Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts

Rapid Shift to Clean Energy Could Save ‘Trillions.’ But Corporate-Backed Groups Are Fighting the Transition in US Budget Bill

Wind, solar, and batteries are already the cheapest source of electricity and an aggressive shift to clean energy makes more economic sense than a slow one, according to a new study. However, an enormous lobbying effort is underway to block climate policy in the $3.5 trillion budget bill under consideration.


Wind turbines
Public Domain image via Pixabay
By Nick Cunningham September 29, 2021
This article was originally published on DeSmog

A slow transition away from fossil fuels would be “more expensive” than a rapid shift to renewable energy, according to a new study, a conclusion that stands in sharp contrast to fossil fuel industry talking points aimed at heading off aggressive climate policy currently being shaped in Congress.

An accelerated clean energy transition would lead to “net savings of many trillions of dollars,” a calculation that does not even take into account the damages from unchecked climate chaos, the recently released study from Oxford University found. On economics alone, the logic of a rapid shift to renewable energy is obvious and necessary. 

“The belief that the green energy transition will be expensive has been a major driver of the ineffective response to climate change for the last forty years,” the researchers write. “This pessimism is at odds with past technological cost-improvement trends, and risks locking humanity into an expensive and dangerous energy future.”

The authors note that outdated thinking on renewable energy — that it comes with tradeoffs like higher electricity prices, for instance — has long dominated policy discussions. Echoes of this idea can be found today in mounting attacks by a network of lobbyists and think tanks on the climate provisions in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package.

But that line of argument has been inaccurate for years, and the Oxford study says it is now decisively wrong. “Our analysis suggests that such trade-offs are unlikely to exist: a greener, healthier and safer global energy system is also likely to be cheaper,” they write [original emphasis].

The U.S. has a chance to solidify an accelerated track towards cleaner energy. The Democrats in Congress are working on legislation that would push the U.S. electricity system to roughly 80 percent carbon-free power by 2030, a definition that includes hydro and nuclear power, up from around 40 percent today.

The so-called Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP) is complex, but it essentially rewards utilities that move quickly to add renewable energy to their portfolios with each passing year, while imposing fees on laggards who move slowly.


As the Washington Post reports, the largest corporate entities in the country, including ExxonMobil and Pfizer, and powerful lobbying groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, are pulling out all stops to prevent passage of the budget bill.

Industry Ramps Up Misinformation  

Building the more than 600 gigawatts of solar, wind, and batteries needed to get to the 2030 target would put a lot of people to work. One study from the Analysis Group finds that the CEPP would help create an estimated 7.7 million net new jobs over the next decade as the electricity sector moves rapidly to scale up renewables. 

But the win-win logic of creating jobs and cleaning up the electricity sector is not the message that industry front groups and their lobbyists are engaging with.

In the past few weeks, a constellation of right-wing think tanks, front groups, and trade associations have mobilized to defeat the CEPP, as well as the broader $3.5 trillion budget package — nicknamed the Build Back Better bill — under consideration by the Democrats in Congress.

Many of the misleading talking points being pushed by these lobbyists take the familiar form of outdated notions that renewable energy is expensive. They also opportunistically try to link the proposed bill to electricity blackouts, which have occurred in various parts of the country this year, including from soaring temperatures in California and extreme winter storms in Texas, while conspicuously ignoring the fact that these disasters are made worse by climate change.

For example, the Institute for Energy Research and its advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliancewarned that the CEPP would lead to “skyrocketing costs and rolling blackouts,” and that it will “kill the U.S. economy.” Both groups have extensive ties to Koch Industries and regularly push pro-fossil fuel rhetoric.

Other groups have sought to revive well-worn arguments about wasteful spending, while adopting a new campaign warning about inflation. Indeed, raising the dangers of inflation has become one of the central attack lines by right-wing groups in recent months as the budget negotiations drag on.

For example, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group founded by David Koch, has held public events in August and September that put pressure on Congress to “end Washington waste,” and warn about inflation, an echo of the Tea Party events from 2009, which in many ways was an astroturf phenomenon.

In one September 17 post on its website, AFP linked to an analysis by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), which recently launched an Inflation Tracker. IWF says the “inflationary” $3.5 trillion plan would “hurt poor, elderly, minorities.” IWF also has extensive Koch ties.

