Democracy Decoded: Season 3, Episode 7 Transcript
Simone Leeper: If we've learned anything from our guests on this season of Democracy Decoded, it's that local government matters. The decisions that get made on the state and local level are often the ones that are the most impactful in our day-to-day lives. That's why it's so important that voters are able to elect candidates who they feel will truly represent their interests in the communities where they live. But what happens when the very way the electoral system is designed keeps that from being a reality?
Susan Soto Palmer: We need to see people finally realizing, hey, I'm not represented at that table.
Leeper: That's Susan Soto Palmer, a practice assistant at a law firm and community advocate in Yakima County, Washington. Yakima County is an area well-known for its agriculture. It has a population of over a few hundred thousand residents, a large portion of which is Latino. The problem that Susan and others in Yakima have been wrestling with is that while the white communities in Yakima receive recognition and resources from the County Board of Commissioners, the concerns of Latino voters and the Latino community are not being given the same consideration. Susan says, one place where you can see this stark difference is in the city of Yakima itself.
Soto Palmer: In what we consider the east side of Yakima, there are a lot of Latino, Hispanic, minority and poor of Yakima. There's a lot of homelessness in those areas, and the infrastructure there is not as great, and I noticed that there's a huge disparity, how much power they have over the infrastructure, over the quality of life, over what monies come into cities and counties and legislative districts.
Leeper: Susan says this lack of attention to the needs of Latino residents has stemmed from Yakima County's voting system, and how it prevents Latino voters from having an equal voice in their democracy.
Soto Palmer: We want better. We want everybody to be thriving. We can't get there if some of us are fighting just to be recognized and be given an opportunity to elect candidates of our choice in a fair and equitable manner.
Leeper: I was one of the attorneys representing the Latino residents of Yakima County, who sued to change the election system for the Board of County commissioners. I've now spent three years representing these clients in the Yakima Valley, and I feel honored to help them seek the representation that they deserve. After dozens of hours talking to and visiting with our clients, I've seen firsthand the challenges that Yakima's residents face, like water contamination and dangerous breathing conditions due to wildfires. Susan has been there, facing these challenges with her community every step of the way.
Soto Palmer: After my 11, 12 years of involvement, I'm like, wow, we are a huge step ahead from where I thought we were.
Leeper: As a lawyer, every case is both professional and personal. I truly care about our clients and their right to have a say in their government and in their communities. As a Latina myself, my experience in the case was intense. It's something we don't talk about too often. The way that these cases can impact the attorneys arguing them, especially when the experiences strike close to home, when the racial slurs that we're including in our briefs could be leveraged against us too. It highlights how important it is to have attorneys who look like and share common experiences with our clients. Just like, it's important to have elected officials who look like and share common experiences with their constituents.
I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. In our final episode of this season, we're looking at the efforts that are being made at the state and local level to improve voters' ability to elect the candidates of their choice. We explore the discriminatory history and impact of at-large voting and what's being done about it. Then we'll delve into how ranked choice voting lets voters, not political parties choose their candidates. Decisions made by elected representatives at the local level impact the everyday lives of residents in numerous ways.
In Yakima County, Susan traced the lack of resources provided to the Latino community to the board of Commissioners, the ones who control the county budget. So in 2018, she decided to run for one of those three commissioner seats.
Soto Palmer: I wanted to be county commissioner because the quality of life has been lacking in Yakima for a long time. The current county commissioners and past county commissioners are not paying attention to the needs of all of the county of Yakima.
Leeper: But the at-large voting system in Yakima meant that it would be very difficult for someone like Susan to be elected to office.
Soto Palmer: In the general election. I had to run countywide for county commissioner district number three, and me and other people like-minded like myself felt that that was a huge disadvantage for Yakima County and for being able to elect someone that would represent the community.
Leeper: Latinos make up just over half of Yakima County's total population and one third of its voting age population. But candidates supported by the Latino community are rarely elected to countywide political office, and only one Latino county commissioner has ever been elected to the county board. The reason was the county's at-large voting system.
