Why Democracy Reform

By Aaron Fowles

The Amazon is on fire. Gun-enabled domestic terrorism is on the rise. Families are being torn apart at the border. An end to war is nowhere in sight. We find ourselves inching ever closer to ethical and financial collapse.

In the midst of all of these crises and looming catastrophes, I’m going to try to convince you to care about democracy reform.

For context, I am the Program Director of Ranked Choice Tennessee, an organization dedicated to education and advocacy about Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a voting system that allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one. Election administrators can use this data to find a candidate with majority support with just one trip to the polls, even from a crowded field.

I recently wrestled with the question: Why democracy reform? I’m fully aware of the scope of crisis weighing down on us, yet I choose to spend my time and energy pursuing a small change to the way we vote. Why?

Here’s the best answer I could come up with: voting is the most popular civic act, so it makes sense to start there. Most people don’t volunteer to pick up trash. Most people don’t attend rallies. Most people don’t send letters or postcards to their elected officials. People all over the world are busy with their own personal lives, struggling in their own ways to make ends meet and put food on the table–but they will vote.

That’s the whole basis of our representative system, isn’t it? We go out every now and then, cast our ballots, and then rely on the people elected to represent us in the large-scale discussions and policy decisions that affect our lives. We even entrust these representatives with a portion of our income to effect the policies that they deem best for us. It’s the civic equivalent of using a slow cooker: set it and forget it.

We shouldn’t have to bombard representatives with postcards. We shouldn’t have to fight special interests to get our representatives to care about us and work for our benefit. In a perfect world, our government would truly be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Looking around, however, it becomes evident that this is not the case. We have governments at every level that do not resemble their constituencies, do not work in their favor, and do not listen to the voters.

Let’s look at Memphis as an example. The city has a population of about 650,000. In 2015, there were about 364,000 registered voters and about 102,000 of them voted for a turnout rate of about 28%. 

What could 102,000 people do if they dedicated themselves to cleaning up the city, or improving education, or reducing crime, or providing opportunities for youth? We’d have a brand new city.

Most people won’t do those things, but they will vote for people who they expect to do those things for them, therefore it is worth exploring just how effective electoral systems are in measuring the intent of the populace.

Again, let’s use Memphis as an example. The races for mayor and city court clerk are both plurality races, meaning that whoever gets the most votes wins, even if the winner didn’t receive a majority (50% +1). The same plurality rule applies to the two super districts, each of which sends 3 members to the city council. Here’s the winning percentage of each of those races:

City Court Clerk26.15%
Super district 8-169.26%
Super district 8-276.86%
Super district 8-344.95%
Super district 9-169.98%
Super district 9-247.23%
Super district 9-361.21%

We can see that in half of the plurality races, the winner was the person for whom most people did not vote. This should give us pause, because if the winner of the election is not chosen by the majority of the voters, then who does that winner actually represent?

For context, the elections that did obtain majority results were all elections with incumbents. The elections that were decided by a mere plurality were all open races with multiple candidates.

The single member districts, of which there are 7 in Memphis, didn’t fare much better in 2015. Two districts had incumbents and were both won win majority results. The remaining races, however, did not achieve a majority results and so were sent to a runoff election between the top two candidates in each race. Turnout in those races dropped by 78%.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 09.27.30

What’s more, that turnout dropped more in areas of low median household income. The first map shows runoff turnout as a function of the turnout in the general. Darker shading means better turnout. The second map shows median household income. Darker shading means higher median income.

You can see from the maps that areas of higher median household income have better runoff turnout.

Why might that be? In Memphis we have two weeks of early voting and a good number of satellite locations. Why didn’t people who live in areas of lower median household income come back out to vote?

Some people I’ve spoken with have said it is because people who live in low-income areas don’t care about voting. I find it difficult to believe this because the map shows dropoff as a function of people who had already come out to vote once.

Some people say the problem is lack of transportation. To illustrate, here is a map showing how far someone can travel by bus from the Fedex Hub, a major employer in Memphis.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 09.30.21

The smallest circle shows how far a rider can travel in 30 minutes. Assuming the potential voter has a 1 hour break, she would have to get a bus at the right time, ride it for about 15 minutes, get in line to vote, vote, get back on the bus at just the right time, and ride 15 minutes back to work.

That’s unrealistic.

Equally unrealistic is expecting someone who relies on public transit to conveniently stop at an early voting site on the way to or from work. The bus system simply does not provide adequate coverage

Maybe transportation is the issue. Maybe child care is the issue. Maybe not having time off between 2 or 3 part-time jobs is the issue.

Frankly, I don’t care what the issue is. The dropoff is real and ranked choice voting, a vital democracy reform, can solve it.

Why are low turnout elections a threat?

OK, so there’s low turnout, now what? Why should we care that people are getting elected in low turnout elections, so far as they win a majority of the votes that are cast? 

Thinking about this question got me thinking about a word from Greek: polisPolis is, as I understand, the root for words like policy and politics. It originally referred to a city or a group of citizens.

Do you remember learning about sampling in elementary school? If there were a large bin filled with orange and blue marbles, for example, you could grab a random handful and use that small sample to determine the ratio of orange marbles to blue marbles in the entire bin. This assumption works if the sample is representative of the whole.

If the “sample” of runoff voters were representative of the “whole” of general voters, runoffs would not be a problem. The polis would be represented. If, on the other hand, the runoff voters are not representative of the general voters, we are faced with the situation of one polis making decisions for another. 

In the era of data-driven campaigning, candidates know who their likely voters are and are able to focus their resources on them. This rather vicious spiral actually drives more people outside of the electoral process. If candidates know whom to target to get elected, they know whom they have to please to get re-elected. 

Ranked Choice Voting, a simple democracy reform, would change the equation completely. Candidates would need to reach out to the entire constituency, not a data-driven sliver, in order to win. Once in office, they would benefit not from catering to an elite few, but from serving the entire polis

And this is why I focus on democracy reform. In our representative system, we entrust a vast amount of power and resources to a select few. Our current system of conducting elections does not promise to select the correct few. A small and simple change can yield dramatic effects of representation, which can yield dramatic policy shifts and positive outcomes.

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