The Wall Street Journal looked at AFP’s recent attempts to drum up anger at federal spending and found that the front group is struggling to break through with conservatives who are more animated by culture war issues related to mask mandates and vaccine requirements. In an effort to appeal to people, AFP has been “name-checking” mask mandates, and then trying to connect them to the dangers of big government in general, and urging people to oppose the budget bill.

In September, the purportedly non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) named House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders as their “Porkers of the Month,” a derisive award it hands out to government officials who “endanger America’s financial stability.” CAGW, which has received funding from tobacco companiesExxon, and right-wing foundations, uses similar talking points: the budget bill is costly, will push up inflation, and will result in taxes on American families.

Right-wing groups don’t oppose all government spending on energy. The National Taxpayers Union, which claims it fights for free enterprise and against government waste, recently defended oil subsidies while criticizing incentives for renewables.

But these are all small examples of what has become a massive corporate lobbying blitz to kill the budget bill. As the Washington Post reports, the largest corporate entities in the country, including ExxonMobil and Pfizer, and powerful lobbying groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, are pulling out all stops to prevent passage of the budget bill.

As the Post reports, the Chamber is spending heavily on ads targeting the handful of wavering corporate-friendly Democrats, and has vowed to cut off support for any member of Congress that votes in favor. 

DeSmog reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, the Institute for Energy Research, the Independent Women’s Forum, Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union, and Americans for Prosperity. IER responded but did not provide comments in time for publication.

Only AFP answered questions. When DeSmog cited the Oxford study and the cheap cost of renewable energy, Lorenz Isidro, an AFP spokesperson, said: “Top down energy mandates like the Clean Electricity Standard do little if anything to actually improve the environment but would increase energy rates, make everything we buy more expensive, and leave everyone worse off, particularly the least fortunate.”

But as the Oxford study shows, renewable energy is the cheapest source of power generation, and a faster transition results in more economic benefits. The corporate ad and lobbying campaign currently underway is full of misinformation.

“I am not surprised to see the oil & gas industry lobbying to water down efforts to replace their energy product with renewables + storage,” Matthew Ives, one of the authors of the study, wrote in an email. “They have been actively lobbying to reduce investment in renewables for a long time but I don’t think they, even with their wealth and influence, could hold back the tide of technological advance that is happening in these new clean technologies,” he wrote, adding: “I’m afraid the train has left the station.”

Arguments about inflation also appear opportunistic; economists are debating whether inflation is a temporary phenomenon related to the pandemic. In any event, the suite of social and economic programs included in the budget reconciliation bill — paid family and medical leave, universal pre-K, an expansion of Medicare, free community college, to name a few — are aimed at lowering the largest expenses in most people’s lives. 

In fact, an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that most of the benefits of the budget bill are concentrated on the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers, and just about every American would receive a tax cut except for the richest 5 percent.

On top of that, the tax hikes on the rich are intended to offset the cost of the overall package, so claims of enormous deficits are inaccurate. Finally, the spending is spread out over ten years, not all at once.

Whether or not the claims are accurate, Republican politicians and right-wing groups have seized on inflation as an intentional messaging campaign to scare the public away from the budget bill.

Their sky-is-falling rhetoric about renewable energy is part of a longer pattern of behavior of manipulating economic data, says Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for climate and energy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, told DeSmog.

“Fossil fuel companies are not reliable economic messengers,” she said. “They seem to be just all-in on delaying the transition in a way that might protect quarter-to-quarter returns to shareholders, but the evidence is mounting that it could prove financially ruinous for everyone and for the economy.”


“It gives us an opportunity to jump start clean energy in West Virginia. We’re still 91 percent coal-fired, and our electricity customers have paid massive rate increases over the last 10 to 12 years because we’ve doubled down on coal unlike most other states,”

All Eyes on Manchin

The language used by corporate lobbying outfits on costly renewables, inflation and debt appear carefully crafted to appeal to one senator in particular: Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the pivotal vote in the Senate. At times, the language used by corporate lobbyists very closely echoes Sen. Manchin’s own arguments.

In a widely circulated op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in early September, Sen. Manchin expressed his opposition to the budget bill, warning of excessive spending and inflation. He also argued how spending today could leave the country ill-positioned for some future crisis.

