> October 14
>Electoral Systems: What are they, why do they matter?
>Electoral systems play a fundamental role in democratic governance,
>yet most Americans know nothing about them. The ways in which we
>meet to make decisions or choose representatives to make decisions
>for us determines whose voices are heard and whose voices are not
>heard. Are we served best by single-member districts? By at-large
>winner-take-all city councils? Are there other options we haven't
>even thought of? Why is the rest of the world moving towards
>Steve Chessin, President of Californians for Electoral Reform, will
>discuss methods for choosing representatives that are different from
>the ones commonly in use in the United States today, methods used by
>most of the established democracies and most of the emerging
>democracies around the world today, and that have been used, at one
>time or another, in the United States as well.
Steve began his talk by explaining that even though most Americans have winner take all democracy, we really have a variety of ways of doing it. Mountain View has a "block vote" (at-large plurality) system, meaning that the three or four top vote getters on election day (depending on the election cycle) get the seats, even if none of them have a majority of the vote. San Francisco has a requirement that somebody get a majority of the votes to win, so they have a runoff election if nobody wins when the votes are first counted. Traditionally, the top two vote getters qualify for the runoff, which happens a month after the other election. Somebody is guaranteed to get a majority that day almost by definition. California's recall was done as a "first past the post" election, meaning that the top vote getter on election day got the seat.
Steve then explained how Instant Runoff Voting works by having us run a mock election. Four Candidates came forth, and voters were asked to list their choices in order of preference. On the first round A got 8 votes, B got 6 votes, C got 5 votes, and D got 4 votes. The first "runoff round" had D's voters ballots passed on to their second choice candidates. After that it was A-9, B-8, and C-7. Then C's votes were passed around to their second or third choices (depending on who the first choice was), and the results were A-10 and B-14. He explained that B probably won because she had done a better job of reaching out to the minor parties on the campaign trail. Also, a big selling point of this method is that a vote for one candidate is not a vote for another candidate, as it can be in the two party system.
Then Steve explained how a democracy could evolve, starting with a New England style town hall where everybody votes on every decision. First the town decides that an elected city council would be better because then they could meet weekly or monthly, and everybody else could delegate most decisions to them, and just replace the elected officials as required. Then, after that has worked for a while some incredibly divisive issue rips through the town, and somebody correctly figures out that their point of view is not represented on the council. Accordingly, the city is broken up into districts, and each area gets representation, which works for a while. Then what happens is gerrymandering starts to happen so that districts are drawn in such a way that seats on the council are allocated intentionally. Steve illustrated this by talking about the time when he was on a redistricting committee and they had to decide whether to put a 50/50 Latino/Asian census tract in a Latino district or an Asian district. Either way, it was a case of a hidden bureaucrat deciding who your elected official would be, and half of the group wouldn't be happy.
To make a system that more people buy into, he suggested proportional representation. This is a system where people vote for political parties, and the parties get a number of seats proportional to the number of votes they get. As an example of this, Steve showed us a South African ballot which had political parties by name, logo, and a picture of the leader. He explained that many countries insist that a party win at least 5% of the vote to get any seats. Some countries like New Zealand have a mixed system, where half of the seats are determined by winner take all districts, the other half by political party lists, and every voter gets two votes, one based on where s/he lives and the other to cast for a party.
Steve finished his presentation by showing us these books where we could go to find out more about electoral systems:
Fixing Elections by Steve Hill.
Is Democracy Fair? The Mathematics of Voting and Apportionment By Leslie Johnson Nielsen and Michael deVilliers.
Behind the Ballot Box, A Citizens Guide to Voting Systems By Douglas J. Amy.
The International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design (Where most books list an author this one said "IDEA Handbook")
To get involved in work on electoral reform, Steve recommended visiting www.fairvote.org and www.fairvoteca.org . He explained that he is directly involved with the fairvoteca one. If you just want to look at legislative angles, he suggested writing letters in support of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock's AB 1039, which would allow all California cities to adopt IRV, choice voting, or other election reforms; HR 415 which would establish a commission to examine both the size of the House of Representatives and how it is elected, including consideration of proportional representation; and Senator Vasconcellos's SCA 14, which would implement Instant Runoff Voting statewide, among other reforms.