By Howie Fain
Rank the Vote is proud to publish this historical overview of ranked choice voting in the US, authored by Howie Fain. A retired public school teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts, Howie was a co-founder of FairVote in 1992. Find more of Howie’s work at www.prvoting.com
This is the ninth of nine installments on the history of RCV. We hope the history that unfolds in these posts is as revelatory and inspiring for you as it was for us. Let the curtains rise and the knowledge drop!
Ranked Choice Voting in the U.S., Act V, 1992-2002
FairVote, the decades-old national clearinghouse for all things RCV, was founded in 1992.
Only it wasn’t FairVote then, and it wasn’t even the Center for Voting and Democracy, another name used by the organization in the mid-1990s. Rather, the organization that was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio was initially known as Citizens for Proportional Representation. It initially gathered in Cincinnati to honor the 32 years of STV-PR that had ended in racial backlash (pre-Voting Rights Act), and mark recent attempts to win it back. (For simplicity, we’ll call the organization FairVote throughout this piece).
Same as today, FairVote’s preferred proportional voting system then was STV, believing then as now that it is particularly well-suited for use in the United States. But that wasn’t the entire PR focus, as there was much excitement about the public electoral reform process just getting underway in New Zealand, a country similarly constricted by the winner-take-all traditions of Great Britain; New Zealand eventually adopted Mixed Member Proportional in the final plebiscite. Also internationally, FairVote closely followed the dramatic events in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela promoting list proportional representation for the new nation he would soon lead, in 1994. FairVote also carefully monitored and supported the use of other modified at-large systems as remedy in Voting Rights violations (such as cumulative and limited voting), which first appeared in the latter stages of Act IV
Just about the same time, several state or regional organizations sprung up around the country, similarly focused on proportional representation, and were all in sync with FairVote in advocacy if not formally joined organizationally.
And Doug Amy’s book, New Voices, Real Choices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the US, was published in 1993, which explicitly recognized that suddenly—or, again—a serious movement was taking shape to help advance politically what academics like himself had long recognized.
Naturally, FairVote was quite aware of Cambridge’s lonely status in RCV’s Act IV, and established relationships in that city with key players, including election administrators. Since FairVote well understood that one very important element to getting to a hoped for Act VI as soon as possible was demonstrating the feasibility of computer tabulation of PR ballots, it was fortuitous that many in Cambridge—inside and outside of government—were now looking to make this technological change. Today, so many decades into our ubiquitous computer age, it’s hard to imagine there being any doubts in the 1990s about the technological feasibility of computerizing a ranked ballot election, but until it was actually in place somewhere, doubts were sure to impede all new adoptions elsewhere. The weeklong hand count that had been held in a Cambridge middle school gymnasium was certainly a quaint tradition in that city, but that just wasn’t going to sell in the 1990s anywhere else where the case for STV-PR itself had to first be made.
FairVote entered into a consulting arrangement with the city to advise on computerizing its municipal PR elections. Its final report in 1994, titled “Computerizing a Cambridge Tradition” reviewed all the technical implementation matters, including successful testing against actual prior ballots and results, but also noted the potential impact this would have on resurrecting STV as a practical option, also a positive outcome for many in the city who were proud of their election system.
Sure enough, the resulting testing and state certification of the Cambridge program (using software written by a California PR activist) was one important box checked off as Californians for Electoral Reform backed an STV-PR ballot initiative in San Francisco, one of several options placed on the ballot by a municipal reform Task Force, in 1996. It fell short, but another question on the ballot by the Task Force that same year, was approved: switching from at-large elections to a Board of Supervisors composed only of single-member districts, while also instituting a top-two majority runoff system. For the budding national PR movement, the stakes in this multi-option reform question were high, but the campaign was itself a low-budget affair. Fact is, the district option won, and STV-PR (identified as preferential voting on the ballot) did not.
The loss in San Francisco was a setback for a young (even if also very old) movement looking to change the tide of a 200 year-old tradition of winner-take-all elections in the U.S. But it turned out that PR wasn’t actually the only egg in FairVote’s basket, and after the defeat of PR in favor of districts and runoffs, it was inevitable that more attention would be paid to single-winner alternatives in San Francisco—after all, holding an “instant” runoff in a single election is a much more logical and better way to determine a single winner with majority support than delayed runoffs—or anywhere else with a top two system.
