When we hear "one person, one vote," most people think of the right to vote itself, but the fight for an equal vote has been a long one, and gaining the right to vote was only the first step.
The idea is that your vote should be just as powerful as mine, no matter who you are, what party you belong to, where you live, or how many candidates are on your side. The voting method should not play favorites.
The fight for the Equal Vote is a key pillar of the Voting Rights Movement. The right to fair and equal elections, and the right to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people... but until we can vote our conscience without risking wasting our vote, splitting the vote, or helping to elect our worst case scenario, we won't have a true democracy. Until my vote is just as powerful as your vote no matter where we live, we will not have a true democracy. Until we have equal access to the vote, we will not have a true democracy.
Leveling the Playing Field - A three step plan:
1. Voting Method Reform: Ensuring Equality in the Voting Method Itself
The voting method itself, how we fill out our ballots and how they're counted, is the foundation of the voting system. Traditionally, most elections in the world have kept it simple. You vote for one candidate only and the candidate with the most votes wins. It seems simple, but the implications are anything but.
"Choose-One" Plurality Voting only works if there are two candidates in the race, and voters often find themselves coerced into voting for the 'lesser of two evils' if they don't think their favorite can win. Strategic voting is the name of the game, and those who simply vote their conscience will find themselves at a predictable, mathematical disadvantage if their side runs more candidates and if their favorite isn't viable.
By design, Choose-One Plurality Voting prevents voters from coming together to show that they prefer any the candidates in their coalition over the other side, and as a result it leaves us divided and conquered.
For candidates from under-represented and historically marginalized communities, fighting for equitable representation is an uphill battle and our outdated system creates barriers to entry and prevents new candidates from more diverse backgrounds from stepping up and winning.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) can exhibit this same type of vote-splitting, especially in competitive races. This is because in Ranked Choice, candidates are eliminated in rounds and each round works just like a Choose-One only election. Any round with three or more viable candidates can eliminate the wrong candidate due to vote-splitting and the more competitive the race the more likely this is to happen.
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that equality of voting - one person, one vote - means that the weight and worth of the citizens' votes as nearly as is practicable must be the same. The astute reader may have noticed that the Supreme Court gave themselves an out with the "as nearly as is practicable" clause, and at the time of this ruling no voting method in use had ever delivered an equal vote, but that has changed.
Lady Justice stands holding the scales, the original test of balance and equality.
Traditional "Choose-One" voting works great if there are only two candidates in the race. The majority always wins. Easy. But when there are three or more candidates in the race, and when voters are not allowed to show that they would prefer any of the candidates in their coalition over the other side, the result is often election with wildly unrepresentative outcomes. A coalition or faction who runs more candidates than the other side risks ending up divided and conquered- in many cases electing a candidate who was opposed by a majority of voters.
The examples at the national level are notorious: In 2000, Ralph Nader split the left vote and cost Democrats the presidency. In 1996 Ross Perot split the right vote and cost Republicans the presidency. Both of these candidates were scapegoated, even though the system was to blame, and the resulting backlash dealt a crushing blow to 3rd parties. This isn't just a US problem though. Throughout the world it's been proven time and time again that Choose-One Plurality voting results in two party domination as voters learn the hard way that they need to vote for a frontrunner if they want their vote to count.
The Equal Vote = Equitable Outcomes
In order to achieve gender parity or racial equity in politics, candidates need a level playing field, but the spoiler effect is a glass-ceiling. Voters face strong incentives to carefully study the field and only vote for the candidate on their side who they think can actually win, even if that person is just the lesser of two evils. But further compounding the issue is the fact that who is deemed electable is in large part determined by media bias. Candidates who are well funded, those who have the name recognition, and those who are already in positions of power, are all much more likely to be seen as electable, and to get this strategic voting boost.
Studies on the demographics of elected officials in the United States show that white men held 62% of elected offices in 2019, despite comprising only 30 percent of the population. The reasons for this pervasive inequity of representation go back all the way, but in order to change it, we need a new system where new candidates and aspiring politicians can run and win.
The reality is that voting methods which give a strong advantage to those who are deemed most electable will continue to uphold serious disparities in representation, regardless of public opinion.
Vote-Splitting and Alternative Voting Methods:
Ranked Choice Voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference has been lauded as a solution, but in elections where the third candidate is actually competitive, vote-splitting remains a serious issue and RCV only offers a marginal improvement compared to a primary and general election with Choose-One Plurality voting.
The issue is in the way the votes are actually counted. The version of RCV in use today (Instant Runoff Voting,) works like a series of Choose-One elections where only the 1st choice votes are counted and one candidate is eliminated in each round. It works well if your favorite is weak and your vote is quick to transfer, but for voters whose favorite is a strong underdog that isn't eliminated until late in the game, their next choice may never come into play.