Notably, the Chamber of Commerce seemingly adopted Sen. Manchin’s argument as its own, although it repurposed it to warn against the Chamber’s chief concern, the proposed higher corporate tax rates. “[T]ax increases will lessen the resiliency of our economy when crisises [sic] hit, making it more difficult to recover when the next inevitably does come,” the Chamber’s senior economist Curtis Dubay wrote.

Whether they are sharing talking points is unknown, but the Chamber very explicitly says that it is rewarding Sen. Manchin with campaign contributions, along with Democrats wavering on the budget bill.

On September 22, the Chamber launched a six-figure ad campaign targeting a handful of Democrats, urging them to block the entire budget bill, calling it an “existential threat to America’s fragile economic recovery.”

Sen. Manchin holds outsized influence over the final outcome. While he has expressed concerns about the CEPP, what he seems to ignore is the enormous opportunity that his home state of West Virginia could see from the budget bill in general, and the CEPP in particular.

“It gives us an opportunity to jump start clean energy in West Virginia. We’re still 91 percent coal-fired, and our electricity customers have paid massive rate increases over the last 10 to 12 years because we’ve doubled down on coal unlike most other states,” James Van Nostrand, a law professor at West Virginia University and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, told DeSmog. “Coal is not a cost-effective way to generate electricity anymore.”

A new study from RMI, a sustainability think tank, finds that compared to other regions in the U.S., Appalachia would see the biggest economic benefit from the growth of renewable energy over the next decade.

Van Nostrand agreed. “West Virginia would benefit disproportionately from all the money that would come out of the Clean Electricity Payment Program,” he said.

Sen. Manchin has repeatedly questioned why there is urgency around the budget bill, an odd claim given the accelerating climate crisis and the policy programs addressing it within the bill. The United Nations said on September 17 that unless the world dramatically accelerates climate policy to speed up the energy transition, the world is on track to warm to a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the “climate alarm bells” are “ringing at fever pitch.” If emissions are not cut drastically, Guterres says the world is in for a “hellscape of temperature rises.”

In early September, a group of 94 organizations, including environmental, faith, justice, and labor groups, sent a letter to Congress, calling on them to stand up to corporate lobbyists and pass the budget bill. “Now is not the time to let deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists stand in the way of vital public investments in an economy that works for all of us,” they wrote.

“Manchin knows better. He clearly knows better. He could deliver such huge benefits for West Virginia … Why would you say no to this? This is a no-brainer,” Van Nostrand told DeSmog.

Recently, the Intercept reported that Sen. Manchin continues to earn more than a half million dollars per year from his personal stake in his coal business. The New York Times pointed out that Sen. Manchin will preside over the Senate Committee in charge of writing the CEPP, while also being the Senator who has received more campaign donations from the oil and gas industry than any of his colleagues last year. Sen. Manchin did not respond to a request for comment.

Van Nostrand hopes that Sen. Manchin will realize the monumental opportunity that he has at the moment. “What is your legacy going to be? What are you going to put on your tombstone?” he said. “You’re the guy who blocked massive amounts of money that could have come to West Virginia because it wasn’t good for the coal industry and your own personal financial interest?”



This article is republished from DeSmog under a Creative Commons license.
DeSmog was founded in January 2006 to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science and solutions to climate change. Their team quickly became the world’s number one source for accurate, fact-based information regarding global warming misinformation campaigns.


Biden Brings Big Brother to Your Bank Account

The Biden administration has presented a plan that would compel banks and other financial institutions to provide the IRS with an annual report on clients' account inflows and outflows of $600 or greater.


Photo by olia danilevich from Pexels

By Andrew MoranSeptember 27, 2021

This article was originally published in Liberty Nation News

One of President Joe Biden’s chief economic policies is to provide the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with $80 billion to collect more taxes to fund his extravagant agenda. This consists of hiring more enforcement officers and beefing up audits of high-income earners. But the administration has also proposed another method to confirm greater compliance: force financial institutions to turn over clients’ bank account information to the IRS. Not everyone is pleased by this idea, and the banks are pushing back against something they assert would be a “liability” nightmare.

Giving The IRS More Money And Power

The Biden administration recently outlined a plan that would require banks and other financial entities to offer the U.S. government an annual report on customers’ account inflows and outflows of $600 or more to the tax-collecting agency. This measure would apply to banking, investment, and loan accounts, and it is estimated to generate approximately $463 billion in additional revenue over the next decade.

