August 2022: Capitol Hill Citizen: MIA on Ranked Choice Voting and Proportional Representation: AOC and the Progressive caucus punt on election reform

By Howie Hawkins

Capitol Hill Citizen
August 2022

Asked by the New Yorker in January 2020 when she was supporting Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) presidential campaign about what her role as a member of the House would be under a Joseph R. Biden presidency, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded: “‘Oh God,’ she said with a groan. ‘In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.’”

Responding to the commentary this remark generated, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “Yeah, I don’t know why people are up in arms about this. Many other countries have multiparty democracies, where several parties come together in a coalition to govern. In another country, I’d be in a Labor Party like Jacinda Ardern.” Ardern is the prime minister of New Zealand.

Given that perspective, one would think that AOC and other progressives would be championing the bill for proportional representation in the House, the Fair Representation Act (H. R. 3863). 

But only seven members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – Earl F. Blumenauer (D-Oregon), Rohit Khanna (D-California), James P. McGovern, (D-Massachsetts), Joseph D. Neguse (D-Colorado), Jamin B. Raskin (D-Maryland) – are co-sponsors along with two members of the New Democrat Coalition – James H.S. Cooper (D-Tennessee) and Scott H. Peters (D-California). 

The prime sponsor – Donald S. Beyer (D-Virginia) is a member of both caucuses.

One would also think that progressives would have introduced a bill by now to replace the Electoral College with a ranked-choice direct vote for President. 

The only two Republican presidents in the 21st century lost the popular vote only to be first placed in office by the Electoral College vote. Instead of trying to blame the progressive Green candidates Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 for the Democratic losses, one would think that progressives would push to change the system that allowed losers like Donald Trump and George W. Bush to take office through the anti-majoritarian Electoral College.

The Fair Representation Act provides for the election of U.S. representatives by proportional ranked choice voting in primary and general elections from multi-winner districts of up to five seats. The districts would be drawn by independent redistricting commissions. Senators would also be elected by ranked choice voting. 

The bill would enable all political viewpoints to elect Representatives of their political perspective in proportion to their voting support. With more choices and proportional outcomes, the bill would create more opportunities for women, people of color, urban Republicans, rural Democrats, and minor parties.

Bills for a popular vote for President have been languishing in Congress for decades. In 1969, a bill to abolish the Electoral College and go to a direct popular election of the President passed the House by a vote of 339 to 70 only to be defeated by a filibuster in the Senate despite President Richard M. Nixon’s support. 

The 1969 bill provided for a top-two run-off election if no ticket received at least 40% of the vote. Instead of improving that bill with instant runoff voting to guarantee a majority winner through ranked choice voting, subsequent bills have simply provided for a plurality winner, including the current version, H.J.Res.14, which has only 9 co-sponsors. 

While these bills assume that it will take a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, there is a case to be made that Congress has the power under its independent constitutional authority to regulate presidential elections in Article II, Section 1 and the 12th Amendment to create a ranked choice direct for President simply by legislation. (See Rob Richie et al., “Toward a More Perfect Union: Integrating Ranked Choice Voting with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” Harvard Law & Policy Review, 15(1), Winter 2020.)

Most electoral democracies in the world use some form of proportional representation in which different parties and political viewpoints are represented in legislatures in proportion to the votes they receive. Most of Europe and Latin America, much of Africa, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan use proportional electoral systems. Most of the new democracies in recent decades have adopted proportional systems, including South Africa, Namibia, the former Portuguese colonies, and the post-Soviet nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The dominant electoral system in the United States of single-member-district, winner-take-all elections tends to produce a two-party system. Minor party candidates are viewed as “spoilers” because they could split the electoral coalition of the more popular major party candidate resulting in the election of the less popular major party candidate. Proportional voting gives every party, including minor parties, their fair share of representation. People can vote for minor parties without worrying that it might help the candidate they least prefer.

The new democracies adopted proportional representation because it includes potentially fractious groups and political viewpoints in their legislatures. This concern is increasingly relevant in the United States because the two major parties have become more ideologically opposed over recent decades. The result has been increasing polarization and gridlock in Congress, bitter battles over gerrymandering in the redistricting process, and fewer competitive elections for the House. 

Redistricting analysts at Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight put the number of competitive House districts in 2022 at between 30 and 40, well below 10% of all districts and about a third of the number of competitive districts there were before the high-tech partisan gerrymandering that took hold after the 2000 census. With most districts being uncompetitive one-party districts, voters in political minorities have no way to elect Representatives that reflect their political viewpoint in election after election. Political minorities include the supporters of major parties that are the minority in their district as well as minor party supporters. Proportional representation renders partisan gerrymandering nearly impossible because it replaces winner-take-all single-member districts with multi-member proportionally represented districts.

The use of ranked choice and proportional voting is growing at the grassroots. Ranked choice voting is now used in two states (Maine and Alaska) and 53 local governments. Six municipalities use  proportional ranked choice voting to elect city councils, school boards, and other municipal boards.

Why are there so few progressives supporting the Fair Representation Act? Why is there not a bill to replace the Electoral College with a ranked choice direct vote for president?

Capitol Hill Citizen asked three congressional progressives these questions. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was asked because here remarks about being stuck in the same party with Joe Biden begged the questions. It 

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was asked because her congressional district is based in Minneapolis, which uses ranked choice voting, including proportional ranked voting for some of its boards. Congressman Jamie Raskin was asked because he is a co-sponsor of the Fair Representation Act and a longtime advocate for replacing the Electoral College with the direct election of the president.

None these Representatives responded to requests by email for comment. The question remains: Why are congressional progressives MIA on ranked choice voting and proportional representation?

Howie Hawkins was the Green Party candidate for President in 2020.

Originally published in the Capitol Hill Citizen

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August 10, 2022

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