Krist Novoselic of FairVote—and Nirvana—speaks out about ranked choice voting

Photos By: 
Jeff Rutherford

Nirvana burst onto the scene in the 90s helping to pioneer grunge rock and striking a chord with the cultural zeitgeist, forever enshrining themselves as rock 'n’ roll royalty. 21 years after releasing one of the greatest albums of all time, bassist Krist Novoselic has made his interest in political advocacy his new brand of punk rock. In 2008 he became the chair of FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan political advocacy group focused on changing the way elections are run in the United States to ensure that voters are accurately represented. Novoselic was invited to Minnesota to host an awareness fundraiser for FairVote on August 23 and I had a chance to sit down with him to discuss voting reform, how he’s been spending his time, and whether he's still playing music.

Krist Novoselic

You flew all the way to Minnesota. What are you going to speaking about tonight? 

I was invited to come to the FairVote Minnesota event to support ranked choice voting. I’m the chair of the national group FairVote and I got involved with election reform in the late 90s. I was involved with music issues. We had a teen dance ordinance in Seattle, an erotic music law that was proposed that was a censorship bill in the state legislature. So Seattle music was taking the world by storm but at the same time we were getting anti-music rules and regulations and laws in our own backyard. We came together as a community and we developed a message that we were an asset not a liability and that music contributes to the economic and cultural vitality of the region. We took that message around and we turned things over.

Along the way I got my civic education. I learned how to move legislation in the state house, how state agencies work, what the dynamics are, and how important it is for people to come together and make their voice heard. Over the course of that education I recognized these barriers for participation: uncontested elections, uncompetitive elections, a lot of cynicism, and people just didn’t care. I thought there should be a better way.

I was online at the time using Altavista—I should have bought Google stock in 1997, get out of here, kids [laughing]—I’m on Altavista. I was just word searching elections, voting, and election reform, and there was this one group in the United States called FairVote. So I looked into the group and they were out of Tacoma Park, Maryland and the chair at the time was John B. Anderson. I realized that he ran for President in 1980, he was an iconic independent candidate that got a good share of the vote that year. I was reading their materials and I learned about ranked choice voting and I learned about proportional representation. At first I thought this was really weird, and how does this work? I thought it was just some European system they were trying to bring in here, then I learned that it is actually very American and it’s been in the United States for over 100 years and ranked choice voting has been around for 150 years or more. Then there are American versions of proportional representation its not just euro party-list system. American versions are more conservative and they’re candidate based; I thought that could work.

I think just from being in Nirvana and coming out of the independent music world—punk rock—something about it was appealing. It was something different, but not just for the sake of being different.  After being frustrated and seeing all these problems it made sense that if you give people more choices, and there are competitive elections, maybe people would feel like their vote mattered and that was very appealing. So I got involved with FairVote and I joined the board in the early 2000’s and then in 2008 I became chair of the board.

Krist Novoselic

How does ranked choice voting work?

There is kind of a branding issue with ranked choice voting. It’s also known as instant runoff voting, it’s also known as the alternative vote, it’s also known as the preferential ballot. In Minneapolis it’s called ranked choice voting. Think about the runoff aspect. In California, Washington, and Louisiana there is a runoff system where you let all the candidates run in the first slate of the election and the a voter picks their favorite candidate. All of the ballots are counted, and then the top two vote-getters advance to the second election. In some places, if you get the majority, then you win the election, but if there isn’t a majority then you have a runoff. That’s how France is, in the national assembly, they have an election and if there is no majority they have a runoff for President. That’s a conventional runoff.

In a runoff, if your candidate is in there you’d vote for her again, but say your choice didn’t win then you get a second choice. That’s a conventional runoff. In an instant runoff you just rank the candidates and it’s the same thing if there isn’t a majority then you kick off the last place vote getter and those votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates. 

What is the biggest issue ranked choice voting helps solve and why is ranked choice voting the best way to solve that problem?

Ranked choice voting is proven to bring more moderation to politics because the candidates on the fringes drop out. So the vote transfers tend to move toward the center so it brings moderation. Another thing is just the tone of campaigns. Where candidates in a top two system there is a lot of incentive to just knock each other out, it’s a zero sum game, people think I don’t want anybody voting for my opponent, I don’t want anybody voting at all. With ranked choice voting you can run a campaign where you recognize the field and you say well she’s strong in these communities and constituents, so I’m going to go to her and her voters and say I want to be your second choice. So you build coalitions.