If Congress approves this policy mechanism, the IRS will garner sweeping new powers and information to extract more wealth from taxpayers. However, the banks are not enthusiastic about the plan, arguing that it would increase compliance costs and add more paperwork to an industry that reports millions of $10,000-plus transactions every day to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FCEN).


According to the Treasury Department, the public reports less than half of their total income when additional earning sources, such as freelance income or rental earnings, are not confirmed by a third party.

Forty banks sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), urging lawmakers to reject the president’s idea. The coalition letter, which includes the Consumer Bankers Association (CBA), American Bankers Association (ABA), and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), warned of the “tremendous liability” regarding the collection, storage, protection, and the use of “this enormous trove of personal financial information.” They added:

“This proposal would create significant operational and reputational challenges for financial institutions, increase tax preparation costs for individuals and small businesses, and create serious financial privacy concerns. We urge members to oppose any efforts to advance this ill-advised new reporting regime.

“Privacy concerns are cited as one of the top reasons why individuals choose not to open financial accounts and participate in the financial system. This proposal would almost certainly undermine efforts to reach vulnerable populations and unbanked households.”


But, in a memo to congressional Democrats, White House officials stated this “basic, high-level information” can help the IRS locate “flags” when high-income account holders under-report their income and, thus, “under-pay their obligations.” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also recommended the House add the proposal to the broader $3.5 trillion spending package that can help shrink the tax gap and make sure “tax evaders are not able to structure financial accounts to avoid it.”

Citing a House Democrat source, Bloomberg reported that legislators are brokering an agreement that would “not have the $600,” but instead raise the threshold to $10,000. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) told reporters, “You want to make sure it doesn’t hit the unintended. You don’t want to hit people at the lower end.” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) also wants to adjust the plan to concentrate on wealthy Americans.

Finding Tax Revenue

According to the Treasury Department, the public reports less than half of their total income when additional earning sources, such as freelance income or rental earnings, are not confirmed by a third party. So, while the Treasury avers that tax compliance is at 99% for funds that are verified by another entity, there is a chasm of accurate tax reporting. This is concerning for a U.S. government spending between $4 trillion and $5 trillion a year and running a federal deficit of more than $3 trillion. Uncle Sam needs to try to scour through every avenue to create revenue to keep the lights on.





This article originally appeared in Liberty Nation News on September 25, 2021
Liberty Nation News offers commentary, analysis and opinions – the good, the bad and the ugly — on all things related to American public policy and the political discourse.

Can Ranked-Choice Voting Heal our Poisoned Politics?

The electoral reform also known as instant-runoff voting promises bridge-building and broad appeal instead of culture war and gridlock


Its June 22 mayoral primary made New York City by far the most populous US jurisdiction to date to use ranked-choice voting. Brooklyn Borough president and former police captain Eric Adams claimed the Democratic nomination after eight rounds of vote-counting.
Photo by Thomas Good, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By M. Mitchell Waldrop - September 26, 2021

This article was originally published in Knowable Magazine

It is arguably the most important single question in US politics today: How can the United States halt its downward spiral into extremism, gridlock and cross-partisan hatred?

For many advocates, a critical piece of the answer is the electoral reform known as ranked-choice voting. “It reduces the incentive to be divisive as a strategy,” says Anna Kellar, director of the League of Women Voters of Maine and a leader in the 2016 drive that got the reform adopted in that state.

In fact, it turns the incentives around, says Kellar: Because a ranked-choice system automatically transfers people’s votes to their second, third or later choice of candidates if their first choice loses, candidates are forced to treat everyone as a potential supporter. The result, hopefully, will be campaigns that reward bridge-building and broad appeal instead of attack ads, culture wars and exciting the base — and in the process, de-inflame our politics.

That hope is one big reason why US foundations, philanthropists and individual donors have been pouring money into ranked-choice reform efforts for the better part of a decade. And it’s why ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, has already been adopted in dozens of US cities and states. These early adopters range in political affiliation from the 23 cities in ruby-red Utah that will start using ranked-choice voting in November, to the independent-friendly states of Maine and Alaska, to Democratic bastions such as San Francisco and Berkeley — and now New York City, which became by far the most populous member of the group when it used ranked-choice voting for the first time in its June 22 mayoral primary. 

