Democracy is on the ropes. In the United States and abroad, citizens of democracies are feeling increasingly alienated, disaffected, and powerless. Some are even asking themselves a question that feels almost too dangerous to say out loud: is democracy fundamentally broken?
Today on Radiolab, just a day before the American midterm elections, we ask a different question: how do we fix it? We scrutinize one proposed tweak to the way we vote that could make politics in this country more representative, more moderate, and most shocking of all, more civil. Could this one surprisingly do-able mathematical fix really turn political campaigning from a rude bloodsport to a campfire singalong? And even if we could do that, would we want to?
This episode was reported by Latif Nasser, Simon Adler, Sarah Qari, Suzie Lechtenberg and Tracie Hunte, and was produced by Simon Adler, Matt Kielty, Sarah Qari, and Suzie Lechtenberg.
Special thanks to Rob Richie (and everyone else at Fairvote), Don Saari, Diana Leygerman, Caroline Tolbert, Bobby Agee, Edward Still, Jim Blacksher, Allen Caton, Nikolas Bowie, John Hale, and Anna Luhrmann and the rest of the team at the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Sweden.
Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.
oh…and GO VOTE!
Speaker 1: Oh, wait, you’re listening …
Speaker 1: Okay.
Speaker 1: All right.
Speaker 1: Okay.
Speaker 1: All right.
Speaker 1: You’re listening to RadioLab. RadioLab, from WNYC.
Yascha Monk: And not to this part, but into that yeah.
Speaker 3: Okay.
Robert Krulwich: I’m Robert Krulwich.
Latif Nassar: And I’m Latif Nassar. And today on RadioLab, Robert I am going to make you wrestle with your most cherished ideal, American Democracy.
Yascha Monk: Oh, I see. Okay, great. Hang on a second I’m just struggling with the earphones. Now I have them on.
Robert Krulwich: Okay.
Latif Nassar: Okay great, and I’m going to start things off by introducing you to Yascha.
Yascha Monk: Yascha Monk, I’m a lecturer on government at Harvard.
Latif Nassar: He studies politics.
Yascha Monk: What else was I going to say?
Latif Nassar: Maybe we could just start with where you grew up.
Yascha Monk: Yeah, so I was born in 1982. I grew up in Germany, moved around a bunch of different places within Germany as a kid, and then went to college in England.
Latif Nassar: Cambridge.
Yascha Monk: In 2000. I was kind of studying politics, I was a history major.
Latif Nassar: So, Yascha was studying politics but he was studying it in the past. So he was looking at going all the way back to the cradle of democracy in ancient Greece and then how democracy came to thrive around the world. But as he was studying that he was noticing in the news he would see, in certain countries like France or Austria, there would be these parties, these far right ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant parties that were starting to gain some traction. And for Yascha …
Yascha Monk: I saw some of this …
Latif Nassar: This was a little bit scary.
Yascha Monk: Because my families been in the wrong place at the wrong time for about four generations.
Latif Nassar: His great grandparents perished during the Holocaust.
Yascha Monk: My grandparents barely survived the Soviet Union. My parents grew up in Poland, and were thrown out of a country in a huge anti-sematic way for 1968. So, the idea that throughout the system that seems relatively stable, seems relatively peaceful, might suddenly turn fracterous and even violent was something that I suppose I always sort of had a dim awareness of, even as a kid.
Yascha Monk: So I remember being quite worried by this, and having friends who were quite worried about it. But we were worried about it as sort of this weird, bad thing that’s going on. But I don’t think we actually thought that these people might win.
Latif Nassar: Jump to-
Yascha Monk: The early 2010s.
Latif Nassar: They start winning.
Speaker 7: For the first time Marine Le Pen will have a seat in Parliament, along with seven others from her far right party.
Latif Nassar: These far right parties in Austrian France, they start to gain power, and it’s not just there.
Yascha Monk: They’re huge swaths of Europe.
Speaker 8: What’s happening in Italy is also happening elsewhere in Europe.
Latif Nassar: Similar right wing parties start rising up in Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary …
Speaker 9: An identity crisis for the entire European continent.
Latif Nassar: And it’s not just Europe. You have India, Turkey and …
Speaker 10: What started off as …
Yascha Monk: Of course the United States.
Speaker 10: Unlikely, impossible, is now reality.
Latif Nassar: Basically there’s this wave of politicians whose message was …
Yascha Monk: People aren’t really listening to you.
Latif Nassar: Your government has failed you.
Yascha Monk: Trust me, I really speak for the people. I’m going to fix everything.
Latif Nassar: And, to Yascha, this was like a wake up call. Not just because of immigration policy, or right and left leanings of certain politicians, but even more deeply than that.
Yascha Monk: I was quite worried about the way in which these political movements perhaps pretended to have some allegiance to democratic mechanisms but actually were enemies of it.
Latif Nassar: Like there was this one guy, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party.
Yascha Monk: Who glorified the Third Reich in various ways, and really hearkened back to the country’s fascist past in a positive way. That wasn’t a far fetched fear, I don’t think. I mean a huge number of the world’s dictators have been elected democratically at some point, and then they move against democratic institutions in such a way that you can’t displace them democratically anymore.
Latif Nassar: So for Yascha, who by this point was a lecturer at Harvard, he kept seeing this in country after country, after country. He saw these citizens willingly elect these want to be dictators into power. So he started wondering what is making these citizens do this? Do they feel like their current leaders don’t get them? Are they riled up about some issue of the day like refugees or income inequality? Or is this a sign that they’re upset about something even more foundational.
Yascha Monk: The political system itself.
Latif Nassar: Are they actually angry with democracy itself.
Yascha Monk: So I sat down with a friend and colleague to figure it out.
Latif Nassar: And his friend, it turns out, worked on something called the World Values Survey.
Yascha Monk: Which is a really ambitious attempt to try and get a public opinion around the world.
Latif Nassar: It’s basically just a bunch of social scientists who ask a whole bunch of very standard questions to a whole bunch of people all over the world. And they’re like, okay, let’s actually scrutinize what’s being said in here about democracy.
Yascha Monk: And when we actually looked at the numbers, we were honestly flabbergasted by what we saw.
Latif Nassar: Okay, so there’s actually three questions in particular that he got interested in.
Robert Krulwich: Okay.
Latif Nassar: Here, so let’s start with this one.
Yascha Monk: How do you feel about a strong ruler who doesn’t have to bother with Parliament or elections?
Robert Krulwich: Who doesn’t have to bother with Parliament or elections.
Yascha Monk: Correct.
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: Okay.
Latif Nassar: They also asked this of Americans just instead of doesn’t have to bother with Parliament it was doesn’t have to bother with Congress. Anyway, so in 1995 24% of all Americans endorsed that kind of strong man leader.
Robert Krulwich: 24%, so one out of every four?
Latif Nassar: Yeah, but in the last several years that number has jumped from 24% to 32%.
Robert Krulwich: So now it’s a third almost. That’s, yeah.
Latif Nassar: Yeah. Say a strong leader who doesn’t have to deal with Congress or elections is either a very good, or fairly good, thing.
Robert Krulwich: Whoa, well that surprises me.
Latif Nassar: It’s kind of even more striking in Europe. So …
Yascha Monk: In Germany, one in six people used to like that idea.
Latif Nassar: But now …
Yascha Monk: It’s one in three.
Robert Krulwich: Oh, in Germany. Where they should know better.
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Yascha Monk: In France and the United Kingdom it was one in four 20 years ago, and now it’s one in two.
Robert Krulwich: Half.
Latif Nassar: Half, yeah.
Yascha Monk: So every second Brit and Frenchman says, “Yeah, the idea of a strong ruler who doesn’t have to bother with Parliament and elections, that’s pretty appealing to me.”
Robert Krulwich: It’s not appealing to me. That is not appealing to me.
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: Who would say that they like to not be involved in a democracy, which is about being involved.
Latif Nassar: Okay, well if you think that’s crazy here comes question number two. Flat out, simple, straight forward …
Yascha Monk: How important is it to you to live in a democracy on a scale of one to 10?
Latif Nassar: And …
Yascha Monk: When you look at Americans born in the 1930s, 1940s, 2/3 of them give the highest importance to living in a democracy. They say that’s really essential.
Robert Krulwich: It might be … Well, 2/3 seems a little soft to me.
Latif Nassar: Sure.
Yascha Monk: But among Americans born since 1980 it’s less than 1/3.
