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Monday, September 14, 2020

Helping Voting and Democracy in a Pandemic

According to our June 2020 survey of Star rated nonprofits, 72% of organizations have suffered financially due to the pandemic. Additionally, 54% of respondents have cut back on program services due to the pandemic/economic shutdown. To overcome this disruption and to continue to serve communities, many nonprofits are adapting and innovating. 

Today, we are honored to share a first-hand account of what innovation and adaptation look like during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis from FairVote.

FairVote is a nonpartisan organization considered to be one of the leading electoral reform organizations working to give voters a stronger voice on Election Day. In a year when many people care deeply about a fair process where everyone can cast a vote that counts without compromising their health, we’ve been busy.

Our particular priority is the ranked choice voting ballot, which can make elections fairer and more representative. Instead of picking just one candidate, you have the option to rank candidates in order of your choice: first, second, and so on. Those rankings give voters a backup to their vote if their top pick can’t win - something that becomes increasingly sensible when more candidates run in an election.It works for all types of elections - from Republican conventions in Virginia to city council races in Utah to the Senate race in Maine. It doesn’t have to be political: you can even rank your favorite video conferencing platform using ranked choice voting.

These days, both major parties can have a lot of people run to seek to be their presidential nominee - more than 15 Republicans in 2015-2016 and more than 20 Democrats in 2019-2020. Not surprisingly, five presidential primaries and caucuses this year turned to the ranked choice ballot to project voters' right to vote.

For the Democratic contest, the new ballot meant that whether you liked Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttegieg, Andrew Yang, or one of the other many candidates, you could rank your ballot instead of putting all your eggs in one basket. One specific value: it meant that if you voted early, you could select a back-up choice in case your “number one” dropped out before Election Day - a problem over three million voters faced in 2020.

In March, our staff bustled around our DC-area office, which we had just expanded to accommodate new team members. We were hopeful our intensive nonpartisan voter education voters would help in the states where ranked choice voting ballots were being used for the first time. We were also studying and explaining all the primaries and ways they were working and could be fairer. We were in the midst of our most ambitious strategic planning process in our 28-year history as we geared up to seek to double our impact and $3 million budget in the coming four years.

But like so many nonprofits, we soon had to send staff home to work remotely. We had to come up with new ways of working together in the midst of the pandemic. This was doubly challenging given the time-sensitive nature of our voter education work around the presidential primaries and the need to bring our strategic planning process to a conclusion.

Our voter education efforts all became virtual. The states applying ranked choice voting primaries in April and May implemented this reform combined with vote-by-mail. FairVote led education campaigns for local voters to make sure they knew how to rank their ballots, and with civic groups and party representatives to make sure they knew how to respond to rigorous questions about ranked choice voting. FairVote weighed in on how to order ranked choice ballots. And then we waited.
As the pandemic hit, many states’ elections without these new features crumbled under the pressure. Several states pushed their primary dates months into the summer. Newspapers ran photos of long lines of voters waiting for hours, six feet apart.

But not in Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, or Kansas. None of these states had to delay their elections by more than a few weeks -- enough time to print more mail-in ballots and quarantine election administrators. All four states saw an increase in voter turnout (including a massive 276% increase in Kansas and 114% in Alaska). The error rate was extremely low -- about 0.2%. Three out of four voters chose to rank their ballots. The model worked.

No one could have anticipated that a global pandemic would throw the future of America’s democracy into disarray. But other problems have been anticipated for years: vitriol over so-called “spoiler candidates” taking votes away from the presumed party nominee; wasted votes as candidates drop out before Election Day; and strategic voting, as voters weigh their preferred candidate against those they believe are more likely to win the primary. It turns out, a pandemic didn’t just highlight this dynamic, it also highlighted ranked choice voting and was part of the solution.

For FairVote, we’re adapting to remote work. We’re now implementing and having encouraging conversations with funders about our long-term strategy and doing all we can to support fair elections this fall and beyond. What we’ve learned is similar to lessons from our presidential primaries project: change can be hard, but you can surpass expectations. Even if it’s over Zoom.

Written by Rob Richie is the President and CEO of FairVote.

Rob co-founded FairVote in 1992 and was named president and CEO in 2018. He has been involved in helping to develop, win, and implement ranked choice voting across the United States; his writing has been featured in eleven books, including as co-author of Every Vote Equal, which is about Electoral College reform, and Whose Votes Count, on proportional ranked choice voting.

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