Mark Gaber: The voting system in Yakima County for its county positions was for the longest time an at-large system, where every voter in the county casts a ballot for every office, and that's sort of a standard vote dilution scenario that we see across the country.
Leeper: That's Mark Gaber, the senior director of redistricting at Campaign Legal Center. Mark explained that racial vote dilution makes it harder for black and brown voters to elect candidates who represent their interests and fight for their most pressing issues. Winner take all at-large voting in Yakima County, for example, meant that if there were three open county commissioner seats, every registered voter got three votes, one for each commissioner contest, and the three candidates who got the most votes won a seat. But many cities and counties instead operate their voting systems with regionally based districts. This breaks up localities, so voters within a given district can elect members that represent that district's interests. The idea is that they better represent the needs of the constituents within the district, because they're held accountable at the ballot box specifically by those voters. At-large voting in contrast can potentially give a slim majority of voters 100% control of the localities open seats. One voting block can win all the seats, overpowering the preferences of other voters.
In Yakima County, where voting preferences are polarized by race, this meant that white voters could have their preferences for all three county commission seats dominate the election over the preferences of Latino voters. This made it virtually impossible for Latino voters to elect even a single county representative. As a result, Susan says the disparities within the county widened. She could see this prominently in the city of Yakima.
Soto Palmer: So the city of Yakima itself is sort of segregated in a way. After 16th Avenue, you have more of the wealthier, usually whiter community that has better infrastructure and get more things in the community.
Leeper: Susan says that the east side of Yakima city is starkly different from the west side, with a lack of infrastructure and prevailing homelessness. Historically, at-large voting systems have been weaponized to discriminate against black and brown voters. After the Civil War, jurisdictions in the South adopted at-large elections to ensure white only governments. But in 1967, Congress banned the use of multi-member districts form of at-large voting for federal congressional elections because of their potential discriminatory impact. And since then, states and the Federal Voting Rights Act have stepped in to protect voters' rights in other races as well. Here's Mark.
Gaber: Since the beginning of the Voting Rights Act, one of the key things that has been a target is eliminating at-large elections, particularly in jurisdictions where there are a substantial number of black voters or Latino voters or Native American voters because it allows the white majority to drown out the voices of those groups and everyone ought to have an equal say and their government and have equal representation.
Leeper: At-large voting also decreases the diversity of the candidates themselves, because the greater costs associated with running an at-large campaign mean that less well-funded candidates struggle to gain traction and an at-large election candidates have to campaign to a larger number of voters in a much wider geographic region, which is more expensive than just campaigning to the voters in one part of a community. Mark says organizations like CLC have been working for decades to eradicate discriminatory at-large voting across the US. In the Yakima County case, CLC was successful.
Gaber: CLC brought a lawsuit on behalf of our clients there in Yakima, challenging this at-large system for the county Commission. And as a result of that lawsuit, we had a settlement in which there are now three districts.
Leeper: The county agreed to a settlement offer to create a new map, so that Yakima now has three districts, each district electing one county commissioner. As a result, the choices of Latino voters are represented and protected within the electoral system.
Gaber: There is certainly a lot of room for continued improvement, but it's not really possible to see those improvements unless you have representation in the government. There's an equal opportunity here for at least two of these three districts to be ones in which the Latino voters could elect their candidates of choice, and so we saw that as a very positive development.
Leeper: Susan says that seeing her community recognize the importance of local government, and see themselves able to be a part of it, was inspiring.
Soto Palmer: This is why I involve myself in lawsuits. This is why I've campaigned. This is why I went door-to-door. This is why I've made phone calls because we can't get there if some of us are fighting just to be recognized and be given an opportunity to elect candidates of our choice in a fair and equitable manner.