Latif Nassar: Less than 1/3 consider it essential to live in a democracy.
Robert Krulwich: What? Less than a third?
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: So of 100 people, 100 young people, 32, 30, 25 would say, “I love democracy. That’s very important.” And the rest … What would the rest say?
Latif Nassar: It’s not the most important thing for them deciding where to live.
Robert Krulwich: Okay, well then if this is good where would you like to … What would you prefer? Would you like to be living-
Latif Nassar: Okay, well that’s a good Segway to the next question.
Robert Krulwich: All right.
Latif Nassar: Final question.
Yascha Monk: Which was about Army rule. So do you think that Army rule is a good system of government?
Robert Krulwich: Army rule, so we’re not … This is no civilians anymore. Soldiers running the government, soldiers following orders, soldiers giving orders?
Latif Nassar: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yascha Monk: So, 20 years ago about one in 16 Americans thought that was a good system of government, and the most recent poll a couple of years ago it was one in six.
Robert Krulwich: Uh-oh.
Yascha Monk: And among young and affluent Americans it’s actually gone up from 6% to 35%.
Latif Nassar: Whoa.
Yascha Monk: So it’s a nearly sixfold increase.
Robert Krulwich: In America? You got one in three young, affluent Americans, “Military rule is a wonderful thing.” That’s what you’re saying?
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Yascha Monk: Exactly.
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: That’s misguided, or tragic. I don’t know which.
Latif Nassar: So Yascha said something, he was like, “look, like-
Yascha Monk: I don’t think if a Colonel took over tomorrow 1/3 of Americans would say, “This is wonderful.” I don’t think it was actually true, but it does show a deep lack of attachment to the current local system, and the sort of sense of you know what, I mean, let’s try something new. How bad could things get? I don’t think it could be much worse than what we have today.
Robert Krulwich: Here’s the thing that gets to me, let’s imagine a well intentioned but totally authoritarian dictator who takes over, gets used to power and then, as dictators do, chooses to remain in place forever. The adventure of democracy is that it admits that nothing is ever right, we always have to fix it, and the system has built in it impermanence. Every six years you elect a senator over again. Every two years you elect the congressman over again. Every four years you can have the option to switch presidents. Presidents can’t serve beyond a particular point, there will be checks, there will be balances. There will be protection, but the whole thing admits that there’s always change, and always the ability to change. And this survey you just read me says, “Nah, we don’t believe in it anymore.”
Robert Krulwich: Well that’s dangerous to me, scary to me. I think my response is if that’s the case, and I don’t argue that people have these opinions, if that’s the case then let’s fix it. Let’s not throw it out, let’s repair it in some way. But that’s when it seems like a moment like this calls for. That’s the speech.
Latif Nassar: Basically you’re saying, let’s fix it.
Robert Krulwich: Yeah.
Latif Nassar: Yeah, well there’s a lot to fix, right?
Robert Krulwich: Obviously.
Latif Nassar: There’s corporate money, and special interest lobbyists, and Gerrymandering and minority groups who don’t get a voice, and active voter suppression in a lot of places. The weirdness of the electoral college, the two party system in general where it seems like they have nothing to do except for hate on each other. But the thing is just focusing … Take this very specific week, this week that we are talking about this. There is a midterm election coming up, and so I figured let’s just focus on one thing, voting. Is there a way to just tweak this fundamental part of democracy. Can we change the way we vote so that people don’t feel, as many people now do, that they’re throwing their vote away, that their vote doesn’t count, that their vote is wasted?
Robert Krulwich: Okay, so what would you suggest?
Latif Nassar: So what I got is a … It’s kind of an alternate universe. It’s a different way of doing elections that could have a profound effect on the way our democracy works.
Simon Adler: AB can you hear me?
AB Filbenbowmen: Yes.
Simon Adler: There we are.
AB Filbenbowmen: Oh, good. Okay, cool.
Latif Nassar: And we’re going to start off with producer Simon Adler
Simon Adler: Yeah, so in search of democratic inspiration, I called across the ocean to the Emerald Isle to talk to this guy.
AB Filbenbowmen: So my name is AB Filbenbowmen. I currently work for ERT Radio1 on the Drive Time program.
Simon Adler: AB is a radio producer reporter for Ireland’s equivalent to the BBC, known as RTE. And he’s a self described election nerd.
AB Filbenbowmen: Okay, so to sort of start from the start.
Simon Adler: Please.
AB Filbenbowmen: The way I would look at this is American democracy is one of the oldest democracies in the world, it’s kind of like a laptop from 1985 and at the time everybody was like, “Oh my God, this is incredible. It’s so fast. It’s so responsive. You’re going to get so much stuff done with this.” And to be fair you did. But you’ve got to keep updating your operating system otherwise pretty soon your democracy is struggling to deal with things like Facebook news feeds and Twitter and leave itself open to being hacked by Russia.
AB Filbenbowmen: Now, in Ireland we got our democracy a little bit later the 1920s.
Simon Adler: Okay.
AB Filbenbowmen: At that point democracy had moved on from the 1770s, 1780s, when you guys sort of brought in your democracy. And we adopted what was then quite modern voting system called PRSTV.
Simon Adler: PRSTV.
AB Filbenbowmen: Exactly.
Simon Adler: It sounds a bit like an STD.
AB Filbenbowmen: It does sound quite like a sexually transmitted infection, it does yes.
Robert Krulwich: Oh this seems like dead in the water from hello.
AB Filbenbowmen: The extended version is Multi seat PRSTV, that really sounds like an STI. It’s not.
Robert Krulwich: One more time.
Simon Adler: Multi seat PRSTV.
AB Filbenbowmen: Which stands for multi seats proportional representation by single transferable vote.
Latif Nassar: I have no idea what that means.
Simon Adler: Well, weird as it might sound this is a system of voting that, unlike ours, can make every voter feel heard. Gets you candidates who best reflect the collective interest of the people, and makes sure no one ever feels like they’re throwing their vote away.
Robert Krulwich: I don’t believe you.
Simon Adler: You don’t have to believe me.
Latif Nassar: No okay, I’m following. Tell us, tell us how this impossible feat, how does this even work?
Simon Adler: I’m walking through the lower part of Dublin Central.
Simon Adler: Well, let’s just put this in concrete terms.
Latif Nassar: great.
Simon Adler: So 2016 there’s an election for the National Parliament in the Dublin Central District.
Simon Adler: It’s blocks of brick row houses punctuated by these brightly colored pink or purple, or yellow, doors.
Simon Adler: You can think of it like an election district. In Ireland, it’s what’s known as a constituency.
Simon Adler: Couple of adult stores, low rise white public housing units.
Maureen O.: It’s a predominantly working class constituency with a lot of difficulties.
Simon Adler: This is Maureen O’Sullivan, a long time resident of the constituency with a shock of white hair.
Maureen O.: And I’ve always been involved with youth clubs, et cetera, doing volunteer work and then teaching in communities in the area.
Simon Adler: And so back in February of 2016 this area of Dublin, along with the rest of the country, was holding their Parliamentary elections. Elections for what they call TD’s.
Latif Nassar: Wait, what are TD’s?
Maureen O.: Right, okay, well TD is the Irish, the Gaelic, for [foreign language 00:15:06]. Which translates into member of Parliament.
Simon Adler: At that time Dublin Central had three of these TD seats, three people representing them in Parliament. One of whom …
Maureen O.: I was elected in 2009.
Simon Adler: … was Maureen.
Maureen O.: I am independent, not allied with any party.
Simon Adler: And going into that 2016 election, things were looking pretty uncertain for Maureen. First of all, there was a field of 15 candidates running for those three seats. And worse, seats one and two were expected to be snagged quite easily by these two high profile, major party candidates.
AB Filbenbowmen: yeah.
Simon Adler: This again is AB Bowmen who actually covered this 2016 election.
AB Filbenbowmen: They’re not locked down but these are people who look like they are going to get elected.
Simon Adler: And what that means is you’ve got this wide open field of folks all fighting against Maureen for that third and final seat.
Robert Krulwich: Who’s our contenders?
Simon Adler: Well, right. So we’re going to focus in on two of them.
Simon Adler: Can I just get you to introduce yourself and-
Mary F.: Of course.
Simon Adler: … then we’ll start.
Mary F.: Yeah. So I’m Mary Fitzpatrick.
Simon Adler: So first we’ve got Mary Fitzpatrick.
Mary F.: Mm-hmm (affirmative) yeah, yeah.