It would be hard to quantify as a percentage, but from the beginning, FairVote and the associated state organizations had generally left some messaging space for IRV, as a companion reform to proportional STV and other PR methods that should always be used when electing legislative bodies. As the argument went: when you’re electing a mayor, a governor, or a president, the single office can’t be proportionalized, so you might as well have the right system in place to determine that single winner, and Instant Runoff Voting is definitely that. In fact, that very term was adopted and put into use by FairVote in the mid-1990s.
But still, throughout the late-1990s, FairVote’s focus remained on proportional representation: single-member district seats in legislative bodies, at any level of government, should not continue to be single-member districts; multi-winner legislative elections using block voting or any other winner-take-all voting system should switch to a proportional multi-seat system instead. Even as the late Act V focus began to shift as described below, the larger PR vision was kept alive, with a long piece in the National Civic Review in Spring 1998, Full Representation: Proportional Systems Promote Inclusion, Deliberation and Better Policy; and holding the 1998 FairVote national conference, in San Francisco of all places, entitled: Empowering the Voter: A Conference on Proportional Representation, Reapportionment and Electoral Reform. Proposals to allow the election of congressional representatives using proportional voting systems in multi-winner districts featured prominently in FairVote’s work.
But with varying degrees of centralized FairVote participation, an effort to adapt existing single-winner elections, whether for executive or district councilor positions, developed, largely in the greater Bay Area of California. As most of these were already using some form of a two-round system committed to finding a majority winner, IRV had a ready-made sales pitch for the efficiency of a single-round system.
Inserting an “option” for future use of IRV into local charters was approved in Santa Clara County CA, 1998; Vancouver WA 1999; San Leandro CA and Oakland CA 2000. One reason for delays (these were “option” only) was waiting on hardware to catch up with the already existing software.
In this same period, new developments at the state and presidential levels reflected growing interest in IRV. In New Mexico, the Greens began to field many more candidates; amid the unsurprising growing concerns about the effect of “spoilers,” the Democratic political establishment was divided about how to respond, and an IRV bill passed in the state Senate, but not the House.
And back in San Francisco itself, as Act V neared its close, the real IRV kickoff occurred shortly after STV-PR had lost out to districts with runoffs: a mayoral runoff was held in 1999, prompting a Supervisor who was in that runoff to submit legislation to change municipal elections to IRV instead. That consideration escalated the next year, with the same rationale, as the first implementation of 11 district Supervisor races, also with the potential for runoffs, were to be held for the first time in 2000. The argument wouldn’t be debating if plurality elections were problematic; the addition of runoffs when districts were approved in 1996 had already answered that. Some PR advocates were reluctant to bestow the reform imprimatur to single-member legislative districts under any circumstances, no matter IRV’s improvement over delayed runoffs, but the overall feeling was that the PR question hadn’t won in 1996, while districts did, meaning that IRV was the reform train now leaving the station, and reformers had better hop on or get left behind. FairVote went all in for IRV when it went on the San Francisco ballot, for mayor, supervisors and all city offices, in 2002.
Instant Runoff Voting within the existing single-member Supervisor districts triumphed over the existing runoff system in San Francisco, with 55.5% of the vote. That was huge news for many hopeful reformers, meaning that the lights were finally about to come back on for Ranked Choice Voting in some form. The fact that tiny Basalt, CO also approved a ballot question in 2002, providing for IRV replacing plurality if three or more candidates ever compete for mayor, was not huge national news on its own—but in retrospect, it also pointed convincingly to the direction the reform train was now heading.
Also in 2002, Alaska Republicans advanced an IRV ballot question, for all state and federal offices. It lost. The proposal was opposed by Democrats and the League of Women Voters. It’s theorized that even some Republican advocates got cold feet, as the entire political world searched for answers, and structural advantages in winner-take-all elections, in the wake of the 2000 Presidential election in Florida. Post-San Francisco, therefore, the immediate focus would remain on local government election reform going forward, and that reform would be Instant Runoff Voting.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.