Map of the US showing the states where ranked-choice voting is used. Different colors indicate: used statewide and in presidential elections; used in 2020 presidential primaries; used or enacted for local elections; used for party elections; used for military and overseas voting.

In the past two decades, ranked-choice voting has spread from a single outpost in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to dozens of US cities and states — most of them within the past five years.


Proponents have high hopes that this cross-partisan momentum will continue. “I think we’re going to see every jurisdiction using ranked-choice voting in 10 years,” declares Rob Richie, CEO of the ranked-choice research and advocacy organization FairVote.


Yet that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Ranked-choice voting still feels new and strange to most Americans, and poses a host of questions. How does it work, for starters? Is it too complicated for voters to understand? Can it actually deliver on its promises? And does it have any hope of surviving in the current political climate?  


Here’s what we know so far.

What is ranked-choice voting — and what’s the point?

Ranked-choice voting is neither new nor untried. The idea itself dates back at least to the 1850s, and it’s been used for national elections in Australia and Ireland for a century now. Its prime motivation — leaving aside, for the moment, the promise of calming political waters — is to solve a specific set of problems that exist with “plurality” voting: the familiar system that has long been the norm in the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries.

Plurality voting does have the virtue of simplicity: Whoever gets the most votes wins. But in close races it is vulnerable to the kind of third-party spoiler effect made infamous in the 2000 US presidential election: The tiny fraction of votes that went to activist and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in Florida almost certainly cost Democrat Al Gore the state and the presidency.  Many jurisdictions try to get around this issue by holding a runoff election between the top two vote-getters. But runoffs tend to be time-consuming, expensive and — because turnout is usually abysmal — decided by a small fraction of the total electorate. 

Even worse, plurality voting can produce winners that most voters don’t want: candidates who squeak into office only because two or more rivals split the opposition. Easily the most consequential recent example was the 2016 US presidential contest, when Donald Trump prevailed in the crowded Republican primaries with just 45 percent of his party’s vote. Another was the 2010 election of Maine Governor Paul LePage, a divisive, confrontational figure who won a four-way race with 38 percent of the vote. And had the September 14 recall effort against California Governor Gavin Newsom not been defeated, he would have been replaced by Republican Larry Elder – whose polling average on election eve was less than 30 percent.

Reformers often argue that examples like these aren’t anomalies — that the plurality system has increasingly turned negative campaigning and extremism into an effective campaign strategy. Get enough of your supporters excited, after all, and it doesn’t matter how many other voters you alienate: A non-majority win is still a win.

But the system can also undermine even the best winner’s legitimacy, says Jason Grenn, director of the ranked-choice advocacy organization Alaskans for Better Elections. When his state adopted ranked-choice voting in 2020, he says, Alaska hadn’t elected a US Senator with more than 50 percent of the vote since 2002. “It’s a tough message for a winner to say, ‘OK, I’m going to DC with 40 percent approval but 60 percent of my district didn't support me,’” he says. 

Ranked-choice voting is designed to solve all these problems by producing officeholders who have majority support. Here’s how it works:

First, voters are asked to rank the candidates by preference on election day, instead of choosing just one. (And no, you can’t leave middle rankings blank and mark your least-favored choice as last.) If the tally then shows that someone got more than half of the first-choice votes, as Republican Susan Collins did in Maine’s ranked-choice 2020 election for the US Senate, they win outright and everything proceeds as before.

But if no candidate gets more than half of the first-choice votes, the counting goes into instant-runoff mode: The candidate with the lowest total is eliminated — think Nader (and others) in the Florida 2000 example — and their votes are reallocated to their supporters’ second choices. This elimination process then repeats through as many rounds as needed, until one candidate passes 50 percent. New York’s crowded Democratic primary turned out to be a classic example: Candidate Eric Adams went from 30.7 percent of the vote in the first round to 50.4 percent and victory in the eighth.

Ranked-choice voting (here called instant-runoff voting) tries to produce winners who have majority support. If no one wins a majority of the vote outright, then the candidate with the lowest total is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to their supporters’ second choices. This elimination process then repeats until someone's vote total passes 50 percent.
CREDIT: MPR NEWS


Will voters accept ranked-choice voting — or even understand it?

