democracy, Mill searched for an answer – and found it in the proportional form of RCV. He became a passionate devote of change, and wrote a particularly clear case for reform – still timely today – in Considerations of Representative Government. Here are excerpts from this chapter appropriately called: Of True and False Democracy; Representation of All, and Representation of the Majority only.”
Two very different ideas are usually confounded under the name democracy. The pure idea of democracy, according to its definition, is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy as commonly conceived and hitherto practiced, is the government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people, exclusively represented. The former is synonymous with the equality of all citizens; the latter, strangely confounded with it, is a government of privilege, in favor of the numerical majority, who alone possess practically any voice in the State. This is the inevitable consequence of the manner in which the votes are now taken, the complete disenfranchisement of minorities.
The confusion of ideas here is great, but is so easily cleared up, that one would suppose the slightest indication would be sufficient to place the matter in its true light before any mind of average intelligence. It would be so, but for the power of habit; owing to which the simplest idea, if unfamiliar, has as great difficulty in making its way to the mind as a far more complicated one. That the minority must yield to the majority, the smaller number to the greater, is a familiar idea; and accordingly men think there is no necessity for using their minds any further, and it does not occur to them that there is any medium between allowing the smaller number to be equally powerful with the greater, and blotting out the smaller number altogether. In a representative body actually deliberating, the minority must of course be overruled; and in an equal democracy (since the opinions of the constituents when they insist on them, determine those of the representative body) the majority of the people, through their representatives, will outvote and prevail over the minority and their representatives.
But does it follow that the minority should have no representatives at all? Because the majority ought to prevail over the minority, must the majority have all the votes, the minority none? Is it necessary that the minority should not even be heard? Nothing but habit and old association can reconcile any reasonable being to the needless injustice.
In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately but proportionately. A majority of the electors would always have a majority of the representatives; but a minority of the electors would always have a minority of the representatives. Man for man, they would be as fully represented as the majority. Unless they are, there is not equal government, but a government of inequality and privilege; one part of the people rule over the rest; there is a party whose fair and equal share of influence in the representation is withheld from them contrary to all just government, but above all, contrary to the principle of democracy, which professes equality as its very root and foundation.
The injustice and violation of principle are not less flagrant because those who suffer by them are a minority; for there is not equal suffrage where every single individual does not count for as much as any other single individual in the community. But it is not only a minority who suffer. Democracy, thus constituted, does not even attain its ostensible object, that of giving the powers of government in all cases to the numerical majority. It does something very different: it gives them to a majority of the majority; who may be, and often are, but a minority of the whole.
[With proportional representation] the champions of unpopular doctrines would not put forth their arguments merely in books and periodicals, read only by their own side; the opposing ranks would meet face to face to hand, and there would be a fair comparison of their intellectual strength, in the presence of the country. It would then be found out whether the opinion which prevailed by counting votes, would also prevail if the votes were weighted as well as counted.
[Some critics of proportional representation] are unable to reconcile themselves to the loss of what they term the local character of the representation. A nation does not seem to them to consist of persons, but of artificial units, the creation of geography and statistics. Parliament must represent towns and counties, not human beings. But no one seeks to annihilate towns and counties. Towns and counties, it may be presumed, are represented, when the human beings who inhabit them are represented. Local feelings cannot exist without somebody who feels them; nor local interests without somebody interested in them. If the human beings whose feelings and interests these are, have their proper share of representation, these feelings and interests are represented, in common with all other feelings and interests of those persons.
But I cannot see why the feelings and interests which arrange mankind according to localities, should be the only ones thought worthy of being represented; or why people who have other feelings and interests, which they value more than they do their geographical ones, should be restricted to these as the sole principle of their political classification.
Mill later extols the virtues of the proportional form of RCV – that is, the single transferable vote system as proposed by Thomas Hare. He introduces his explanation of how it works with:
This degree of perfection in representation appeared impracticable until a man of great capacity, fitted alike for large general views and for the contrivance of practical details—Mr. Thomas Hare—had proved its possibility by drawing up a scheme for its accomplishment, embodied in a Draft of an Act of Parliament; a scheme which has the almost unparalleled merit of carrying out a great principle of government in a manner approaching to ideal perfection as regards the special object in view, while it attains incidentally several other ends of scarcely inferior importance.
What about the other voting methods– and can any reform succeed?
Within the EA community, there is a great deal of interest in approval voting, where the voter gives thumbs up or thumbs down on each candidate and support for a compromise cancels out support for your favorite. While having the virtue of simplicity, it has practical downsides that likely limit its long-term potential to low salience choices in the spirit of a family deciding what to eat for dinner. This EA Forum post in 2020 by Tobias Bauman makes valuable points, while this recent skeptical analysis by Alan Durning, head of Open Philanthropy grantee Sightline, includes this telling excerpt:
The defining feature of approval voting is that it’s binary: approve or not, bubble filled or blank, yes or no. You approve just your favorite. Or your favorite and your second favorite. Or your top three. Or any number you choose. It’s up to you. Simple.