One study of 96 recent elections in the USA found that on average over 10% of RCV ballots were not counted in the deciding round of the election. This study and others also showed that historically marginalized communities are more likely to have their ballot not count in RCV. Another study showed that Ranked Choice is expected to lead to spoilers in 15% of competitive elections, or worse if there are more candidates. We can do better.
Luckily, most other voting methods don't suffer from vote-splitting. As it turns out, when voters can weigh in on each candidate individually, when all ballot data is counted, and when voters are able to show equal preference, vote-splitting is eliminated, voters are ensured an equally weighted vote, and these voting methods pass the Equal Vote Criterion.
Voting methods that ensure that each voter will have an equally weighted vote and that eliminate vote-splitting include STAR Voting, Score Voting, Approval Voting, 3-2-1 Voting, some Condorcet methods like Minimax voting, Ranked STAR, and a number of others. Whether you prefer a traditional ballot, a 5 star ballot, or a ranked ballot there are voting methods that can ensure an equally weighted vote. This is not something we need to compromise on!
Raising the bar for elections, and mandating that voting methods not play favorites would have massive repercussions; empowering voters to vote their conscience, eliminating wasted votes, making politics less polarized, making campaigns more positive, making it more accessible to run for office, breaking glass-ceilings, and delivering more equitable representation.
The Equal Vote Coalition is the driving force behind STAR Voting, an innovative voting method for more fair and representative elections. With STAR Voting voters use a 5 star ballot to show their preference order and level of support for the candidates. STAR Voting eliminates vote splitting and the spoiler effect, empowering voters and encouraging more positive campaigning, which in turn leads to more fair and representative elections.
STAR stands for Score - Then - Automatic - Runoff, and that's exactly how it works: You score candidates from zero (worst) up to 5 stars (best). Your vote automatically goes to the finalist you preferred between the two highest scoring candidates, so even if your favorite can't win, it's safe to vote your conscience without worrying about wasting your vote.
Learn more about STAR Voting and the movement behind it on the STAR Voting website.
2. Districting Reform: Combatting Gerrymandering
Voters should choose their candidates, not the other way around, but in gerrymandered districts that's exactly what happens. Gerrymandering has a long and storied history. Originally invented as a way to draw districts to help voters of color earn representation, it didn't take long at all for the political machine to realize they could gerrymander districts to do the exact opposite.
In the USA, racial gerrymandering was outlawed in 1965 as part of the Voting Rights Act, but partisan gerrymandering, drawing districts which virtually ensure that one party will be overrepresented and the other party will be underrepresented, is still widespread -- and both parties do it.
The term gerrymandering generally refers to the way district lines are drawn within a city or a state, but the same concept applies for the subdividing of any election into local areas, so the drawing of states or provinces is just as vulnerable to gerrymandering as the drawing of seats for the house of representatives.
Proving that a district has been gerrymandered, either intentionally or unintentionally, is absolutely doable thanks to the fact that gerrymandering can be measured explicitly. In any election with two identifiable sides you simply measure the number of votes on each side which made a difference and helped win a seat, and those which did not make a difference and were wasted.
"Wasted Votes" in gerrymandering include votes for a candidate which didn't win, plus the extra votes for the candidate who did win. If one side wastes more votes than the other consistently, across a number of elections, and if the difference is significant, then the jurisdiction is gerrymandered.
In a gerrymandered district, voters on one side are able to use their votes very efficiently while votes on the other side are much more likely to be wasted. This difference is known as the election's "Efficiency Gap." The larger the election's Efficiency Gap, the worse the gerrymander. The smaller the efficiency gap, the more fair future elections are likely to be. Ideally, the number of wasted votes on both sides should average out to being roughly equal over time, or the margin of wasted votes should be as small as possible given the number of seats available and the size of the factions.
Drawing perfectly fair, not-gerrymandered districts is impossible in practice because populations shift and because people aren't actually neatly sorted into two opposing factions. This is why the Supreme Court Ruling cited above which enshrined the right to an equally weighted vote included the disclaimer "as nearly as is practicable." That said, the Efficiency Gap between parties on the right and on the left, and between voters of color and white voters can and should be measured after each election, and if a stark disparity across the last four or so elections is found then an independent redistricting commission should be convened to redraw the districts more efficiently if possible.
For a given jurisdiction, it's possible to establish what a kind of efficiency gap is practicable, and then encode that efficiency gap in the jurisdictions redistricting protocols, effectively banning gerrymandering.
Equitable Redistricting Commissions
The Equal Vote Coalition advocates for a multi-pronged objective approach to combatting gerrymandering, rooted in the science and informed and held accountable by the communities on the ground who are the most impacted.