Simon Adler: On the spectrum of American politics, do you know where you fall?
Mary F.: You just have two parties.
Simon Adler: She’s pretty liberal, been around Irish politics for a while.
Gary Gannon: Are you interviewing me already? Okay.
Simon Adler: And second.
AB Filbenbowmen: Gary Gannon who’s a young community worker.
Simon Adler: This brash guy with red stubble on his face.
AB Filbenbowmen: Quite interesting, quite authentic. And he’s sort of an interesting one to watch.
Simon Adler: Because he’s representing this brand new political party.
Gary Gannon: A plucky upstart, I think that’s what you call it in the west, I think. Yeah.
Simon Adler: Did you have a slogan or anything? Like …
Gary Gannon: Oh, yes. No, we had an amazing slogan. It was very simple. And it was just the one word, if. I stole it completely from an old fable about when the Macedonian Army was marching on Sparta, and they sent Sparta a message saying that if we win we will burn Sparta to the ground. We will enslave your women and kill your children. And Sparta sent back a one word message just saying …
Speaker 16: If.
Gary Gannon: If.
Simon Adler: Like I said, brash.
AB Filbenbowmen: And then you’ve got other voices who are left wing, or environmentalist, or others.
Simon Adler: So that’s our field.
Latif Nassar: All right.
Simon Adler: And now here’s how things actually work over in Ireland.
Speaker 16: Voting is underway in the Republic of Ireland as the country elects 157 new members of it’s Parliament.
Simon Adler: So, day of the election comes. As an Irish citizen, you walk into the voting booth and it’s a very, very long ballot because it has all of the candidates, all 15 of them, their photo, their name, and then a line next to them.
Latif Nassar: Okay.
Simon Adler: And this ballot is a key component of that updated Irish laptop of democracy. Because instead of just filling in the circle next to one of those 15 you say …
AB Filbenbowmen: My number one choice is this guy, my number two choice is this lady, my number three choice is this person, and you can go all the way down the ballot giving preferences to as many different people as you like.
Simon Adler: You write in a number next to each candidate.
Robert Krulwich: How about one man, one vote. Got it.
Simon Adler: Well, it’s still one man, one vote.
Robert Krulwich: No it can’t be.
Simon Adler: No it is. It is. It is. It is. At the end of the day your vote will only have counted for one person. However, in the voting process …
AB Filbenbowmen: You’re not just measuring what everyone’s first choice is. You might have a favorite choice, but you’re not totally equal about the other three choices. And what this system allows us to do is to reflect that.
Simon Adler: It allows you to say how you feel about the rest of the candidates, and if your first choice doesn’t make it, if he or she is way down the list and out of the running then your vote lives on in the form of your second choice.
AB Filbenbowmen: So for as long as there’s a viable candidate with your number on it, your vote will stay alive in the system.
Robert Krulwich: Is this too early for me to raise a warning flag? Or should I wait for it?
Simon Adler: You can wave. I may ignore it, but let’s see it or hear it.
Robert Krulwich: The commitment that people make to voting is slight, most of us are into lunch, sports, work, and then maybe on the day of a vote they have their best friend say, “You’ve got to vote for Sally.”
Latif Nassar: Like they know one, they’re not even going to know seven.
Robert Krulwich: Yeah. So the first smell of this is it would take us more time than we want, and we might walk away from this exercise because we don’t feel prepared.
Simon Adler: You can engage with this on whatever level you’d like Robert. If you only know one candidates name, you can just put your one next to that person and hand in your ballot and you’re done.
Robert Krulwich: Hmm.
Simon Adler: Or, let’s say there’s a candidate on there you really, really don’t like …
AB Filbenbowmen: You can leave them off the ballot entirely.
Simon Adler: You’re ranking your preferences. It’s very simple.
Robert Krulwich: Fairly good answer.
Simon Adler: Okay, so let me walk you through how this plays out.
Robert Krulwich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Simon Adler: So, polls close at 10PM on Friday February 26th, and then …
Latif Nassar: Then all hell broke loose.
Speaker 17: General election 2016 on RTE radio1 with Rachel English and Shawn O’Reily.
Simon Adler: The real action begins.
Speaker 17: It’s going to be a day of drama, shocks, and surprises.
AB Filbenbowmen: So what happens is we vote on the Friday, and on Saturday morning …
Simon Adler: The votes actually get counted. So for Dublin Central …
AB Filbenbowmen: Dublin Central gets counted in one central location which is the RDS.
Speaker 17: Let’s go first to Ireland’s largest count center the RDS.
AB Filbenbowmen: The Royal Dublin Society.
Speaker 18: Shawn, thank you very much and welcome indeed to the RDS where we’re counting-
Simon Adler: It’s this barn like building with big vaulted ceilings.
AB Filbenbowmen: Big, big hall, huge amount of noise.
Gary Gannon: okay well I didn’t realize we were going to go through the whole post traumatic trauma of the whole thing. I’ve kind of blacked it out. No, I’m joking. Actually it was lovely.
Mel Macheavel: The doors open at 9:00 and I arrived, and Desba Throng arriving.
AB Filbenbowmen: This is Mel.
Mel Macheavel: Mel Macheavel.
Simon Adler: He’s a campaign worker for our endangered incumbent Maureen.
Mel Macheavel: Maureen O’Sullivan.
Simon Adler: And on the morning of the count, as he pushed his way through these heavy wooden doors what he would have seen was this cavernous hall filled with people milling about.
Gary Gannon: Everybody’s got clipboards …
Mel Macheavel: There’s people with tons of sandwiches made and …
Gary Gannon: Tea and coffee in abundance and everybody is really excited.
Simon Adler: So, shortly after 9:00 …
Gary Gannon: All the boxes come in.
Simon Adler: These giant metal boxes of ballots come in.
AB Filbenbowmen: So the boxes are opened …
Gary Gannon: Literally they’re lifted up and there is a cascade and a spilling of all this paper.
AB Filbenbowmen: Because it’s all done by paper voting.
Latif Nassar: Wait, what?
AB Filbenbowmen: Yeah. We tried electronic voting in this country, and we didn’t like it because it was very fast and I think we realized that the drama of an election and also the ritual of democracy gets everybody engaged and gets people watching. It’s like watching a big sports game. You don’t want it to be over in five minutes.
Speaker 20: They’re off.
Simon Adler: And so …
Speaker 20: Time now for our live update. I have to warn, as we always do, at this time on this day we’re talking tallies first of all, which obviously can skew the results.
Simon Adler: Not just at the RDS, and not just for Dublin Central but all across the country.
AB Filbenbowmen: Vote counters are dumping boxes of votes, and going through them and putting them into stacks.
Speaker 20: First in Kilkenny is Justin McCarthy.
Mel Macheavel: Rough bundles.
Gary Gannon: in no particular order.
Speaker 20: 75% of the boxes have been tallied here and they include all of-
Simon Adler: And so early on here the counters are just trying to get a handle on how many first choice votes each candidate is getting.
Speaker 20: From Calvin, Audrey Carver.
Audrie Carver: 100% of the boxes are open and a final tally-
Simon Adler: And while the ballot counters are doing this official count, there’s another group of people standing next to them …
Speaker 20: Up the Atlantic way in Donne …
Simon Adler: Doing their own unofficial calculations.
AB Filbenbowmen: Yes, definitely.
Gary Gannon: The tallymen.
Rachel: 88% of boxes opened and tallied from Cork.
Speaker 20: Cork North Central …
Speaker 23: All boxes opened, all sheets tallied.
Simon Adler: These tallymen, there are several of them put forward by each candidate, and …
Gary Gannon: They’re just looking over the railings waiting for you to turn that ballot.
Simon Adler: Brash upstart Gary Gannon again.
Gary Gannon: So they can share who the name of the person that got the number one preference. They’re like, Gannon number one. Gannon, and they’re just counting them up.
Latif Nassar: And what they’re counting is number one?
Simon Adler: Yes, they’re shouting out and tallying the first choice labeled on each ballot.
Gary Gannon: So you have an understanding whether you’re at the races or not.
Simon Adler: Which it seemed like Gary was.
Speaker 20: We have a 98% tally and there is a growing belief here that the third seat will be between Gary Gannon and-
Simon Adler: He was getting a lot of first preferences.
Gary Gannon: So I walked in, I got pulled over by one of our national newspapers to do an interview.
Speaker 24: Let’s bring Gary Gannon in. How are you Gary? It’s too early to be saying you’re over the line, but you’re going well in Dublin Central.