What you cannot do is convey any other preferences. No rankings. No ratings. No way to say that you love Nader but would settle for Gore, that you’d really like Perot but could live with Bush Sr., that you’d be elated with Biden, could get excited about Klobuchar, would be satisfied with Booker, and could tolerate Mayor Pete.
If your preferences are black and white, with no shades of gray, AV may be for you. Otherwise, the more you think about it, the more confounding it becomes. If you actually care who you vote for, you have no good option. Approve Elizabeth Warren and you’ve maximized your help to her but exerted no influence over the rest of the race. Fill Bernie’s bubble too, and you’ve just halved the weight of your Warren vote. You’re now helping them equally. Add Mayor Pete and you’ve cut your weight in thirds. Every candidate you approve dilutes your other votes.
If your preferences are black and white, with no shades of gray, AV may be for you. Otherwise, the more you think about it, the more confounding it becomes.
You have to decide whether to minimize the chances of your least favorite winning (by approving all but Trump, for example) or gamble by voting for your favorite (all in for Ben Carson, for example). The more you care, the more painful the choice. It’s not so simple after all. And that’s why most people just fill the bubble for one candidate, as discussed below.
For now, though, focusing just on voters’ individual experiences, what’s most eye-rolling about approval voting is that, well, AV acts as if no one had ever invented numbers. Its binary nature is not only woefully constraining but also entirely unnecessary.
And from the voter’s perspective, that’s the most basic reason that ranked choice voting is less risky than approval voting. Ranked choice ballots let you vote for candidates in order of preference, the way humans do… pretty much all everyday decisions they make that offer a few options: what to order for lunch when the kitchen has 86’d your favorite, which movie to watch when Netflix doesn’t have the classic you were craving, which household costs to prioritize over others in a tight month.
And ranking your second doesn’t hurt your first choice. RCV ballots differentiate among alternatives and reflect the nuances of your views. Marking Warren second doesn’t hurt Bernie if you’re on the Bernie train. Voting for Bush Sr. second doesn’t hurt Perot if you’re in the tank for Ross. Ranking Biden lower than Pete doesn’t hurt the mayor if he’s the one you like best.
That’s the right kind of simple
However, I’m not suggesting that Open Philanthropy only look at ranked choice voting as a means to reform our elections. I’d welcome a full, thorough review of any and all assumptions, a look at the record of how systems work, are won and are lost, and a tough look at whether that $1000 to electoral reform in the United States might really leverage the much greater financial investments our world needs. And certainly, what’s best for the United States is unlikely to be what’s best for other nations. Every nation has its own political culture and trajectory. My conclusion simply is that in the United States, that trajectory powerfully would be to reimagine voting as ranking.
I’ll conclude with affirmation of my optimism about what’s possible in the United States. Somewhat perversely, that optimism is grounded in resignation that conditions in our nation’s governance are going to get worse and may not get better without tackling their root causes in our electoral system. Here’s how I closed my April speech about our potential way forward:
And let me be clear. We’re just getting started. Our growing reform coalition is truly thrilling. Success depends on people working as allies who might disagree on most everything else. That means conservatives, liberals, and moderates finding common purpose in winning electoral reforms that are right for our nation - people like our former board chair and independent presidential candidate John Anderson, and the Libertarians, Greens, Democrats and Republicans we work with every day in support of ranked choice voting as a tool to end the “spoiler wars.”.
It means having some reformers focus on big ballot measure campaigns that can change congressional elections overnight – as could happen this year in Nevada and Missouri. It mean others – like our great team at FairVote, with our eyes on the ultimate prize of a national win in Congress - focused on winning and sustaining RCV through building coalitions and finding legislative allies in city, state and national government — with victories for RCV to replace local runoffs and handle crowded primaries being valuable in themselves while building the foundation for sweeping national change.
Make no mistake. It takes all of us. With this growing chorus of allies, let’s all become part of Generation Why Not and get it done.
By 2024, why not have a dozen states use RCV in primary or general elections for president?
By 2025, why not have 500 cities across America use RCV?
By 2030, why not expect Americans to define “voting” as “ranking” - everywhere? Why not pass the Fair Representation Act in Congress so that every voter, in every election, has the power to join with like-minded Americans to define their own representation -- no more “elections only decided in the primary”.... no more shaming of third parties, no more funhouse mirror representation of America. Why not have the left, center and right of every corner of our nation come into Congress to help decide our future, with new electoral incentives to do what’s right by voters and needed for the world? Why not indeed?
As I stand on this stage, looking out into a hall filled with friends, allies, family, and people who collectively have the power to do so much, I feel deep gratitude - and great determination and hope. Let’s transform our elections… together.