The United States is a mighty big country. And it has an enormous population, nearly 340 million strong, the third most populous in the world. Only China and India are bigger. So new and improved ideas usually take a long time to trickle up and find a surface where they can catch some sunshine and grow.
Consequently, political and social change often must begin in cities and states before they find any traction at the national or federal level. These local places often act as the laboratories for new ideas.
Ranked choice voting started in San Francisco in 2002, in a city considered the most progressive in the US (though, as someone who lives there, it’s not nearly as progressive as its reputation). That was followed over the next few years by RCV victories in Berkeley, Oakland, Minneapolis, Burlington Vermont, and other places. All of these first plantings of the RCV flag were liberal to progressive places. So for some, ranked choice voting gained a reputation as being a liberal reform.
But it isn’t. Between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, RCV is neutral as to who gains an advantage in any given election. The goal of RCV is to ensure that VOTERS get to pick the majority winners and benefit from fair representation, instead of winners determined by gerrymandered districts or the highest campaign spending, or spoiler candidates who fracture the majority’s vote and result in low-plurality winners.
RCV was passed first in these cities because in each place it was solving a real, local problem. For example by consolidating two elections into one. In San Francisco, RCV got rid of a very unpopular, low turnout December runoff election; in Oakland, Minneapolis and Berkeley, it got rid of a low turnout primary election in June or August. By consolidating to one election, candidates and voters could focus on that single campaign, the ranked ballots could be used to encourage coalition-building, traditionally under-represented communities could gain representation, and taxpayers saved the cost of an unnecessary separate election.
There has been much to like in this very pragmatic reform. And the rationale for its success has not been driven by partisanship much at all.
RCV, 2010 thru 2020
In the second decade of RCV’s short political life, the places that started adopting it were of a quite different cast. Places like Alaska, Maine, Virginia and nearly two dozen small towns and cities in Utah. Utah is a place where Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 4 to 1, and “unaffiliated” voters make up 30% of the registered. Maine is the quintessential “purple” state, with a Democratic governor, a Republican US Senator and a second senator who is independent from both major parties. In Virginia, the GOP used ranked choice voting in its gubernatorial primary, and it allowed Glenn Youngkin, a more mainstream, palatable candidate to best Amanda Chase, the polarizing “Trump-in-heels” candidate, and then go on to beat the Democrat in the general. In Alaska, 60% of registered voters are “independents” and only 25% are Republicans, a composition which recently gave Sarah Palin fits and caused her to lose a vacant U.S. House seat to an Alaska Native Democrat, Mary Peltola.
So ranked choice voting has proven its mettle in a number of different political cauldrons, whether left, right, liberal, conservative, big city, small town or large states. Now comes the next big test: the state of Nevada. A ballot measure for ranked choice voting known as Question 3 will be voted on by Nevadans this November.
Trying to strike gold in the Silver State
Nevada is an intriguing state, one in which RCV could potentially make a real and positive contribution to better elections. The Silver State has a history of leaning Republican, but then slowly over time it became the nation’s third-fastest growing state, with many transplants from California. The Latino and black demographics expanded in casino cities like Las Vegas, Reno and North Las Vegas (the state’s third-largest city). Nearly 40 percent of the population now lives in those three cities, and that geographic core has become the political hub around which state politics often turns.
Longtime Democrat Senator Harry Reid ingeniously cobbled together a political machine out of these shifting dynamics and turned Republican Nevada into a Lean-Democratic state. Democrats now hold most statewide offices, including governor, and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature (one of 14 trifecta states for Democrats). And Joe Biden narrowly carried the state in 2020.
So state and national Democrats are pleased with this trajectory, but from a little ‘d’ democratic perspective, all is not well. Despite the state being 30% Latino, no members of Nevada’s congressional delegation and only one of the constitutional offices are Latino. Its largest cities like Las Vegas also underrepresent Latino communities on city councils and mayorships.