The elaborate ranked-choice counting process is no problem for computers; most of the major voting-machine manufacturers now offer it as an option. But there’s long been a worry that the ranked-choice approach will seem incomprehensible to the voters themselves — especially those who are poorer, less educated or members of minority groups. If so, the reform would only end up deepening the inequities that already exist. Certainly, that charge was freely tossed around during the New York City primary campaign.

But academic studies tell a different story. In a 2019 paper comparing California cities that did and did not use ranked-choice voting, for example, political scientist Todd Donovan and his coauthors found that almost 88 percent of the respondents still rated the instructions as “easy” or “somewhat easy.” (Slightly more older voters in the ranked-choice cities did have trouble understanding the election system.) And more to the point, says Donovan, of Western Washington University in Bellingham, “we didn’t find any racial or ethnic differences.”

In 2021, University of Iowa political scientist Joseph Coll published similar results based on data from Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming, the four states that used ranked-choice voting for their 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. (They didn’t get much attention because now-President Joseph Biden was already the presumptive nominee.) And in an exit poll from this year’s New York City primary, 95 percent of the voters found the ballot simple to complete — and 77 percent said they wanted to use ranked-choice voting in future elections.


But the New York exit poll also showed that only 83 percent of the voters ranked two or more candidates. Although that number is quite a bit higher than in most other US elections using ranked-choice voting, it does illustrate another frequent criticism of the system. When voters aren’t required to rank all of the candidates (as they are for some races in Australia), their ballots can become “exhausted” and no longer count in later rounds of the tally.

And if enough ballots meet that fate, then it’s theoretically possible to produce a winner who doesn’t actually have support from a majority of voters.

It’s not clear how significant this exhausted-ballot problem is in practice. But the issue underscores how much the ranked-choice system is asking of voters: They’re supposed to form opinions about a whole list of candidates when they frequently have trouble picking even one. And it likewise underscores a broader point about ranked-choice voting. As Donovan puts it, “jurisdictions need to do some voter education to make it work.”

This was definitely a priority for Kellar’s group in Maine, both before and after their 2016 victory. “We held a whole bunch of events with our local breweries, where people could taste three or four of the beers and rank them in their order of preference,” says Kellar. “And then we would go through the rounds to see which beer would be good for the majority of people, and show the counting process in a way that people understood.” The group did similar exercises at county fairs using pizza and ice cream, and even made a video of people dressed up as ballots, moving around to show how the rounds worked.

“Somebody tries to explain ranked-choice voting to you in words and it sounds like the most complicated thing ever,” says Kellar. “But if you do it with ice cream, people realize that ranking is something that we do every day.”

Will ranked-choice voting really heal political divisions?

Maybe. Ranked-choice campaigns certainly seem less negative, according to a 2016 survey that Donovan coauthored with University of Iowa political scientists Caroline Tolbert and Kellen Gracey. And this perception of heightened civility was confirmed in a novel way this year, when political scientist Martha Kropf of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte published an analysis of Twitter comments and newspaper stories about ranked-choice contests. Kropf found that the ratio of positive to negative words in news stories was significantly higher than in regular elections.

This heightened civility, along with decreased concerns about acting as a spoiler, may in turn make ranked-choice campaigns feel more welcoming to women or minority candidates: Studies show that the system is generally not a barrier for them, and in some cases may even have boosted their chances.

Still, says Benjamin Reilly, a political scientist who studies voting systems at the University of Western Australia in Perth, the ranked-choice approach doesn’t automatically make people nicer. Even after a century of it in Australia, he says, “we have a highly adversarial system with all the usual theater of politicians shouting at each other.” There were also plenty of verbal punches thrown in Maine’s 2020 Senate campaign, and in this year’s New York primary.

Ranked-choice voting (here called instant-runoff voting) can also be used for contests that decide several seats at once, such as races for city councils or school boards. The counting is more involved, but the goal is to produce a slate of winners that roughly matches the partisan makeup of the electorate. For example, if there were five seats at play in a district that was divided 60-40 between Democrats and Republicans, the current system would usually elect five Democrats — effectively leaving two-fifths of the electorate with no representation. The ranked-choice system would come closer to three Democrats and two Republicans.
CREDIT: MPR NEWS


But ranked-choice voting’s promise of reducing division and extremism is quite real, says Reilly; he found compelling evidence for the effect with his thesis work in Papua New Guinea.

