| Michael Garman | Rank the Vote |
As a non-partisan organization, Rank the Vote does not endorse political parties or candidates. That said, far from being anti-partisan, we celebrate the diversity and range of American political thinking and politically motivated individuals and organizations across this spectrum who endorse ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting offers many common benefits for all, regardless of political persuasion. We’re very interested in the perspectives on RCV of supporters with a variety of viewpoints.
Last week, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Nathaniel Pearlman, a political technology entrepreneur and the host of the Great Battlefield Podcast. Mr. Pearlman studied computer science at Yale University, where he received his BA, and then political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After completing all of his graduate work except for his dissertation, he left MIT in 1996 and founded NGP Software (now NGP VAN, part of Bonterra) shortly thereafter. This proved to be a successful decision, as the company over time became the primary software vendor for the Democratic Party and its partner organizations. For the 2008 campaign, he served as chief technology officer on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Several years later, he founded Graphicacy, a data visualization company. In the spring of 2017, he began hosting the Great Battlefield Podcast.
I was curious about what had prompted his apparent shift from computer science to political science, but he explained that the transition was not a change in direction. Instead, he had always had strong political interests and sought to combine them with his passion for technology. While he arrived at graduate school without a strong background in political science, he knew that he wanted to carve out a niche at the intersection between politics and technology. Studying political science and statistics put him in a strong position to create and market campaign software.
Thus he started NGP Software instead of writing his PhD dissertation. Mr. Pearlman considers himself very fortunate to have found a career that unites his interests. His podcast, the Great Battlefield, is a continuation of that focus on progressive politics, technology and entrepreneurship and airs three episodes per week. These episodes feature interviews with academics, activists, entrepreneurs, journalists, philanthropists and politicians, from a wide variety of intellectual and socioeconomic backgrounds. Past guests include Nathan Lockwood, Rank the Vote’s own executive director; Lee Drutman, an advocate for proportional representation; and Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor and political commentator, among his nearly 800 episodes to date. The show takes its name from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but refers today to the “great political battle [that] is being fought right now between progressives and the forces of reaction on the other side,” as the opening to each episode states. Its chief focus can be described simply – highlight the people working to stop the United States from going down the dangerous path to authoritarianism that it and many other liberal democracies are currently traversing – the resistance to which is an incredibly complex and multifaceted undertaking. Each guest approaches that challenge from a different angle, whether partisan or not, and focuses on a potential partial solution based on their area of expertise.
I was particularly interested in asking Mr. Pearlman about his vision for the country and how he thinks it should best be achieved. While he rejects the notion that anyone in the modern American political scene has a perfect plan for the future, he finds the ideas and behavior of Democrats and the progressive left the most compelling, generally aimed at serving the citizens, and designed to improve and protect the political system.
One of the chief areas in which Mr. Pearlman believes change is necessary is a topic of particular interest to us at Rank the Vote: structural reform of electoral systems. To him, our bitter partisan polarization is partially attributable to the design of our primary elections. In most states, only registered members of a party are eligible to vote in that party’s primary, and the threshold for victory is a mere plurality rather than a majority. The people who vote in party primaries tend to be the most partisan or extreme members of the electorate, and many offices (especially most seats in Congress and state legislatures) are “safe seats” in which the nominee of the dominant party in the region is all but guaranteed election. As a result, very often a very small slice of the voters chooses a district’s representative.
To solve this problem, Mr. Pearlman has chosen to highlight the political reforms that would ameliorate this problem, bringing many of the key leaders in the fight for ranked choice voting and related reforms on his show. These leaders advocate solutions such as replacing the current primary system with one in which all candidates, regardless of party, face each other in the primary. Then, the top four (or perhaps a different number) would advance to a general election using ranked choice voting to find a winner with majority support. He also has hosted a variety of leaders working to bridge divides, and work to reduce conflict, as well as progressive leaders.
Mr. Pearlman agrees that electing candidates that are not supported by the majority often results in increased polarization and difficulty in finding common ground solutions, and incentivizes political behavior that seeks attention from the extremes. He sympathizes with the oft-aired concern about the fact that RCV is more complicated than traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting and thus might put less well-educated voters at a disadvantage. However, he finds the arguments made by advocates of RCV that the advantages far outweigh the potential drawbacks and that voter education campaigns designed to explain the mechanics of the new system can be effective.
Indeed, there is empirical evidence from large elections in which RCV was used (most notably the 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral primary) indicating that the vast majority of those who cast ballots found the process of doing so straightforward. The challenge, then, is devising a strategy for convincing voters across the country to implement RCV. Given that this is central to our mission at Rank the Vote, I was intrigued to hear Mr. Pearlman’s thoughts about how this might be accomplished. He observed to me that most reforms pass either when one party has a sufficiently large majority to force through its agenda or when an issue is not framed in a partisan light and manages to attract support from a diverse ideological coalition. Since the former is probably not feasible in our modern age of sharp, near-even division and narrow majorities, the best option is the latter.
Mr. Pearlman is unsure as to how or whether this can be accomplished but has taken the step of highlighting the strongest advocates on his podcast as well as the people who have successfully designed efforts to pass measures typically supported by progressives in Republican-controlled states. For instance, Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, while simultaneously electing conservative icon Ron DeSantis to the governorship and voting in a GOP-dominated legislature. Similarly, minimum wage ballot initiatives in red states like Missouri have been successful.
Therefore, he believes, ballot measures should be used as much as possible in pursuit of structural reforms. Instead of focusing only on lobbying legislators, who can be especially partisan and entrenched in the existing system, activists pursuing initiatives and referenda can present their message directly to the people. Calling attention to the fact that our country is narrowly divided – every presidential election since 1988 has been decided by fewer than ten percentage points, as have all but one since 1976 – convincing a sufficient number of people to make the changes necessary to achieve a better, more democratic electoral system is a reasonable prospect. The work will not be easy, but it is gathering momentum, and with hard work, we may see widespread change over time.
To listen to the Great Battlefield, which is of interest in many areas including political reform, follow this link. New episodes are released every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We particularly recommend Mr. Pearlman’s interviews with Nathan Lockwood, the executive director of Rank the Vote; Lee Drutman, the founder of Fix Our House; Rob Richie, the founder of FairVote; John Opdycke, the president of Open Primaries; Aaron Menenberg and Solomon Liberman of the Institute for Political Innovation; John Koza, a Stanford professor and the founder of National Popular Vote, Inc.; Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America; Charlie Wheelan, a Dartmouth professor and the founder of Unite America (originally known as the Centrist Project); and Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota professor and author of more than 15 books about electoral politics.
Michael Garman, a rising sophomore studying political science and history at Yale, is a Digital Organizing Intern at Rank the Vote.
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.