We call for each and every jurisdiction to pass legislation banning gerrymandering and convening equitable redistricting commissions. These commissions would employ a two-step and two-team process. First, a small "Cartography Committee" team of technical experts (skilled in cartography, math, statistics, districting, and programming,) would be convened after each election to measure the efficiency gap for both partisan and racial gerrymanders. If the elections efficiency gap over a set number of elections was found to be over the set limits, then the second team, an "Impacted Communities Committee" would be convened. This second committee would include a representative from each political party large enough that they could hypothetically win a seat if their members were all clustered in one area and one citizen from each district in the current jurisdiction. These citizens would be chosen to ensure that the "Impacted Communities Committee" reflects the self-identified racial diversity of the jurisdiction as closely as possible.
A number of considerations should go into the drawing of legislative districts, so at this stage, the commission can convene to share and discuss their ideas regarding representational goals, district compactness, and any geographical or historical considerations that should also be factored in to the districting map as well. The Cartography Commission can then get to work on a first draft of a new map with highly efficient boundaries. This draft map would then go back to the Impacted Communities Committee, which would either pass the redistricting proposal by a 2/3 vote, or provide feedback for the next iteration. This process would repeat until an acceptable map was produced.
A Bi-Partisan Approach
Solving gerrymandering is more of a political problem than a technical one and stopping gerrymandering is somewhat of a game of chicken. If one party was to suddenly pass a bill that eliminated gerrymandering in all jurisdictions they controlled the result would be an even worse gerrymander that put them at a massive disadvantage overnight.
For this reason, ending gerrymandering requires a bipartisan approach, where states controlled by both parties pass the same legislation, but where the legislation doesn't take effect in either state until the number of extra seats gained by gerrymandering on both sides is equal. This would require a type of bill called an interstate compact, much like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
The Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
Currently in the USA Presidents are not elected directly, rather, they are elected by a body known as the Electoral College in which each state gets a number of electors based on their population, and then two more for each state. This system is based on the makeup of congress, where the House of Representatives is proportionate to the population and where each state gets two senators.
Because small states have these extra two votes, the electoral college and the US congress functions much like a gerrymander. The makeup of congress is written directly into the constitution, and so changing it would require a constitutional amendment, but the makeup of the electoral college is up to the states themselves and each state has the choice to award their electors proportionately rather than doing it as most states do and giving all of their electors winner-take-all to the candidate in their state who got the most votes. Currently Maine and Nebraska are the only two states which award their electors proportionately.
In order to address this inequity in our presidential elections a number of red and blue states have passed bills signing onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. When states representing a majority of electors sign onto the compact then it will go into effect. The interstate compact model would work perfectly for an Interstate Compact on Gerrymandering.
Because gerrymandering is by definition something that is done when district or boundary lines are drawn, it's tempting to just sidestep the issue entirely by having elections at-large without dividing the electorate into local districts or groups, but at-large elections are another way that elections can be rigged to further marginalize minority factions and deny them representation, especially in areas where minority communities are concentrated in one area as a relic from the days of overt segregation and red-lining. At-Large elections were called "the oldest trick in the book" by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and were also outlawed for federal elections in the Voting Rights Act.
Many people are fans of using multi-member districts or Proportional Representation (PR) to mitigate the impacts of gerrymandering. While Party List Proportional methods do solve partisan gerrymandering, the impacts of non-partisan PR methods and the impacts of PR on and racial gerrymandering are less clearly established. Proportional Representation also requires at-large elections in large multi-member districts to achieve the low thresholds needed for highly efficient outcomes, but in doing so these electoral systems must do away with geographical representation. There are many reasons why PR might be a great idea for other reasons, but we don't recommend it as a bandaid for gerrymandering. PR should be adopted because it's been determined to be the best system for the jurisdiction in question after weighting the pros and cons.
3. Voting Rights: Combatting barriers to voting and political voice
Limited ballot access, pay to play politics, barriers to registering to vote, barriers to voting, unfair limitations on the right to vote, barriers to people with housing instability and those who have moved recently, barriers to non-english language speakers, barriers to elderly voters, young voters, voters of color, rural voters... The list goes on. Voting should be easy and accessible, and the information needed to research candidates and be an informed voter should be accessible as well. We have along way to go.
Despite all the many strides we've made to grant people the right to vote, voter disenfranchisement and barriers to voting, barriers to getting engaged in the political process, and barriers to running for office remain widespread. The Equal Vote Coalition is looking to bring onboard more members leading in this space to shine more light on these issues and platform those doing the work.
Do you know a voting rights hero? Send us an email at [email protected] with their name and contact information and we'll reach out to share our platform, spotlight the work they are doing, and hopefully coalition with their organization to support the movement.