Gary Gannon: Oh, God it’s far too early. I think about …
Gary Gannon: All the radio researchers are coming over, grabbing me, bringing me over to speak on the radio.
Speaker 24: There’s a bunch of you have done 9% as well so we could be in for another dog fight there.
Gary Gannon: Absolutely, yeah. I’ve canceled me weekend plans. I think I’ll be here for a while.
Gary Gannon: It was genuine like a real sense of excitement.
Simon Adler: But not for everyone.
Maureen O.: So that morning I was at home doing different things.
Simon Adler: Again, this is incumbent Maureen O’Sullivan.
Simon Adler: Well, what did you do? Did you make breakfast, did you go for a walk?
Maureen O.: I did. I had my breakfast, probably I walked the dog.
Simon Adler: What type of dog?
Maureen O.: A white, fluffy dog.
Simon Adler: Okay, and what’s his name?
Maureen O.: His name is Bailey. So I brought him for a walk.
Simon Adler: Are you listening to the radio?
Maureen O.: No, no, no.
Simon Adler: You’re totally disconnected.
Maureen O.: Yeah, pretty much. I let my campaigners go over to be part of the tally.
Simon Adler: Campaigners …
Mel Macheavel: And it’s starting to kind of make-
Simon Adler: Including mel.
Mel Macheavel: So within the first hour, from some of the tallies that we were seeing, like Maureen isn’t picking up enough votes. I was thinking, oh I hope this is not going to be an early day where there’s no need for you to hang around because nobody is in the race any longer.
Maureen O.: And then, I think I was driving when I got the first call from my campaigners over in the count saying, “It’s not looking good.”
Rachel: Lina Paul was elected, let’s go back now to the busiest count center of them all, to Mary Wilson in the RDS.
Mary Wilson: Rachel, thank you very much. A first count immanent we believe here in Dublin Central-
Simon Adler: Meanwhile the counters take all those ballots, now officially sorted by first preference, and they pick up the stack for each candidate on the table and walk that stack back to …
Mary F.: this wooden shelving unit-
Simon Adler: Again, Mary Fitzpatrick.
Mary F.: … behind the tables. About a little bit of a distance, in the center.
Simon Adler: This giant sort of cubby.
Mary F.: Pigeon holes, just like light, flimsy, wooden boxes.
Simon Adler: And this is the sacred shrine of Irish democracy on this day. The cubby?
Mary F.: Absolutely.
Latif Nassar: Because?
AB Filbenbowmen: Because when they’ve counted all of the first preference votes …
Simon Adler: They place them all in their respective cubbies …
Mel Macheavel: There’s a hush in that part of the arena …
Gary Gannon: And the returning officer stands up on a stage with a microphone and goes …
Speaker 26: The following is the result of count one.
Gary Gannon: Here is the first count for the constituency of Dublin Central.
Speaker 26: 68, 6-
Gary Gannon: And they read out every candidate, how many number one votes did they get.
Speaker 26: 2,021, 2-0-2-1.
Gary Gannon: And first off the bat-
Simon Adler: At the end of the first count first and second are pretty much locked down with the two people everybody expected to win.
Latif Nassar: But-
Simon Adler: But then in third place, unexpectedly is Mary Fitzpatrick.
Mary F.: Yeah. I mean I was very pleased to be in third position on the first count.
Simon Adler: Now, with our system of voting at this point you’re done. The election is over, the two front runner candidates would have each won a seat, and then Mary Fitzpatrick would have won a seat. Gary and Maureen they’d be out, done.
AB Filbenbowmen: But in Ireland not so.
Simon Adler: In Ireland they’re just getting started. So back to the race. And remember, at this moment Mary Fitzpatrick is in third, Gary is in fifth, and in seventh …
Maureen O.: At that stage I was listening to the radio and I knew what they were saying about Dublin Central.
Simon Adler: … is incumbent Maureen O’Sullivan.
Simon Adler: And what were they saying?
Maureen O.: Just-
Speaker 20: 3% it appears almost certain that Joe Costello and Maureen O’Sullivan are set to lose out.
Maureen O.: Myself and Joe Costello, you’re out. I had some-
Simon Adler: And why? Did you like-
Maureen O.: Because of the numbers. I think the feeling was I was too far down that first preference to come back up.
AB Filbenbowmen: But then looking at the early results coming in from around the country-
Simon Adler: But, like I said, it’s not over yet.
Mary F.: So the way the vote progresses is the sheriff or the presiding officer starts to eliminate candidates.
AB Filbenbowmen: The first elimination is the bottom three candidates. Those candidacies are gone and in the bin.
Simon Adler: Since Gary is in fifth and Maureen’s in seventh they’re safe, for now. But the bottom three candidates, they’re gone.
Latif Nassar: Why three?
Simon Adler: Because they are so far out that mathematically they could never come back. Between the three of them they’ve only got like 150 votes.
AB Filbenbowmen: So we get rid of all three of them.
Simon Adler: And redistribute those ballots.
Latif Nassar: So if you voted for those people-
Simon Adler: They just go, okay, who did you vote for as your second choice.
AB Filbenbowmen: And the point is your vote is still live and is still part of this election.
Simon Adler: And so those 150 votes, those 150 ballots they begin to go this sort of ballet.
Mary F.: The ballots are all in these pigeon holes. Everything is visible.
Simon Adler: The vote counters walk back to that shrine, to that cubby and pull the ballots from the cubby holes for those-
Mary F.: Three candidates.
Simon Adler: Then march these ballots back to the front table.
Mary F.: And sort them then into bundles of second preference on the ballot.
Simon Adler: So now you’ve got stacks for every candidate that was listed as a second choice.
AB Filbenbowmen: And we distribute them.
Simon Adler: They take them back to the cubby where they are then added to the remaining candidates first preferences.
Mary F.: And that becomes the second count.
Latif Nassar: Okay.
Robert Krulwich: Okay, so what they want is everybody who voted to the degree that it is possible, should maybe be participating in electing somebody to the legislature.
Simon Adler: Exactly.
Robert Krulwich: All right.
Simon Adler: So-
Robert Krulwich: Excuse me, what time is it now?
Simon Adler: We’re probably middle of the afternoon at this point.
Robert Krulwich: And when did we start?
Simon Adler: We started at 9:00 in the morning.
Robert Krulwich: Okay, point taken.
Simon Adler: People are having-
Robert Krulwich: Point taken by you.
Simon Adler: … a good time.
Robert Krulwich: No.
Simon Adler: No, no, no, Robert-
Robert Krulwich: Not even, I am now watching this program for five hours. That’s a long time.
Simon Adler: I will challenge your statement that just because a competition unfolds slowly that it is without drama or suspense.
Robert Krulwich: All right. I’m sorry that we’re making this so hard for you.
Simon Adler: That’s fine.
Robert Krulwich: But you are not making it easy for us. Anyway, back to the scene.
Gary Gannon: Dublin Central is reduced to three seats …
AB Filbenbowmen: So I’m looking at this going, okay, Mary Fitzpatrick-
Simon Adler: Our candidate in third after the first count has
AB Filbenbowmen: 2,500 votes. Gary Cannon-
Simon Adler: Currently in fifth.
AB Filbenbowmen: He’s only 200 votes behind her, and my instinct is he’s going to be more transfer friendly-
Simon Adler: He’s going to get more second choice votes than her.
AB Filbenbowmen: I think he could overtake her. And I start watching where the transfers are going, and I start to be proven right.
Mary Wilson: Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats did very well on transfers so-
AB Filbenbowmen: So count two, Gary Gannon is getting 20 votes. And Mary Fitzpatrick is only getting two. Count three-
Simon Adler: The whole process repeats, and knocks somebody out, do the ballot ballet, redistribute those transfers.
AB Filbenbowmen: Gary Gannon picks up 60 votes, and Mary Fitzpatrick only picks up seven. So he’s gaining on her already.
Gary Gannon: They’re talking about me, they’re asking who is this guy, where is he come from? All of these things, and then I was getting a phone call-
Simon Adler: Mary’s stock is falling while Gary’s are rising.
AB Filbenbowmen: Mary’s stock is staying static.
Mary F.: We were struggling for transfers, that was the issue.
AB Filbenbowmen: She’s not going up much, and the others are gaining on her.
Mary F.: So, yeah, it’s painful. It’s not pleasant.
AB Filbenbowmen: And bear in mind you’ve still got other people picking up votes there.