Like many states, Nevada has seen an increase in the number of registered voters who are independent of the two major parties – about 37% of voters are registered as either nonpartisan or with a minor party, which combined is greater than either registered Democrats (33%) or Republicans (30%). Since the two major parties currently use closed primaries, that means well over a third of voters cannot participate in the parties’ primaries when most elections are decided due the vast number of lopsided, one-party districts. Most telling for the future of the state, Non-Partisan is the largest group among voters 18 to 34 years of age and when combined with minor party registration is above 50 percent. This group is also the largest voting segment in three of Nevada’s four Congressional districts.
Despite the appearance of a somewhat equal playing field, the fact is that most elections in Nevada are vastly uncompetitive. The legislative districts have been so gerrymandered, and the regional partisan demographics are so pronounced, that 55% of state legislative primaries were uncontested, the most in years. Of the contested primaries, a large number were won by candidates who earned less than a majority of the vote, due to the presence of multiple candidates who split the vote.
Such low-plurality winners have long plagued Nevada elections. Current Democratic governor Steve Sisolak won in 2018 with less than a majority, only 49.4% of the vote. His Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt (from an old Nevada political family), finished with 45.3% and was probably hurt by other conservative parties and candidates which together took another 3.7% of the vote. In 1998, incumbent Senator Harry Reid won reelection with 47.9% and a squeaker victory margin of 0.1%. With a Libertarian party candidate taking nearly 2% of the popular vote, it’s likely that Reid won because his opponent was spoiled by that Libertarian. Reid’s political career probably would have crashed if Nevada had used a majoritarian electoral system.
So like many other states, Nevada elections have been a bit of a mess, with frequent low plurality winners, uncontested races, noncompetitive elections, spoiler candidacies and underrepresentation of Latinos.
Nevada voters first – over the incumbents and political parties
Ranked choice voting would seemingly address all of these shortcomings. So Nevada Voters First, a broad statewide coalition, succeeded in paying for a couple hundred thousand signatures to qualify a ballot initiative for this November’s election. If successful, it will lock ranked choice voting and open primaries into the Nevada constitution. Nevadans will be empowered to rank up to five candidates in the November general election for each federal, state, and legislative office, and before that the top five candidates for each office, regardless of party affiliation, will be selected using an “open primary” to see who will compete in the November election.
Ranked choice voting actually has been used before in Nevada, by the Democratic Party as part of its presidential nomination caucus in 2020. 70,000 Democrats ranked their ballots and it proved to be popular in its trial run. So it would seem like a no-brainer for Nevadans to embrace a modern electoral system.
Except there is one enormous obstacle – the Democratic Party. Specifically, the Harry Reid machine and its attendant allied organizations, which is afraid of change and so is making all sorts of specious arguments to oppose it.
The anatomy of anti-reform
This is one of those moments where you can’t help but wonder if the Democrats will ever learn to stop being their own worst enemy. For years, the Democratic Party has ignored important political reforms like public financing of campaigns and automatic/universal voter registration, even though lessons from other established democracies around the world show how both of these dramatically improve representative government.
Automatic voter registration, for example, would add tens of millions of Americans to the voter rolls – mostly minorities, the poor and young people – and those added voters would more likely become Democratic voters. So embracing that reform is the right thing to do, and it is actually in Democrats’ best interest. Yet the Donkey Party’s leaders, institutions and bureaucracy have dragged their collective feet. Today there is more acceptance of AVR among Democrats, but this crucially important voter registration vehicle is not as highly prioritized by many Democrats as it should be.
Now here is another reform, ranked choice voting, which would result in a clear improvement to Nevada’s electoral process. But the timid Democrats can’t figure out how to embrace it. Some of the criticisms sound so laughable that one can’t help but think that Democrats are being disingenuous.
For example, Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak said RCV “would make our system more confusing, error-prone and exclusionary" – even though it hasn’t done that in any of the other nearly 60 cities and states that are using it. Exclusionary? Quite the contrary, New York City used ranked choice voting for the first time to elect its mayor, city council and other offices in 2021, and in the first election the number of women elected to the city council jumped from 17 to 31 out of 51 seats, with 25 of those being woman of color. Confusing? I’ll bet the Latinos in Nevada would love to benefit from such an “exclusionary” and “confusing” method.
