Occupy Wall Street’s TJ Frawley on how to fix the US Electoral System

Occupy Wall Street’s TJ Frawley and a couple of his associates presented on the topic of electoral reform at the December Manhattan Libertarian meeting.  Prior to TJ’s talk I thought of OWS as a little long on noise and short on substance. I’m happy to say that TJ and friends have disabused me of that notion. The Political and Electoral Reform Working Group has conducted a novel and interesting experiment analyzed it well and presented it at our meeting in engaging way.  Here’s a little Q&A I did with TJ after the meeting.

Please give us a quick summary of what your group is about and how it got started?

We’re part of the Politics and Electoral Reform Working Group at Occupy Wall Street. The group was first formed in late September 2011 to brainstorm and investigate ideas for political and electoral reform that could open up our political system to those whose interests, views and positions are marginalized and disenfranchised by the two-party state. In almost daily, open meetings at Liberty Plaza in the fall of 2011, the group developed a document entitled People Before Parties: Recommendations for Electoral Reform that called for experimentation with twelve different electoral reforms at the state and local level, including everything from alternative voting methods to ballot access reform, to citizen initiatives and referenda, the expansion of franchise and proportional representation. That proposal was presented to and consented upon by the OWS General Assembly in December of last year.

After that, a number of different subgroups were formed within the group to focus on specific issues of interest to individual members, for example, alternative voting methods and the problem of money in politics. The idea of creating an experiment that would test alternative voting methods against the traditional voting system had been percolating in the group for a while and a subgroup was formed to develop that project. It has since become known as Make Voting Count, and we’ve been working on it ever since.

Who are the people involved and what made them get involved?

The group is completely open and has weekly public meetings in the Atrium at 60 Wall Street on Sundays at 3pm. There were probably hundreds of people who contributed in some way to the People Before Parties proposal, whether in the meetings at Liberty Plaza or through online discussions. There are still over 600 members on the group’s page at NYCGA.net.

The subgroups are much more focused and are obviously smaller. There are some people in the group now who have been there from the very beginning, such as myself, and there are others who just joined up, literally, in the last couple weeks. People obviously join for different reasons, but it is probably safe to say that most if not all are motivated by the idea that serious electoral and political reform is necessary to open our political system to the many millions of people who are marginalized and disenfranchised by the narrow factional interests of the Republican and Democratic parties.

It’s not a surprise that many people feel the system is broken but people seem to have different ideas about exactly what’s broken and why. How do you and your group frame this specific problem?

To get a sense of where the group stands on this question, it would probably be best to check out the People Before Parties document. As for myself, I’d say, consider the simple fact that there are more Americans who refuse to affiliate with either of the major parties than there are people who identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. Yet at the local, state and federal level, our government is dominated by representatives of these two factions. Nearly 40% of Americans call themselves Independents, but only .004% of the members of the House and Senate are Independent. It is not a coincidence that the electoral and political systems in all 50 states and at the federal level favor the Democratic and Republican parties, since it is Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have written the laws. Independent voters are disenfranchised from the political process, for example, in states with closed or partisan primaries. And Independent and third party candidates for elected office are hobbled by double standards that force them to wage absurd efforts just to get on the ballot, let alone any media attention or a place on the debate stage. But since the US Constitution leaves the manner of holding elections up to the states, and state constitutions often leave this up to localities, that means these absurd system can be changed and resisted at the local and state level.

Voting methods seem a little abstract. Why should people care about something like voting methods?

If you’ve ever wondered why so many elections in the United States boil down to a choice between the lesser of two evils in the Democratic and Republican parties – when there is even a choice at all –, the answer to your question lies, to a great extent, in the method of voting that we use. It is widely accepted among political scientists that our method of voting, known as plurality voting or first-past -the-post, is a primary reason why we are stuck with a two-party state.

It is a commonplace among political pundits that in order to win an election, a candidate has to win 50% +1 votes from the electorate. But, like so much of the twaddle they spout, this is completely false. A candidate only needs to win more votes than any other candidate. If there are three candidates in a given race, then a candidate could conceivably win with as little as 34% support. They only need a plurality, not a majority, to win (that is why the system is called plurality), but that means the majority of people did not actually support the eventual winner.

