Votes for Change, and Changing the Vote


Just as the election of Barack Obama obliterated a racial barrier in a spectacular way last night, obstacles between voters and our democracy were pushed aside in this state and around the country as a voters considered a new way of electing their public officials.

Two years after my colleagues and I at FairVote became involved with residents of Pierce County, voters in the greater Tacoma area held their first Ranked Choice Voting election. Races for County Executive, Sheriff, council and others were on the ballot. RCV promised to gives voters more choices, foster less negative campaigning and produce a majority winner in one election. On the historic night of November 4, 2008, RCV lived up to its promise. As the system takes hold, things will run even smoother.

The reform is spreading around the nation. 70 percent of voters in Memphis approved RCV on election night, as did voters in Telluride, Colo. Now the Washington State Legislature needs to pass a local option bill in the next session so communities around the state can choose whether or not to follow Pierce County's lead and use the system.

I have been a proponent of election reform since 1997. A few years earlier, I became involved in political issues regarding the music community in Washington. We were fighting for freedom of expression and inclusive rock shows. Along the way, I recognized the beauty of our democratic process. Even though it took a lot of work, change toward our goals was possible.

As my political education developed, the structural barriers to participation became more apparent. It seemed like it all boiled down to our voting system. Elections are the interface between the citizen and government. I was enthusiastic about our democracy, but that passion didn’t carry over to voting, and I met many others who shared this notion.

After a few searches online, I discovered different ways of conducting elections. The most compelling for me was Ranked Choice Voting. The system is also known as preferential voting and instant runoff voting. It spoke to me because the method was so intuitive: a voter ranks their candidate in order of preference. You get a first choice, second, third and so on. If a candidate wins a majority of first choices, they’re elected. If there’s no majority winner, the last place candidate is dropped and the voters who chose them get their second and third choices transferred to the remaining candidates. This method continues until there’s a majority.

Wow! You mean no more voting for lesser of two evils? Yes, it was true a voter could have a meaningful choice. Instead of cynicism or ambivalence there could be passion. You can put down that first choice on the ballot and no one can tell you not to throw your vote away or not to waste your vote.

There was a single organization advocating this idea: FairVote - The Center For Voting and Democracy. I started working with them to help spread this reform and eventually joined the Board of Directors. Last year, when our Chairman John B. Anderson stepped down from the post, I was elected to take his place.

Conventional elections in Washington -- prone to uncontested or uncompetitive elections anyway -- are still in litigation as they have been for most of this decade. We do not need to patch the current creaky system. We need a new system that's already been successfully tested in court. The idea for Ranked Choice Voting is to move into the future with comprehensive changes to elections. Our current elections only gives us two choices. RCV not only gives us more candidates to choose from, the choice is meaningful.

And as we’ve seen the reform spread around the nation, the potential to transform democracy is manifesting. President-Elect Barack Obama told us last night that the United States is successful because it can change. Fear and exclusion were left behind. Now we’re poised to take that change to our election system itself.

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