U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen piled on the foolishness, saying the initiative would “make casting a ballot more confusing and time-consuming” – time-consuming? Say what? – and that it would “disproportionately impact communities of color.” Other top Democrats, such as the state senate majority leader, as well as allied organizations such as labor unions and voter engagement groups, echoed with their own clearly coordinated critiques. Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director of Silver State Voices, says RCV “will inevitably lead to increased errors. Ranked choice vote ballots are significantly more likely to be thrown out and uncounted because of those voters’ mistakes.”
That would be a serious charge, if it were true. But there is no evidence of that happening in any of the thousands of races that have been conducted using RCV in other places. FairVote and other RCV advocates have heard all these objections before; these are the standard complaints raised by bureaucrats who are uncomfortable with change. Those who toss around these phony excuses don’t realize how insulting they sound toward the very voters they are purporting to protect. Are Nevada voters somehow more stupid, more clumsy, more easily confused, than all the voters in other places that are using RCV without any of these difficulties?
One of the leaders of the pro-initiative campaign, Sondra Cosgrove, is a College of Southern Nevada history professor and a past president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada. She points out that the Democrats used RCV in their presidential caucus in 2020, in which voters selected three to five presidential preferences, and “Nobody thought it was confusing then.”
Confusing for communities of color? Professor Cosgrove pushes back against that, saying “I don't understand where that's coming from because I don't stand in front of a classroom and look at my students and think, ‘Oh, my students of color are going to be more confused or have a harder time than my white students.’”
Cosgrove also argues that the open primary system would allow those 37% of independents to fully participate, since the current closed primary system limits exclusive participation to Democrats and Republicans in those decisive partisan primary elections that determine winners in the many lopsided one-party fiefdom districts.
The opposition’s threadbare arguments can’t help but cause me to wonder what the real reasons are for the opposition. Here is one possibility: the Harry Reid Democratic machine in Nevada has been under attack recently – not by Fox News or MAGA Republicans, but from within -- by other Democrats.
The Nevada Democrats were badly rattled last year after a slate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America took over the party’s state structure, vaulting a Bernie Sanders supporter to the party chairmanship. The Sanders campaign had focused on organizing tens of thousands of young Latino voters in the state, with the goal of activating people whom the Democrats hadn’t bothered with before. And it worked: in the 2020 cycle, Sanders won a commanding victory in the Nevada caucuses. Then, after the presidential election ended, Sanders Democrats kept organizing and won a majority on the state Democratic board.
That insurgency prompted all of the Harry Reid Dems staff people, who had controlled the status quo Democratic state organization, to resign en masse from the state party! Instead, they created their own parallel Democratic Party and moved $450,000 out of the party’s coffers and into another bank account. Now with the 2022 and 2024 elections approaching, Nevada Democrats are anguishing over a pitched battle between the Reid machine and the Sanders insurgents in a pivotal battleground state.
With both the Reid and national Democrats thinking that the state has been trending the right way, why make any changes, they reason? So they have tried to block reform, whether redistricting reform, open primaries or ranked choice voting.
This is the anatomy of anti-reform and the preservation of a damaged status quo. Democrats like to blame Donald Trump for everything that is wrong with this country – he is a convenient whipping boy for fundraising and base mobilization. But in my experience, often the Democratic Party leadership is its own worst enemy, continually shooting themselves in their collective feet. Fortunately Question 3 is ahead in the polls, 42% to 27%, but there are two months to go and the Democratic machine appears to be planning to go to war to defeat it.
Trust “We the People”
Political reform is good for America, good for Nevada, and it’s good for both Democrats and Republicans. A word to the wise: those who try to manipulate the process and the rules because they are sure of their noble goals and the perfidy of the other side often see those very rules turned against them at some point in the future.
Fairness” is the foundation for the politics we need. Both Democrats and Republicans should place their trust in “The People.” And they should conspire and collaborate to give the American people the best political system possible, and to remove the boulders in the road that obstruct the free flow of political freedom and fair representation.
Any Democrat who is unwilling to do that is part of the problem.
Crossposted from DemocracySOS