Mel Macheavel: We’re seeing little pickups for Maureen.
AB Filbenbowmen: Maureen picked up 49.
Mel Macheavel: But not a lot. We’re moving ahead slowly.
Mary Wilson: Okay, we have a Dublin Central count coming in.
AB Filbenbowmen: Count four-
Simon Adler: Again, eliminate the bottom candidate, redistribute those votes. This time around really not much changes. Then count five.
AB Filbenbowmen: The next person going out has got 800 votes. 31 of them go to Mary Fitzpatrick, but also 190 of them go to Gary Gannon.
Speaker 20: And Gary Gannon has surprised a lot of people in his ability to pick up transfers from-
AB Filbenbowmen: And Gary Gannon has just jumped into fourth place.
Speaker 20: We’ve got quite a fight now in our hands. The standings as they are-
AB Filbenbowmen: So at the places are Mary Fitzpatrick in third place-
Simon Adler: She’s just barely holding on. In fourth, hot on her heels, is Gary Gannon, and then way at the back of the pack, still in seventh is incumbent Maureen O’Sullivan.
AB Filbenbowmen: That’s the state of play at count five. Count number six.
Mary Wilson: Oh, here we go, continuing coverage, Micheal Gallighar is here. We’re, guys, hello? We’re back.
AB Filbenbowmen: This is where two big things happen.
Mary Wilson: Everybody’s having their own conversations obviously.
AB Filbenbowmen: One-
Speaker 27: Marylou McDonald of Sinn Fein and Dublin-
AB Filbenbowmen: Marylou McDonald of Sinn Fein-
Simon Adler: One of the front runners expected to take a seat-
AB Filbenbowmen: Gets over the line. And also-
Gary Gannon: I’m walking around just hugging people.
AB Filbenbowmen: … Gary Gannon now jumps into third place.
Gary Gannon: It was invigorating.
Simon Adler: Pushing Mary Fitzpatrick out of a winning spot.
Mary F.: Like that, it was on the transfers, I got cashed, and that’s it.
Simon Adler: She never recaptured it. So the woman who under our system would have won off the bat, she lost out.
Mary F.: That is it.
Simon Adler: Still hanging on in second to last, but also disheartened is our incumbent Maureen O’Sullivan. Who’s expecting to lose.
Maureen O.: And I suppose maybe 7:00 people started to arrive.
Simon Adler: She actually invited her campaign staff and volunteers back to her place for a concession party.
Maureen O.: And I said, when people came in, “I don’t want to know anything about the elections. I’ll catch up tomorrow.” Unknown to me, because I was busy with the tea and the drinks and the food, some of them in the house were still in contact with those over in the RDS.
Mary Wilson: To the Dublin Central constituency, and to our reporter Damian O’Mara. Damian, you have a development to report.
Simon Adler: One of those guys still over in the RDS was Mel.
Mel Macheavel: I did have a sense, looking at the numbers, and saying, “Well, okay, but if and then maybe there’s a chance. There’s a chance at this.”
Simon Adler: Well, and was that a crazy thought to have, or a very smart thought to have?
Mel Macheavel: It was just a thought to have.
Simon Adler: Because despite the fact that all day the media had been saying that Maureen was out …
Speaker 20: Maureen O’Sullivan set to lose out.
Mary Wilson: Outgoing TD Maureen O’Sullivan.
Speaker 20: Maureen O’Sullivan might be eliminated.
Simon Adler: At count seven, something starts to happen.
Speaker 26: Three furlongs to go.
AB Filbenbowmen: coming around the bend, Gary Gannon looks like he’s in poll position, but-
Gary Gannon: All of the sudden we weren’t reallocating people’s second preferences or their third preferences. We’d got to the stage where we were reallocating people’s fourth, fifth, and sixth preferences.
Simon Adler: Because, keep in mind, most people’s votes are still sloshing around the system. And at this point not only has their top choice been knocked out but their second and third as well. So their vote is now being cast for their fourth, fifth or sixth place choice. And a lot of those they start going to Maureen.
Gary Gannon: She’d known people for years, been elected twice previous to that. So even people who weren’t involved for number one, number two, number three, their votes were still carry on past the fours and the fives, and just mauled me on those transfers.
AB Filbenbowmen: So we go to count eight.
Speaker 20: Beginning to make a bit of ground into this straight-
Simon Adler: Maureen makes this massive jump vaulting her ahead of two opponents into fourth place. Now, just a couple hundred votes behind Gary.
Simon Adler: And did you have any sense this would-
Maureen O.: No, no. Because I didn’t have the television on, and they decided not to tell me. Not to raise my hopes.
Speaker 20: From the ninth count at the moment-
Simon Adler: So the ninth count-
Speaker 20: The situation is that-
Simon Adler: Another candidate is axed, they redistribute her votes.
Mel Macheavel: It’s coming down to it.
Simon Adler: When they count up those transfers-
Maureen O.: That’d mean then that Gary Gannon is likely to be elected or what’s the situation there? Micheal Gallagher-
Simon Adler: Maureen gets some 300 more transfers than Gary, meaning suddenly-
Speaker 20: Gary Gannon is precisely eight votes ahead of Maureen O’Sullivan.
Gary Gannon: oh my God I did not see that coming.
Simon Adler: She’s within eight votes of him.
Maureen O.: I went closer to 10.
Simon Adler: But Maureen, meanwhile, is still convinced she’s going to lose. She’s actually heading down to the count center to concede the race.
Maureen O.: I said to myself, “I should go over and concede.” So, came out into the car, and as I’m driving over to concede I was just at the traffic lights. I could picture it, and at that stage the phone call comes.
Simon Adler: She looks at her phone, and it’s one of her campaign staff calling.
Maureen O.: I thought, why are they ringing me just to hurry me up to get over or whatever.
Simon Adler: But in fact, they were calling because …
Mary Wilson: In Dublin Central, but Maureen darling, you’ve been just as I mentioned your name Brian, we’re going to Dublin Central.
Speaker 26: … one last time up. This is the result of the 11th count for Dublin Central. And I deem the following candidate to be elected, and they are Maureen O’Sullivan.
Simon Adler: In her car, Maureen did eventually pick up.
Maureen O.: And then it was, where are you? You’re about to be elected. You’re going to be elected.
Simon Adler: She put down the phone, drove to the count center, and when she arrived.
Maureen O.: Great applause, great hugs, great kisses. So it was just a lovely explosion of feeling, warm feelings towards me from everybody.
Mary Wilson: Maureen O’Sullivan congratulations.
Maureen O.: Thank you very much.
Mary Wilson: You’re a very relieved woman.
Maureen O.: I’m a stunned woman. I was at home reconciled to a new life outside of politics and then suddenly I’m back in the frame. We had thought that we were too far behind to …
Maureen O.: So I just said, “Look, I know what Lazarus felt like.” It was that kind of moment.
Simon Adler: Well, so is this the story of a multi seat proportional representation by single transferable vote working how exactly as it’s meant to, or is this sort of a perversion of the system?
Gary Gannon: No it absolutely is. That day worked out exactly as single transferable votes was meant to do.
Simon Adler: One last time, the gracious Gary Gannon.
Gary Gannon: Everybody got their count, everybody got their say and everybody got their vote. And don’t get me wrong when I say, like it is hard but I mean I was 28, 29 then. There was a huge sense of will show you. We’ll be back. So single transferable vote, on that day, worked against me, but I think it worked out perfectly.
Robert Krulwich: Perfectly. I mean let me just make sure if I get this right. There’s this woman, Maureen, who hardly anybody loves, she scores almost no votes as the favorite. She’s just everybody’s eh, you know. A fourth, fifth, six, I’ll choose Maureen, and yet because the votes keep getting shuffled and shuffled and shuffled, it’s Miss Meh who becomes the winner. She’s chosen because a lot of people don’t hate her.
Simon Adler: Yeah. Well so here’s what it makes me think of, right. And I had this moment where I was just imagining if we had been using this at various crucial moments in our very recent history things could have gone an entirely different way. Take the American presidential election of 2016 between-
Robert Krulwich: Hillary and Trump.
Simon Adler: … Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, but also Gary Johnson and Jill Stine.
Robert Krulwich: Yeah but nobody voted for them, hardly anybody.
Simon Adler: Well no, but hardly anybody that number of hardly anybody’s that’s a sizeable enough number that they could have swung the election one way or the other. If you look at really key states, the deciding states, if you presume Gary Johnson’s votes were split, and if you presume all of Jill Stine’s votes went to Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton would have won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and the whole kit and caboodle.