Under this system, many voters engage in what’s called strategic voting and cast their votes for the lesser of two evils between the major factions rather than for an Independent or third party candidate who may more faithfully represent their views and interests. For example, a libertarian-leaning Independent may vote for a Republican rather than a Libertarian because they are voting against the Democrat. Similarly, a progressive-leaning Independent may vote for a Democrat rather than a Green because they are voting against the Republican. The result of this process is less representative government on both sides, since people are not voting for candidates they actually favor, but rather against the major party candidate they dislike more.

But things don’t have to be this way. There are other voting methods that can be easily implemented that do not constrain voter choice in this way, and therefore hold the potential to open up our political system so that it could actually represent the diverse array of views and interests that make up the American electorate.

Why did you decide to focus on alternative voting methods?

Since the Constitution leaves the manner of holding elections up to the states, and state constitutions often leave this up to localities, alternative voting methods can be implemented at the state and local level. You don’t have to go through the Congress or the president, you don’t even have to go through your state legislature. Towns, cities and counties can implement alternative methods themselves, and in fact there are a number of localities around the country that already use instant runoff voting.

Alternative voting methods do not constrain voter choice to a forced choice between the major party factions, and have the potential to open up our political system to those who are disenfranchised by the current imbalance of power. The result would be more representative government.

Can you give us a quick overview of your voting experiment and summarize the voting methods you looked at?

Sure. The idea behind the experiment is to ask participants to answer a single ballot-style question under a number of different voting methods. This allows us to see how voters behave differently, at both the individual level and in the aggregate, under those various methods. Our research into alternative voting methods led us to focus on three of the most prominent methods supported by advocates for voting reform: instant-runoff voting (sometimes called ranked choice voting), approval voting, and range voting (sometimes called score voting).

Under the traditional method of plurality voting, as you know, voters pick one candidate from the list and the person with the most votes wins. The rules are slightly different under each of the three alternative methods.

Under ranked choice voting, voters rank the candidates in their order of preference, and the vote is tallied as if it were a runoff election. So in our example above, a libertarian leaning Independent could rank the Libertarian candidate first, then the Republican and then maybe an Independent, and so on, and not fear that their topline vote for the Libertarian would help to elect a Democrat.

In approval voting, voters indicate which candidates they approve of, and they may approve of multiple candidates. The candidate with the most approvals wins. To take the other example above, a progressive-leaning Independent could approve of the Green, Democratic and Socialist candidates for a given office without fear that they might help the Republican win the office.

Under range voting, each voter rates each candidate on a given scale, say from 0 to 5, and the candidate with the most cumulative points wins. A New York voter might give a 5 to a Democrat, a 4 to a Green and so on.

Tell us more about how the experiment works.

After we developed the idea for the project, one of the members of the group developed a custom software application that conforms to the model. The program prompts participants to answer a single ballot-style question under all four voting methods mentioned earlier. That program is uploaded to an iPad tablet which functions as our mobile voting booth. We conducted our first large-scale test of the experiment at Occupy Wall Street events in Aprial and May of this year, and collected over 300 responses. You can see our full report on that test on our website at paercom.net. After that, we tweaked the program and the interface in preparation for an exit-poll style data collection drive at official polling sites in New York City on Election Day.

Our Election Day test was a great success. We obtained permits from the Board of Elections to conduct the survey inside polling places, and collected well over 500 responses to the test over the course of the day. We’re currently in the process of analyzing those results and will publish a full report on the experiment in the coming weeks.

What is the most important message your took from your work?

Any of the alternative methods we tested would be better than the method we currently use for our elections.

What’s the next step?

Right now, we are focusing on analyzing the results from our Election Day experiment and will publish a full report in the coming weeks. At the same time, we’re trying to spread the word about the project and create awareness of alternative voting methods, among other electoral reforms. We’re also planning to eventually release a software and information packet that would allow anyone to download the program and conduct the experiment themselves in their own communities.

Where can people reach you?

We can be reached at our group email address, paerwg@gmail.com, and you can find out more information about the project at our website: paercom.net.