“The place is extremely fragmented along ethnic lines, with all these micro-clans and tribes,” he says. Yet back in the 1960s, when the area was under Australian colonial administration and used its ranked-choice rules, elections were surprisingly civil. “The studies from that period all talked about how there were these deals being done between tribal and clan groups to get second votes” from one another’s supporters, Reilly says. 

But with independence in 1975, he says, Papua New Guinea adopted US-style plurality voting instead. By the time Reilly started his research there in the 1990s, he says, “the incentives to do deals and trade-offs had completely disappeared. People were winning elections with five and six percent of the vote, because there were 60 candidates standing sometimes.” And with officials taking office with almost no support, he says, “that was leading to a lot of tribal violence, and other problems.”

Things calmed down a bit after 2003, when Papua New Guinea went back to ranked-choice voting and the dealmaking reemerged. It remains a deeply troubled country, says Reilly, who has found comparable alliance-building in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Fiji and other divided regions that have adopted ranked-choice voting. “But it was a really interesting natural experiment of what can happen under two different electoral systems.”

Similar, if less dramatic, alliances have already started popping up in Maine, San Francisco and other US ranked-choice jurisdictions. A particularly well-publicized example came late in the New York primary campaign, when candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia seem to have tried to counter front-runner Adams by appearing together, with Yang asking his voters to rank them first and second.

It didn’t work: Adams won anyway. But even so, says Richie, look for more such collaborative campaigning as politicians get used to the logic of ranked-choice voting. In his own town of Takoma Park, Maryland, where it’s been used since 2007, “I’ve seen candidates walk past a yard sign for their opponent and knock on the door to talk to someone anyway,” he says. Getting one more second-choice ranking can matter.

That said, however, there remains one crucial question that only time can answer.

A table shows vote redistribution and candidate elimination through eight rounds of the New York mayoral race. As well as the numbers for the initial 13 candidates, also shown is the percentage of write-ins and the numbers of inactive — or exhausted — ballots as the rounds progressed.

Although Eric Adams had the most votes after the first round of counting in New York City’s 2021 Democratic mayoral primary, most voters preferred someone else. But his support proved broad enough to keep him in the lead as trailing candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed. After eight rounds, Adams could claim majority support.


Can ranked-choice voting survive in the United States?

There is still ample reason for skepticism on that score — not least because ranked-choice voting has already failed here once. Versions of the system were used for local elections in some two dozen US cities during the first half of the 20th century, only to be repealed almost everywhere as party bosses fought back against their loss of control. By 1962, the sole survivor was Cambridge, Massachusetts; it would stand alone until 2004, when San Francisco became the first city in the modern era to start routine use of ranked-choice voting.

The current wave of adoptions hasn’t always gone smoothly, either. In 2020, for example, Massachusetts voters rejected ranked-choice voting by close to a 10-percentage-point margin. “Voters didn’t see a clear problem it was solving, says Tyler Fisher, senior director of policy and partnerships at Unite America, a Denver-based nonprofit that supports a variety of electoral reforms. 

Then, too, today’s revival of ranked-choice voting comes at a time of profound mistrust in our election system in general — by both sides.

In New York, for example, when Eric Adams denounced the Yang-Garcia alliance as an attempt to undermine candidates of color like him, he was reflecting a widespread worry that ranked-choice voting would harm minority representation. That accusation could have become incendiary indeed if Garcia had edged past Adams in later rounds, as she almost did.

And substantial portions of the right still denounce ranked-choice voting as some kind of leftist plot. According to a 2019 report on ranked-choice voting from the Heritage Foundation, a prominent hard-right think tank, “So-called reformers want to change process rules so they can manipulate election outcomes to obtain power.”

Yet opponents can be persuaded. In Utah, for example, lobbyist and lifelong Republican Stan Lockhart remembers being a skeptic back in 2002, when his party first used ranked-choice voting in its state nominating convention. But by 2017, when advocates asked if he would help them take the reform statewide, he took the job as an ardent convert.

What helped change his mind, says Lockhart, who now works through the nonpartisan advocacy group Utah Ranked Choice Voting, was seeing the reform’s effects on his own party. “We had less infighting, less attacking one another, less politics of personal destruction, and more focus on issues,” he says. “I liked that. There was the opportunity for a candidate to get a majority of support. I liked that.”

And, says Lockhart, “I liked that a voter got to more fully express their will.”


10.1146/knowable-092421-2



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