Since 1993, Californians for Electoral Reform (CFER) has been working to bring about ranked choice voting and proportional representation to the state, seeing their first victories in Northern California in the late 90's and early 2000's. This week, CFER co-presidents Steve Chessin and Kevin Sabo joined me to discuss their organization's history, the challenges they faced passing these reforms, and their vision for the future.
You can listen to the full episode below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever your bad self gets your podcasts.
Steve Chessin, co-president and founding member of CFER, originally mapped out a four phase plan for implementing proportional representation nationwide. It started with implementing ranked choice voting (then called single-runoff voting) at the municipal level, the idea being as RCV gained adoption locally, it would be easier to promote the concept statewide and nationwide, while following the same ground-up strategy for proportional representation.
In their first decade, CFER successfully campaigned to have ranked choice voting implemented in Sant Clara County, Berkeley, and Oakland, as well as campaigning for bills to make it easier for municipalities to adopt RCV. In the course of their efforts, Chessin noted three major obstacles to getting electoral reform passed:
- Funding - Moving from a winner-take-all system to ranked choice voting required changes in ballots and the equipment that houses them. This, of course, costs money. With funding for elections being unequal, this meant not every municipality could afford to change the way they elect candidates, even if they wanted to.
- The People Who Run Elections - Running an election has been described as putting on a Broadway play that opens and closes on the same night. This makes election officials notoriously averse to any change that might complicate voting or make an election more error prone.
- The People Running for Election - Politicians and campaign consultants enter a race looking to win, and their path to victory is often charted by what's worked in the past. Our system now is fairly simple - keep your base happy and paint the opponent as the devil, both inspiring your supporters to vote and discouraging your opponent's. Ranked choice voting requires candidates and their operatives learn how to appeal to their constituents' better angels, which is an oddly hard sell.
While Chessin's plan has yet to make it to the second phase of implementing RCV across the state of California, the concept has gained traction in other states in recent years. Maine will be holding its first federal elections using RCV this year, ranked choice is on the ballot in Massachusetts, and the movement is gaining traction in other states.
What's more, voting equipment manufacturers have adapted their equipment to accommodate ranked choice voting, meaning both those who run elections and those who fund them have less to worry about when it comes to change.
An important piece that may have been missing in CFER's early days is urgency. Sabo, who'll eventually take the baton from Chessin and lead CFERs efforts in the coming decades, comes from a generation that's grown into adulthood seeing two deep recessions, a pandemic, and a worsening climate crisis. With this history, there's less faith in the idea the leadership of either major party will produce real solutions to these problems, and a sense that removing the structures that protect the two party system will return power to the voters.
In a common thread with past episodes, the final piece of resistance are elected officials, who need to understand how a move to proportional representation will benefit them. Given the growing movement for electoral reform, the question may not be can they win in a proportional electoral system, but will they lose opposing one.
(Californians Interested in learning more can visit CFER.org)