Leeper: Susan didn't stop fighting for her community after the settlement and the Yakima County Board of Commissioners case. CLC represented Susan and other Latino voters in another lawsuit, this time challenging Washington state's legislative map for diluting the votes of Latino voters in the Yakima Valley region, and preventing them from electing their candidates of choice for state senator and state representatives. On August 10th, 2023, the district court ruled in favor of those Latino voters and put in place a process for a new legislative district to be drawn in the region, so that for the first time, the Latino community in the Yakima Valley region will be able to be truly represented in the Washington State legislature as well. Eliminating discriminatory voting systems is just one of many efforts going on at the state and local level to improve voters' representation by their elected officials.
Another process that is gaining momentum across the US is something called Ranked Choice Voting. Ranked choice voting has been implemented in states and cities across the country. It's a system that allows voters to express their true support for candidates and issues, rather than feeling pressure to vote for whoever they think has the best chance to win.
Juli Lucky: So when we talk about ranked choice voting, what that does is it ensures that the person that has the most support moves on.
Leeper: This is Juli Lucky from Alaskans for Better Elections, a nonpartisan nonprofit that educates the public and does research about how elections can work in Alaska.
Lucky: Alaskans for Better Elections was initially formed as the group to support ballot Measure 2 in 2020, which brought open primaries and ranked choice voting. What I heard from people is ranked choice voting gives them the freedom to support the person they really want to see elected without the fear of contributing to the person that they want to elect the least.
Leeper: Ranked choice voting makes our democracy more equitable and gives voters more choice at the ballot box. But how does it actually work?
Alex Copper: Ranked choice voting is actually very straightforward. It really just means that voters are given the option to rank multiple candidates in order of preference when marking their ballot.
Leeper: That's Alex Copper, Legal Counsel on Campaign Legal Center's litigation team. She explained that in a ranked choice voting system, voters are given the option to rank their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. This is in contrast to a winner take all plurality voting model, which is what most US voters are used to, where each voter casts a ballot for only one candidate. Alex says, that's a system that poses its own set of problems, like unequal representation.
Copper: Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins even if it's not a majority.
Leeper: So how are the votes actually tallied in a ranked choice voting election? Alex walked me through how it works.
Copper: If one candidate receives a majority of the first choice votes, that candidate wins in the first round and the election is over.
Leeper: Then if one candidate doesn't reach the majority threshold, an elimination process begins, kind of like an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked the eliminated candidate first have their votes counted for their second ranked choice.
Copper: This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes and is declared a winner.
Leeper: This process is the same in elections with multiple winners, like a city council or county board of supervisors. Juli explained how ranked choice voting can help address some key problems with traditional winner take all systems.
Lucky: When you have a more competitive field, you might end up with what they call a spoiler or a split vote, where a person that doesn't have the majority support of that district moves on, because as you get more candidates that vote can be diluted. So what choice voting does is it ensures that the eventual winner does have the support from a majority of the constituents either for second or third place.
Leeper: Vote splitting and the spoiler effect are both common problems that can often crop up in traditional winner-take-all systems. Alex was happy to explain.
Copper: Vote splitting happens when voters from a majority block cast their ballots for two candidates with similar platforms or ideologies, and this splits the vote allowing a third candidate, who none of those voters supported, to win.
Leeper: Like in 2016 during the Republican primary where Donald Trump received less than half of all primary votes, with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and other candidates splitting the remaining vote.
Copper: The spoiler effect is when independent or third party candidates who stand no real chance of being elected, nevertheless receive enough votes to splinter a majority block of voters.
Leeper: Like in 1992 when Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote, arguably splitting Republican and independent voters in a way that propelled Bill Clinton toward a win over George H.W. Bush.
Copper: Ranked choice voting addresses both the problem of vote splitting and the spoiler effect by allowing voters to express their preference for multiple candidates. Instead of choosing only one.
Leeper: Data shows that ranked choice voting helps elect candidates with the broadest public support. Another benefit is that it incentivizes candidates to focus on actually representing constituents as opposed to engaging in negative campaigns against their rivals.
Copper: So under a traditional winner take all system, candidates are incentivized to engage in negative campaign tactics because candidates often distinguish themselves best through negative messages about their opponent.