Another very practical attribute of it is that there is just one election instead of asking voters to come out on two different dates. Wasn’t there a primary here in Minnesota in August with just horrible turnout? So perhaps it would be better to just ask people to vote once.

Having studied elections for so long. Political science is a soft science there is a cause and effect. To benefit you have to give something up. With ranked choice voting you have to explain it to people, when you talk to people they give you a thousand yard stare, so it takes a while for it to sink in. That’s why I do the analogy with runoff because people seem to get that.

Krist Novoselic

In America it seems that culturally we’re used to choosing sides and wanting to be on the side that wins. Are you seeing a cultural shift that leads you to believe that society would be open to allow such a huge systematic change to the way we run elections in the United States?

In social sciences, again like political sciences, it’s a soft science. People do like that, people want a winner, they get behind a candidate again but what if they don’t make it into the runoff or make it out of the primary, they need to have a second choice. At the same time a lot of people are tired of the negative campaigning, you have the super PACs, the independent expenditures, and the campaigns themselves are going to be spending millions of dollars. That is actually really good for the media, newspapers, and local televisions stations because candidates want to promote themselves, but sometimes the tone gets heightened. You get a lot of nasty ads.

I don’t want to digress too much but I’m a big believer in transparency. We have a law in Washington State where the top five donors of an independent expenditure names, city, and occupation are listed on an ad. I work with a Washington State grange. I had a resolution that my grange pushed past the state grange to have that in the federal elections. I think there are more than one ways to go after negative campaigning. If you just make people more accountable that can also be a good way to address that.

You mentioned coalition building. I know that San Francisco and places in California have moved to ranked choice voting or top two voting.

They have top two and we have that in Washington. They have ranked choice in San Francisco, San Leandro, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Krist Novoselic

In terms of national campaign in the United States we have a hard enough time fostering bipartisanship, let alone a coalition-based government. How would you see this working on the national level?

As far as statewide goes FairVote is promoting proportional representation, we call it Fair Voting. So in these three seat districts we have these maps that we use in current districts. I’ve got to look up Minnesota’s, but in a state like Louisiana there are six districts and the way they gerrymandered it there are five republican districts and one democratic district and they had to make a democratic district because of the Voting Rights Act. The Fair Voting plan instead of having six districts you’d have two three-member districts. Every district would have two republicans and one democrat, and also there would be space for a third party or independent candidate. Again it goes to the American version of proportional representation.

To answer the question, the threshold is so high you would have these bipartisan delegations. You’d have Republicans coming out of urban places and Democrats coming out of rural places. There could be third parties but these are purely proportional systems, like in European systems where they have these really low thresholds where it takes 4% or 2% to get elected in some countries in Europe. In the United States it would take like 25% or 33%. There wouldn’t necessarily be coalition governments. I would think that ranked choice voting would be really good for governor or secretary of state but I think for the political side, the political scientist Douglas Amy says that proportional is better for the legislative bodies because you get away from these single-member districts.

You can see how complicated it gets...then we have to talk about redistricting. With the Fair Voting plan we just blasted part all these gerrymanders. The south is red, just deep red now with these African American or majority minority districts where they’ll split constituencies. With the Fair Voting plan in Louisiana every African American would have representation. Because of that, 33% all democrats could cross that threshold and elect somebody, assuming all African Americans are democrats; you know Clarence Thomas isn’t a democrat. So that gives spaces for people thinkings, just because you’re black doesn’t mean you’re a democrat. Society is changing, were in the middle of this information revolution and we’re becoming a multicultural country, its going to be harder to pigeonhole people. Just because you’re this ethnicity doesn’t mean you’re necessarily conservative or necessarily liberal. It gives more latitude. What Fair Vote is doing is starting the conversation.

In Minnesota specifically, the Twin Cities metro area racial and ethnic diversity in the suburbs since 2000 has increased for 5% to 23%. How would Fair Voting impact a state like Minnesota?