Robert Krulwich: Whoa. That’s interesting.
Simon Adler: Now the weird thing is you can just keep playing this game, and it’ll drive you crazy. But you can keep playing it. So if you go back to the 2016 republican primaries where Donald Trump emerged victorious, right?
Robert Krulwich: Over 10 people or something like that, or more.
Simon Adler: Over 10 people, right.
Robert Krulwich: Right.
Simon Adler: But there was a sizeable number of people in those primaries who were never Trumpers. If those people had-
Robert Krulwich: I see where you’re going here.
Simon Adler: … been able to block their votes together they might have been able to rally behind a candidate who was not Donald Trump. And then rewind even further back, the 2000 election where the number of votes that Ralph Nader got in Florida were more than the difference between Bush got and Gore got-
Robert Krulwich: No elect a republican, can you?
Simon Adler: Okay, so go back to Ross Perot, right, George H.W. Bush was running against Bill Clinton in 1992.
Robert Krulwich: Oh that’s right.
Simon Adler: Ross Perot, it’s very controversial whether he really was a spoiler in that election, but I mean if you ask the Bush people they say he definitely was. And so if the Peroters went to Bush then Bill Clinton would have just been a historical footnote. He wouldn’t have been the president. It’s like a huge, huge seismic difference in world history.
Robert Krulwich: Huh.
Simon Adler: So, when we come back we’re not going to be looking at my own imaginative math. We’re going to look at what is rank choice actually look like if it was in the United States, because it is in the United States.
Robert Krulwich: It’s about to happen.
Simon Adler: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: When we come back.
Cory: Hi, my name is Cory, and I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota. RadioLab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.
Robert Krulwich: Welcome back, I am Robert Krulwich.
Latif Nassar: I’m Latif Nassar, and this is RadioLab.
Robert Krulwich: And we’re trying to fix democracy. This is how we’re … In little bits and pieces.
Latif Nassar: Yeah, so let me just back up for a second, because we have been talking about this and thinking about this around the office for a little while and at some point as we were meditating on this dwindling faith in democracy, one of our fellow producers at our sister show More Perfect-
Sara Kari: Okay.
Latif Nassar: … Sara Kari. She just took me and Simon-
Simon Adler: Great.
Latif Nassar: Great, and just dragged us into a studio.
Sara Kari: Okay. So, we’ve been having this conversation about whether our democracy is broken for a few months now, and every meeting that we’ve had I’ve been the one in the room being like, “Guys, our democracy is fine. Have you seen other places? This is crazy. Who are these people that think our democracy is broken, like they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Latif Nassar: And do you know why? Like where is that feeling coming from?
Sara Kari: Well-
Sara Kari: Okay can you tell me your name?
Sara Kari: And who are you?
Sara Kari: Probably because of this woman.
Usma: I’m Usma.
Sara Kari: Who are you in relation to me?
Usma: Oh, I’m your mom.
Sara Kari: My mom, and both of my parents, actually grew up in Pakistan.
Usma: That is the big thing, 25 years of my life where I spent, and I feel that-
Sara Kari: Which is a pretty young country, and it’s just struggled so much to keep its democracy alive and healthy.
Usma: And I saw the consequences of not getting the full democracy there in Pakistan. So that, then after living 25 years, of the next 25 years of my life in America, I really found out the value of democracy as an individual, and as a group also. So I can differentiate now very well between those two.
Sara Kari: So that’s kind of how I’ve always understood our democracy. But then Simon I listen to your Ireland story with all of this rank choice voting stuff and that’s the first moment when I was like, oh. Like maybe our way of doing things is broken. Maybe we do need an update.
Simon Adler: Okay, why? What about it made you switch teams?
Sara Kari: Because it made me suddenly aware of the fact that in our system candidates don’t actually need a majority of the votes to win.
Simon Adler: Right.
Sara Kari: So you have candidates who then make that calculation where they say, “I only really have to win the votes of people who are in my base, and if my base is bigger than everybody else’s base than screw everyone else.”
Simon Adler: Yeah. It seems like in a democracy, most people should vote for the person who wins, not just that the person who wins is going to have the biggest base to-
Sara Kari: Totally.
Simon Adler: … a bigger base than everybody else. Like it should be that most people are in some way, in some preference, supporting the person who comes to power.
Sara Kari: Yeah, exactly. And it’s funny, when I heard about rank choice voting I was like, oh this system is so cool because I feel like it addresses that exact problem. And so I totally got sucked into it, and I started looking around. And it turns out there are a bunch of people who think that this could be used here in the U.S. and not only that, it already is. And when I asked around, a number of people pointed to this moment in 2000, with the election, when Bush loses the popular election but he wins because he wins in Florida. And so people look at the results in Florida, and see that a bunch of votes that might have gone to Al Gore, they go instead to Ralph Nader. Who then becomes sort of notorious as this spoiler that maybe ruined the election for Al Gore. And after 2000, at that point, you do see some cities that start to adopt rank choice voting at the local level.
Sara Kari: So what I did is-
Latif Nassar: Okay I’m putting my phone on airplane mode.
Sara Kari: … I grabbed Latif and we kind of did this cross country rank choice voting tour. And the first place we’re going to start with …
Sara Kari: Hello, San Francisco?
Dominic Fracasa: Yes, San Francisco is here.
Sara Kari: Is San Francisco.
Sara Kari: Is this Dominic?
Dominic Fracasa: Yes this is.
Sara Kari: Oh, hey Dominic. What’s up?
Dominic Fracasa: Hi, what’s up?
Sara Kari: So, this is Dominic Fracasa.
Dominic Fracasa: Check, check, check, yeah.
Sara Kari: He used to do radio.
Latif Nassar: You got the pipes for it Dominic.
Dominic Fracasa: Hey, let me know if you need any ad spots, so we can get right to it, you know.
Latif Nassar: Okay, cool.
Sara Kari: But now he’s a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dominic Fracasa: I’m a city hall reporter for the Chronicle. Yeah, so the very first rank choice election in San Francisco happened in 2004. But it was actually, rank choice voting became, I guess, the city’s method, or the city’s system if you will, back in 2002. Where there was a ballot initiative that was passed by voters that said, “Look, this is going to be the system that we’re going to implement going forward.” So the vast majority of local elected offices are chosen with rank choice contests.
Sara Kari: So city council-
Dominic Fracasa: The board of supervisors …
Sara Kari: The school board …
Dominic Fracasa: Our assessor recorder …
Sara Kari: And in one very specific election …
Dominic Fracasa: The case in the mayors race.
Sara Kari: The case in the mayors race.
Dominic Fracasa: Okay, great. I can’t believe this was just a few months ago. It seems like a long time ago at this point.
Sara Kari: Okay, so early 2018 the San Francisco mayor’s race kicked off.
Dominic Fracasa: And when it really kicked into gear there were three leading candidates. You had-
London Breed: Hi, I’m board of supervisors president London Breed.
Dominic Fracasa: … London Breed, and you had …
Mark Leno: Hello, I’m Mark Leno-
Dominic Fracasa: Former San Francisco supervisor Mark Leno. And you had …
Jane Kim: Hi, I’m Jane Kim-
Dominic Fracasa: Current supervisor Jane Kim, and these aren’t, these are all democrats.
News Clips: The field of candidates is set now. KPIX5 Joe Vasquez is live-
Sara Kari: Okay, so out of the gate-
News Clips: New front runner in the San Francisco mayor’s race, and it’s-
Dominic Fracasa: London Breed.
London Breed: This campaign is a winning campaign.
Sara Kari: She was the more moderate, more established candidate.
News Clips: She’s getting one heck of a bounce in the polls.
Dominic Fracasa: And she had a fairly strong lead, and a lot of wind in her sails.
News Clips: The two to one lead over her two closest rivals, Mark Leno and Jane Kim.
Sara Kari: And as the campaign made it’s way to election day-
Dominic Fracasa: Things are going pretty well.
London Breed: We are winners, and we are-
Sara Kari: And it was almost like, sure there are three names on the ballot-
Dominic Fracasa: But …
Sara Kari: At the end of the day it was more like-
Dominic Fracasa: London Breed, London Breed, and London Breed.
News Clips: The favorite in the recent polls heading into Tuesday’s election.
Sara Kari: But then right before the election something happened that you basically never see in American politics.
Jane Kim: We are proud to stand together to say that we are united in our belief that we need fundamental change here in the city and county of San Francisco.
