Reforming Rhode Island Elections

There were a couple of discussions of election reforms tossed around recently that I just have to respond to:

1. Do We Need Runoff Elections by Patrick Laverty

Laverty argues that runoff elections aren’t needed, whether they come in the traditional form of a subsequent runoff election or in the faster instant-runoff voting (IRV) method — I’ve covered the latter before. I agree with Laverty and others when dismissing the more traditional separate runoff election; it seems like a surefire way to have as few people as possible vote, and I usually cite Central Falls’ initial mayoral election as an example.

When it comes to IRV, I think Laverty is just wrong. He gets too focused on waving away the idea of electoral “mandates” (which are bullshit by the way, if you win an election, do what you set out to do). IRV’s advantages lie in its ability to allow voters to communicate to candidates. If a winning candidate receives a large portion of second choice votes from a losing candidate, they know that a large part of their supporters backed that candidate’s policies and can make policy decisions accordingly. In the current system, a candidate in a five-way race can win with 20.1% of the vote. A large part of the early discussion of Cianci was whether he’d make a full-Chafee and run in the Democratic primary for mayor. In a packed primary, it doesn’t take much for someone to win. Witness the council results from the Providence Democratic primary in 2010; Wards 8, 9, and 11 had candidates who won with less than 50%.

He also relies too heavily on the “boy, voters sure are dumb” perspective when it comes to IRV. I want to say something obvious, but worth saying: Democracy is not a natural concept. Voting is a learned, not an intuitive, behavior. It’s easy to forget this when we spend a lot of the time arguing about “democracy,” but we spend very, very little time explaining the actual mechanical process of voting. Our ballot could use a decent redesign to make them easier to use (as RISD students already did). Take the “complete the arrow” method of voting we have now. We use this for the optical scan machines, but this is by no means an intuitive design. The most likely place voters would’ve seen a system anything like this is in school where you had draw lines between a bank of problems and a bank of solutions. By comparison, IRV has the option for ranking choices, and people are at least familiar with ranking things.

There are definitely strong arguments against IRV, but I don’t think Laverty made them here. (Note, over time, IRV will trend towards a two-party system, so it’s not a panacea to two-party democracy).

2. Russ Moore: Providence Should Enact an Electoral College

Holy shit, Russ Moore’s one-man quest to lower the IQ of Rhode Island plumbs new depths. Moore suggests abandoning direct democracy in Providence mayoral elections because (taking a page from that class warfare he accuses progressives of using) rich people vote at higher rates than poor people. While he’s right about the voting rates, and I applaud the decision to focus on this problem, Moore comes up with the wrong solution. He decides that Providence should have an electoral college based on ward lines because then “Cianci would have been Providence mayor” because for some reason, the candidate who failed to get the most votes being made mayor is the most equitable outcome.

Moore suggests this would be the outcome of a Providence electoral college: “It would force candidates to spend their time equally in every neighborhood, regardless of its economic power.”

Which is, of course, idiotic. We already know what the impact of electoral colleges are on campaigning, and they are not that everyone gets treated equally. They are that areas with the potential to swing towards either candidate get the most attention from the candidates. Essentially, this would deliver the election to the smallest portion of Providence residents who just happened to live in areas where their neighbors weren’t unified in their opinion on the candidates (in this case; Wards 8, 9, 11, 13, and 15).

Meanwhile, in the real world, Elorza didn’t beat Cianci merely by racking up the voting on the East Side and ignoring the rest of the city. He won it by racking up votes in the East Side and winning or running close in the rest of the city. That meant Elorza had to spend a lot of time following his own campaign slogan and campaigning in “One Providence”. Cianci ceded the East Side almost immediately and he lost because he wasn’t focused on the whole city.

There’s also the problem of drawing things based on wards which can be redrawn based on the whims of the city council. It’s not impossible for the council to redraw wards so that they give more power to high-turnout places like the East Side while diluting the votes of the rest of the city. Moore certainly wouldn’t want to advocate for that, but an electoral college provides an incentive for politicians to manipulate the ward maps so that their preferred candidate can win without winning a democratic majority. Which is why the U.S. Electoral College isn’t apportioned solely according to population (although prior to 1920 it was far more closely aligned with population), but gives a more powerful voice to smaller states; because those are places that through historical forces ended up with less land and fewer people.

Okay, well, what about Moore’s point that rich voters vote at higher rates than poor votes? That’s true, but an electoral college doesn’t solve that problem. For one thing, electors don’t have to cast their ballot for how their voters wanted them to, and a handful of faithless electors could throw the election to a candidate they weren’t supposed to support. But also Moore’s system does nothing for addressing the problem of turnout.

And there are plenty of ways to address turnout that are better and don’t require inherently anti-democratic processes. For instance, Providence could declare Election Day (or the week leading up to and including Election Day) a paid holiday. We could enact early voting. We could institute compulsory voting. We could even have government work to fundamentally undo the problems of wealth and income inequality that Providence faces (something Moore opposes).

Look, you can disagree with the outcome of a democratic election. But if you lose an election, your solution should not be to institute a more restrictive, less democratic, form of democracy. It should be to see why you lost and draw the appropriate lessons and then work to win the next democratic election.

But Moore doesn’t want a democratic election. It’s true, as he says, that the well-off wards had higher turnout than other parts of the city. But just because they didn’t turnout doesn’t mean you can call their votes for Cianci. That’s not democracy. That’s not right. In Moore’s world, it appears you don’t have to win an election to become mayor of Providence. You have to lose one.

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