Leeper: Because candidates are vying to be people's first, second, and third choices, they're more likely to try to avoid alienating voters who might list them as a second or third choice.
Copper: Candidates are thus incentivized not to tear their rivals down, but rather to build coalitions with ideologically like-minded opponents and their supporters.
Leeper: It also broadens the public discourse generated by an election.
Copper: At the same time, diverse candidates can run and share their ideas without spoiling the race for another candidate.
Leeper: And those ideas can then be adopted and adapted by the winning candidates when they see the kind of support voters express for them in a ranked choice election. Candidates in a ranked choice voting system are also more likely to reach out and engage directly with voters, and more direct engagement between candidates and voters can have positive effects on voter participation.
Copper: In turn, young voters in ranked choice voting cities are significantly more likely to vote with their probability of voting increasing from 77% to 86%.
Leeper: According to Alex, because the US Constitution doesn't require that we use any one particular system of voting, states are empowered to decide which election procedures work best for them.
Copper: A number of states have seen legislative and citizen-led efforts this year to adopt ranked choice voting for US presidential elections specifically, and to allow localities to adopt ranked choice voting for use in local elections.
Leeper: There's a lot of interest nationwide in how ranked choice voting can help our elections better reflect the will of the voters and lead to more representative outcomes and efforts are already underway to bring this system to more voters across our country.
Copper: There's also momentum at the state level around final four or final five voting, open primaries combined with ranked choice voting in a general election. In fact, there are already ballot initiatives underway in Nevada and Idaho, and a constitutional amendment has been proposed in New Mexico.
Leeper: Juli and the team at Alaskans for Better Elections used a ballot measure to get ranked choice voting approved in their state. But in May of 2023, advocates against ranked choice voting began the process of trying to overturn it. Alaskans showed up in force to support keeping their ranked choice voting system. Here's one testimonial from Joe Nelson.
Joe Nelson: I'm a resident Juno, chairman at Sea Alaska and co-chair at the Alaska Federation of Natives. Ranked choice voting came as a remedy to help remedy the partisan issues across the country and the hope that's provided to our future generations to move forward in a healthy way. And as the Native community, we have confidence that common sense will prevail and that all of our voices will continue to be heard.
Leeper: Juli says that as a result of ranked choice voting, there's more competition in some of the more partisan districts in Alaska. This has allowed for more coalition building among winners, which in turn has allowed for better governance.
Lucky: So I think that we're seeing people wanting to work together. We're seeing people concentrating on the problems that are facing our state as opposed to getting locked into these more divisive issues. So I think that that's a helpful sign that they're going to be concentrating on what the majority of Alaskans want as they move forward.
Leeper: To have a fair and inclusive democracy, all voters must be given an equal opportunity to have their voices heard and reflected in our elections. And ranked choice voting is one method that can improve voters' ability to elect candidates of their choice. As we wrap up this season of democracy decoded, it's important to underline what we've been discussing throughout our episodes. State and local elected officials make decisions that play a vital role in our everyday lives. Decisions that impact housing, policing, and government funded programs, for example. So how we get those elected officials in office is important. Every voter must have a fair shot at electing candidates who represent their interests and fight for their most pressing issues. Here's Susan Soto Palmer once more.
Soto Palmer: Your landlord is voting, your boss is voting. Everybody that has power continues to vote. If we don't get involved, if we don't know what the issues are, then how can we truly fight for the things that we need?
Leeper: Voting matters, and the way we support democracy at the local and state level impacts how our voices are heard, and our votes are counted. Special thanks to Susan Soto Palmer, Mark Gaber, Juli Lucky, and Alex Copper for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes along with the full transcript of the show.
Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at campaignlegalcenter.org.
Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, legal counsel for redistricting at CLC. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia manager and Mannal Haddad, Senior Communications Manager for Voting Rights and Redistricting. This podcast episode was produced by Michelle Baker, edited by Paulina Velasco and mixed by Tren Lightburn.
Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at democracygroup.org.