Sara Kari: In the very last few weeks before election day, the two underdogs, Jane Kim and Mark Leno, they held a press conference on the steps of city hall.
Jane Kim: Mark and I are opponents, as everyone knows.
Dominic Fracasa: They stood outside city hall, literally joined hands and said …
Jane Kim: And I’m proud to be the first set of candidates to truly take advantage of the rank choice voting system and encourage our supporters to vote for both of us.
Robert Krulwich: Wait a second. So what she’s saying is vote for me, definitely vote for me, but also vote for this guy who I’m running against.
Sara Kari: Yeah, exactly.
Dominic Fracasa: Vote for me first, but vote for Jane second. Or vote for me first, and vote for Mark second.
Sara Kari: So if one of us were to come in last, let’s say Mark comes in last, if all the people who voted for him ranked Jane as their second choice then all of those votes would go to her, and vise versa. That way they actually have a better chance of beating the front runner.
Dominic Fracasa: London Breed, and that made a lot of sense. They were both quote unquote “More progressive candidates,” and saw each other, at least the rhetoric goes, as the person that they’d like to see as mayor if not themselves.
Simon Adler: Was that a surprise move to you as you were covering it? Did you see that coming?
Dominic Fracasa: I didn’t see it coming, no. I think that was just a surprise to a lot of people.
News Clips: I almost had to do a double take when I saw these new campaign posters supporting both Jane Kim and Mark Leno for mayor.
Sara Kari: After that press conference …
Dominic Fracasa: Mark Leno and Jane Kim started appearing in campaign adds together.
Jane Kim: I’m Jane Kim …
Mark Leno: And I’m Mark Leno …
Sara Kari: Campaigning for one another.
Jane Kim: Mark and I are opponents …
Mark Leno: But Jane and I agree …
Jane Kim: You should pick our next mayor …
Mark Leno: Not the billionaires-
Sara Kari: And so basically the whole campaign is like, “If you don’t vote for me first than at least vote for me second.”
Mark Leno: Let’s stand together.
Jane Kim: Vote for me, and Mark Leno.
Mark Leno: Vote for me, and Jane Kim.
News Clips: KPIX5’s Joe Vasquez is with the London Breed campaign. Where just moments ago Breed addressed the crowd. Joe-
Sara Kari: So, on election night London Breed has a pretty commanding lead as the polls are coming to a close, and basically she’s trying to get up to this marker of 50% of the votes plus one vote. That’s a majority, and if she can get to that then she wins. There’s no rank choice runoff, there’s no vote swapping, and as the night goes on-
News Clips: She is not yet declaring victory but this crowd is celebrating.
Sara Kari: She’s got like a double digit lead, things are looking pretty good.
News Clips: They are celebrating the person they believe could be the next mayor of San Francisco.
Dominic Fracasa: Holy smokes, she’s beating Mark Leno by 10 percentage points, and she’s beating Jane Kim by more than that. So we’re getting to midnight. I’m completely bleary eyed, staring at my laptop, refreshing the department of elections website every few seconds. When 12:30 at night …
Sara Kari: It happens.
News Clips: In the early returns London Breed had a sizeable lead, but she didn’t reach 50%.
Sara Kari: She came in just shy of 50%.
News Clips: So the rank choice voting system kicked in and-
Dominic Fracasa: And all of the sudden this entire race has changed.
Sara Kari: Okay, so the rankings had been London Breed number one, Mark Leno number two …
News Clips: Jane Kim, who was in third place, was now eliminated in that ranked choice system.
Dominic Fracasa: But when Kim got eliminated, a huge chunk of her voters about three out of four went to Leno, because Leno was their second choice.
News Clips: And now …
News Clips: By a razor thin margin …
News Clips: Mark Leno is leading the race.
Sara Kari: The Kim Leno strategy had come to fruition.
Dominic Fracasa: He’s up .84%, the slimmest of leads.
News Clips: The mayor’s race is still too close to call out here-
Sara Kari: The race would actually drag on for days.
Dominic Fracasa: As more ballots got counted.
News Clips: Tens of thousands of outstanding ballots.
Dominic Fracasa: We didn’t have a mayor chosen until, I think, eight days later.
Sara Kari: When in a gymnasium packed with screaming supporters out walked the new mayor of San Francisco-
Dominic Fracasa: London Breed.
London Breed: Yes, I’m your mayor.
Sara Kari: Mark Leno came up just short.
Dominic Fracasa: He came within 1.1% or a little over 2,500 votes-
Sara Kari: Oh man.
Dominic Fracasa: So I mean, okay it didn’t work in that he didn’t win, but you can’t say that it was completely ineffective.
Sara Kari: And so ultimately what did people think of this whole Mark Leno, Jane Kim, coming together?
Dominic Fracasa: People saw the duel endorsement strategy as gaming the system. As saying, “Look, they are doing this in order to keep London Breed from winning.”
Sara Kari: And that was at your-
Dominic Fracasa: And they already-
Sara Kari: … paper, right? That was the editorial one?
Dominic Fracasa: Yeah, our editorial board said as much. And I think that’s not just the ed board. I mean people do feel that way. That it was this strategy, especially London Breed supporters, who saw a teaming up, a piling on, and in this … I mean just very quickly, just zoom out all the way. I think people just find that weird in a country in which politics ends up being a zero sum game, often times, in which you are relentlessly attacking your opponent-
Simon Adler: Blood sport, yeah.
Dominic Fracasa: … beating them down. Exactly, exactly. But, at the same time that’s very much, there might be some people at my own newspaper that disagree with me, but I think that’s very much in the spirit of what rank choice voting invites. Coalition building-
Sara Kari: Now, Dominic wanted to be clear that in the case of the mayor’s race, this coming together of opponents …
Dominic Fracasa: I don’t want to make it sound like it was just some kind of kumbaya thing. Because that wasn’t the case.
Sara Kari: But at the very next stop on our tour we actually found that case. The kumbaya case. Hey Curtis, are you there?
Curtis Gilbert: Yeah I am.
Sara Kari: Which, also on the line we have Latif.
Latif Nassar: Hi, how you doing?
Curtis Gilbert: Hey what’s up?
Sara Kari: We heard about, from this guy.
Curtis Gilbert: Curtis Gilbert, and I’m a reporter at American Public Media. But I used to be a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio.
Sara Kari: So Curtis told us in Minneapolis they actually started using rank choice voting in 2009.
Curtis Gilbert: But it’s gotten much more interesting since then. So in 2013 was the first time Minneapolis actually had a competitive mayor’s race under rank choice voting.
News Clips: There’s a record breaking number of candidates vying to succeed Minneapolis mayor R. T.Rybak who’s stepping down at the end of this year.
Curtis Gilbert: 35 candidates signed up to run to replace him.
Latif Nassar: Oh.
Sara Kari: Wow.
Curtis Gilbert: Yeah.
News Clips: Curtis Gilbert covers Minneapolis politics, he joins me in the studio. Boy you’re going to be busy.
Curtis Gilbert: Yeah, you betcha.
Curtis Gilbert: I mean there were so many … I mean 35 candidates is a lot.
Sara Kari: Unlike the race in San Francisco the mayoral race in Minneapolis …
Speaker 40: People say, “Aren’t you the republican?”
Sara Kari: Did have more diverse candidates.
Speaker 40: And I say, “Sure, I’ve done some work in the republican party, and I also stand fiercely for marriage equality, always have.”
Sara Kari: There was a republican, an independent, a bunch of democrats …
Curtis Gilbert: It was a wide open, free for all race. It was really interesting.
Sara Kari: But despite all that …
Curtis Gilbert: They were very, very civil.
News Clips: Thank you very much, it’s nice to see you’re not utterly infallible. I always thought you were.
Curtis Gilbert: Very, very gentle to each other.
News Clips: We won’t be rude with each other because it doesn’t benefit us to be rude with each other.
News Clips: Right.
Curtis Gilbert: And this is one thing that the advocates of rank choice voting sort of look at as a positive, voters are turned off by negative campaigning. And there’s a theory that goes that if you’re hoping to get second and third choice votes you’ll be much nicer to your opponent so you don’t alienate their supporters. So maybe you get a second or third choice vote. And it did seem like there was an element of that playing out in the race.
News Clips: I will talk more about the issues because I think I’ve run out of time, thank you.
Sara Kari: So at worst there was some light ribbing.