I’d have to really look at it. How many districts are in Minnesota? We’d make multimember districts for one chamber and keep the state senate single member districts. New Zealand switched to proportional representation about ten years ago and they just voted to keep it. In Germany it’s called mixed member proportional so you get a ballot in Germany and it has all the candidates for your district, so that is for the single member district. On the other half of the ballot you vote for these parties, they have the party list system and that’s proportional. Their national legislature, Bundestag, is elected from single member districts and the other half is proportional so everybody gets representation. It’s called full representation. So how could that work in Washington or Minnesota? The state house would have three member districts that proportional or semi-proportional, the state senate is a single member district, and you still have a governor and a judiciary. So it can work in the American system. A lot of people think proportional is a parliamentary system but no parliament is like one body runs the whole country and then they vote for the president.

All of FairVote's proposals are constitutional, there is case law, they are legal, there are precedents, and there is tradition of them in the United States. These aren’t new ideas they’ve just been forgotten about. There was a lot of enthusiasm about ranked choice voting in the progressive era. The proportional version of it was brought into New York City and it was extensive in Ohio and Massachusetts to break up party machines. When you get voters to rank candidates you don’t get stuck in a ward where there is one member and the party machine runs the whole ward. Voters could pick whom they wanted to vote for making it harder for the machine and it worked really well. There is a book by Kathleen Barber called Proportional Representation in Ohio and she talks about how well it worked.

Krist Novoselic 

With many local governments having tight budgets, would ranked choice voting cause an increase in cost or decrease costs?

There are infrastructure issues with ranked choice voting. In Minnesota there are over 80 counties here. In the whole United States we don’t have a national election voting infrastructure, and I’m not saying we should, I’m just saying we don’t have one. You have all these counties that run elections and every county has a different vendor, contractor, and different voting machines so there are infrastructure issues in how the ballots would be counted. They could do it with the optical scan ballots. There are costs to upgrade the voting machines but that is a deal with the vendor. There is voter education: you’d need to spend money so people understand it. However, there are savings if you have one election instead of two so you could recoup a lot of that. Not all of it but a lot of it.

Were there any issues with implementing it in San Francisco? 

I don’t think so. There are studies out there conducted by scholars. It’s just a really small percentage [filled out incorrectly] that was basically the same as in normal elections; sometimes people just fill out ballots wrong. You see that when you have a recount like you had in Minnesota or we had in Washington that’s when you take the magnifying glass out and you look at every ballot. That wasn’t even ranked choice voting. You have to figure out the voters intent, it’s a hard job that these election administrators have because you have to deal with people, people will write in Mickey Mouse, or you’re supposed to fill in a circle and people will put a checkmark, and then it’s their jobs to figure out what the voters intent was within the standards. Voting is imperfect.

How is support for FairVote in Minnesota?

I really don’t know. We’re having a great event tonight, we’ll see how many people turn out. We have these events and the politicos show up. We met with the Secretary of State today and he’s supports it. I’m told that the local election administrators are supportive and now the political elites are starting to come along they are seeing it work and how to make it work. Again it’s a runoff election, they’ll figure out how to strategize it, how you appeal to voters, and you need to bring people in.

Krist Novoselic

So how are you spending your time besides political advocacy?

Well I’ve been doing a little bit of music through the grace of David Eric Grohl and I do a little bit of music with some fellas in Portland. I’ve been hanging out with Modest Mouse. We’re just kind of playing; I don’t know what’s going on with it.

I’m doing FairVote and I go to WSU [Washington State University] online, I do that a lot. I’ve been gardening.

You have a hobby farm, right? 

Yes I have a hobby farm I have 2,500 square feet of onions and about 3,000 square feet of potatoes; I planted 150 pounds. I don’t do the weeding; I hire people from down the road.

Did you grow up in a rural setting? 

Kind of. I grew up in Aberdeen, Washington. I just like it, I go out there and zen out and center myself. I also fly my plane; I flew my Cessna here. 

This thing with ranked choice voting and the politics; it’s not a crusade it takes time to make these kinds of changes. There are opportunities that come up. I think the information age is going to bring a lot of opportunities when someone finally finds the sweet spot between social networking and political association. It’s going to be a whole new ballgame. It will be a whole new conversation about giving voters more choices. It’s not a crusade; I learned that any meaningful change takes time. That’s why I’m here to do this tonight. We get a few people to come together and make things happen. One day at a time. Hopefully we’ll inspire someone to take the ideas forward, and in the meantime we’re going to have fun.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

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This was certainly interesting...

He seems like a pleasant enough fellow, but he's no Pussy Riot, is he?