News Clips: They said we could finish our sentences if we’ve run out of time, but I think that was a run on sentence.
Sara Kari: There were polite stage logistics.
News Clips: Getting out of that chair is a little challenging so we may want to pass the microphone around.
Sara Kari: And …
News Clips: Thank you, thank you Jackie.
Sara Kari: Plenty of thank you’s.
Curtis Gilbert: The most remarkable one of all was the final debate. It was there, and it was in a church. I think it was in downtown Minneapolis, I can’t remember what the church was. And at the end of the debate the candidates, and I think there were eight of them, all kind of put their arms around each other and one of them suggested that they all sing …
News Clips: One, two, three.
News Clips: (singing)
Curtis Gilbert: … Kumbaya.
News Clips: (singing)
Latif Nassar: No.
Sara Kari: After the debate?
Curtis Gilbert: After the debate.
News Clips: (singing).
News Clips: That’s going on into the rest.
News Clips: The farewell tour.
News Clips: Right there.
Latif Nassar: So it’s almost like a cartoon, right? Like the Kumbaya it’s really funny, but it’s also I think for a lot of people right now that feels like a relief. It feels like a relief to hear politicians not biting each other’s heads off. And that’s something that comes from rank choice voting. You find consensus. You find coalition. You find commonalities instead of differences. But that also flattens everyone out. If everyone ends up running to the middle, and then you just have kind of a bland consensus where no one’s saying bold things, and everybody is just kind of middle.
Robert Krulwich: So, in a way, when you make this choice you’re choosing for do this carefully.
Latif Nassar: Right.
Robert Krulwich: Do this carefully. I wondered about that, because I was thinking maybe don’t do this carefully, maybe have a country that can be dynamic. Although right now I’m not so sure. So-
Simon Adler: We’re too dynamic, yeah.
Robert Krulwich: Yeah. But that in a deep way, that’s what’s being asked here.
Latif Nassar: Yeah, what do we actually want? Like do we want a system where you are lined up behind your alpha dog who’s going to argue for all of the things you want, and maybe you’re going to get them but maybe you’re also going to lose them all. Or do you want to be in a system where we’re all sort of begrudgingly bought into our second place person who we can kind of get behind, but it definitely wasn’t our … It’s not our ideal. I think that’s a question. That’s like a soul searching kind of a question. What do you want, and what do we want this country to be?
Robert Krulwich: Right.
Latif Nassar: And for that reason, I don’t know how I feel about it.
Robert Krulwich: Well, nothings going to be perfect. I think what’s really interesting is what seems sort of mechanical and technical, it does affect the tone of your country and of history. So the world we’ve got is the function of how we vote now. Change the system before we vote, you might get a very different world. How different, what different, where different, which kind of difference, scary different, good different, you don’t know.
Sara Kari: Well, we might actually know soon, because I actually have one more stop on our cross country rank choice voting tour.
Sara Kari: (singing)
Sara Kari: The great state of Maine.
Sara Kari: (singing)
Sara Kari: Super politically diverse, fiercely independent, like a lot of independent voters.
Sara Kari: (singing)
Sara Kari: And in fact, in 2016 there was this coalition of independents and democrats that managed to get this ballot initiative that would change all statewide elections to rank choice voting.
Latif Nassar: State wide?
Sara Kari: Yeah.
Latif Nassar: Oh.
Sara Kari: And …
Steve Mistler: Rank choice voting was adopted in 2016.
Sara Kari: According to Maine Public Radio reporter, Steve Mistler, it passed.
Steve Mistler: It passed however, with a major flaw.
News Clips: It was a scam. It undermines the integrity of our election process.
News Clips: Put forward by a group of people-
Steve Mistler: The state senate, which was under republican control at the time picked up on this constitutional conflict within the state constitution.
News Clips: The reality is we’re not happy with it.
News Clips: My oppose to it, very unconstitutional.
Sara Kari: The Maine constitution literally says you have to use a plurality vote.
Steve Mistler: The word plurality is actually written om the Constitution.
Sara Kari: As opposed to a majority.
Steve Mistler: Correct, and ultimately the Maine legislature passed a law that delayed implementing rank choice voting.
News Clips: This is one more example of where politicians are standing against the will of the people.
Sara Kari: And it set of this whole fight where people rallied against the state legislature, and held another vote …
Steve Mistler: In June …
Sara Kari: Literally this past June.
News Clips: But the people gathered at the state house this morning-
Sara Kari: To get around the delay.
News Clips: … legislature, through what was billed as a people’s veto.
Sara Kari: That passed-
Steve Mistler: By almost the exact same margin, if not slightly more than when it passed originally in 2016.
Sara Kari: At some point the Maine Supreme Court gets involved and really the details of this are all kind of a mess. But what it boils down to is this; in the upcoming elections, like the midterms that are happening now, Maine will use rank choice voting for its congressional races.
Steve Mistler: We have three of them this year. We have a first congressional district race. It’ll be used in that contest.
Sara Kari: And also in Maine’s second congressional district.
Steve Mistler: Which is a swing seat and one of a dozen or so nationally.
Sara Kari: Aka one of the districts that everybody is going to be watching in the midterms, and on top of that they’re going to use rank choice voting for the senate.
Steve Mistler: The U.S. senate campaign, it’ll be used in that contest.
Latif Nassar: Do you know, is this the first time it’s going to be used for a position in the federal government?
Sara Kari: Yeah, no other state has ever done it.
Latif Nassar: Oh, wow.
Sara Kari: But at the same time, because of their state constitution-
Steve Mistler: It’s not being used in the gubernatorial race.
Sara Kari: So does the ballot just look insane, like part of it is this rank choice voting thing and part of it isn’t and like-
Steve Mistler: They’re just separate.
Sara Kari: Okay.
Steve Mistler: So there’s separate ballots for the federal races, and then there’s a separate one for the state wide one. So I haven’t actually seen how many ballots that voters are handed on-
Latif Nassar: So this is really going to happen now, like this week.
Sara Kari: Yeah, oh yeah.
Steve Mistler: Two main claims of rank choice voting are being put to the test in its very first role out in Maine.
News Clips: Voters in Maine will head to the polls later this month-
Steve Mistler: Whether it can work for a third party or independent candidates, but it’s also a test case about whether or not it does what it promises.
News Clips: He just told another big fib right in front of everybody in Maine.
News Clips: First, you’re lying about my rep here, and you’re also-
Steve Mistler: Which is reduce scorched earth campaigns.
News Clips: Dude, I don’t know where you’re getting this.
News Clips: It’s Tiffany [inaudible 01:03:58] do you have a problem [crosstalk 01:03:59]
News Clips: This is why we’re getting nothing done.
News Clips: When they go low, we kick them right?
News Clips: And Mr. Desantos lied 21 times.
News Clips: If you voted as much as you lie [crosstalk 01:04:12]
News Clips: Of course I support the senator.
News Clips: Crazy.
News Clips: The democrats …
News Clips: They’ve gone wacko.
News Clips: Trump supporters are just nasty and deplorable.
News Clips: You may not understand how the house and the senate work.
Sara Kari: But also, I guess I just wonder if the people of Maine are going to come out of this election feeling a little bit more like democracy is working for them.
Robert Krulwich: Wouldn’t it be interesting if in Maine, somebody who was everybody’s eighth choice gets elected to congress. It could happen. I don’t know we’ll see. Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: This RadioLab was reported by Latif Nassar, Simon Adler, Suzie Lechtenberg, Sara Kari, Tracy Hunte. Produced by Simon Adler, Matt Kielty, Sara Kari, and Suzie Lechtenberg. Our story on PRSTV was produced with support from RTE’s Drive Time, huge thank you to them and to AB for making that possible.
Latif Nassar: Also, thanks to Rob Richy at Fair Vote, Dawn Sari, Diana Lagerman. Thank you to Anna Lurman and the rest of the team at the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Sweden. As well as Carolyn Tolbert, Bobby Agey, and Edward Still.
Robert Krulwich: I’m Robert Krulwich.
Latif Nassar: And I’m Latif Nassar and thanks for listening. And go vote, what the hell, right?
Robert Krulwich: Yes, yes.
Latif Nassar: Yeah.
Jenna Calderoni: Hi this is Jenna Calderoni, calling from Raleigh, North Carolina. RadioLab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Maria Matisar-Padea is our managing director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracy Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Anne McEwin, Latif Nassar, Alyssa O’Donell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Cap Flaslow and Moe Asipiomo.
Jenna Calderoni: Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.