How a Small New England State is Becoming a Trailblazer for Democracy
Over the past year, I have interviewed democracy reformers across the country. I have heard many stories of victories that have pushed state democracies forward, most of which were recorded in my book Daring Democracy, coauthored with Frances Moore Lappé. Since handing in the manuscript, though, there have been many more successes and emerging grassroots efforts. This interview is a part of an effort to chronicle these developments in the growing Democracy Movement.
Recently, I spoke with John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, who, since 2008, has led the organization. He has successfully spearheaded numerous pieces of democracy reform through the legislature during his Common Cause tenure, including online voter registration, a law strengthening the state’s Ethics Commission, and more recently, automatic voter registration and risk-limiting post-election audits.
Adam Eichen: John, you’ve been quite busy recently, marshaling two pieces of significant democracy reform through the Rhode Island statehouse in less than a year. Let’s start with automatic voter registration, which you passed in June. Why automatic voter registration?
John Marion: Automatic voter registration is a fairly new alteration to the voter registration process that began in Oregon in 2015. It is inspired by behavioral economics; people are more likely to do something if they’re automatically opted into it than if they have to do so voluntarily.
How does this relate to voter registration? Right now, in most states, citizens have to opt-in to the system; you have to decide affirmatively that you want to register to vote and fill out a separate voter registration form. But what if instead citizens are registered automatically when they have an interaction with government—with the option to opt-out, of course.
It’s really quite simple: when you go to the DMV, instead of being faced with the question of if you want to register to vote, you’re given a statement that explains you will be registered to vote unless you opt out. As we know, most people will not opt-out, gladly accepting the expedited process.
We started in January convincing the legislature to adopt it, and in June the bill passed both houses and was signed by the governor. In doing so, Rhode Island actually became the ninth state to pass it. And right now we’re beginning the implementation process. It’ll be ready by early 2018.
And one of the most exciting things is that Rhode Island’s automatic voter registration law allows for non-DMV state agencies to participate, something few other states have done.
Eichen: This last point is a big deal. The spread of automatic voter registration is significant in and of itself, certainly, but most states have thus far limited the program to the DMV. Rhode Island incorporating other government agencies into the program opens the door for wider impact.
Marion: Right. We know certain groups of people, like younger folks, are less likely to get a driver’s license. So we need to start reaching people at agencies other than the DMV. Our statute will allow Rhode Island to implement AVR at other agencies. We haven’t yet identified those participating agencies, but this option remains available moving forward.
Eichen: Was it difficult to convince the legislature to pass automatic voter registration? Did Oregon’s success with the program help?
Marion: We really didn’t piggyback on Oregon, as the Oregon data wasn’t fully released until midway through our legislative session. I’d say it came down to two things. We have a very dynamic secretary of state, Nellie Gorbea, who became its champion. And second, in 2016 we had successfully implemented online registration, which went seamlessly. A lot of people registered or updated their registration using that system. So the legislature looked favorably on that implementation said “Well, let’s take the next step with automatic voter registration.”
Eichen: Let’s talk about your second major accomplishment this legislative cycle: Risk-limiting post-election audits.
Marion: So risk-limiting post-election audits are essentially a check on voting equipment. Right now, most states use equipment to tabulate the votes that people mark on their ballots, and of those, most simply examine a percentage of the ballots (one percent, two percent, etc) to verify results. But that really doesn’t tell us anything about the overall performance—only that one or two percent of ballots were recorded correctly.
About a decade ago, statisticians developed risk-limiting audits in which you pick a degree of confidence—say 90 or 95 percent—and then you use a mathematical formula to select some ballots to get that level of confidence. It sounds complicated, but there’s software involved to make it easier. An election official inputs the margin of victory and the number of ballots cast and it tells you how many ballots you have to examine to yield the proper level of confidence. And if those ballots match the results generated by the machine, then you have the specified level of confidence that the election yielded the correct outcome. If the sample doesn’t match, then you pull a bigger sample. Ultimately what this process is designed to do is catch any problems and correct them.
Colorado was the first state to do this. They just started implementing it in November and we will be the second state.
Eichen: Given the fears of foreign interference in elections, do you see this as a key step to ensure election security?
Marion: So this doesn’t protect us from intrusion. That side of things is up to the cyber security experts to make sure our systems are locked down. What this does is, if somebody gets in the system and makes an attempt to manipulate the vote total, we can use the paper record to catch and correct it.
Interestingly, we started advocating for this reform in 2013, not because we were thinking about foreign interference, but because we thought that mistakes might happen. Election machines have lines of computer code in them and people make mistakes in the code.
And, sure enough, in November 2016 several Rhode Island machines were programmed incorrectly and the initial results for a few local races were incorrect. When they realized the results were incorrect (because the outcomes were so wildly off) they reprogramed the machines and the outcome was changed.
Eichen: So it took four years of lobbying and then an election mistake to get this law through the legislature.
Marion: People always say “Don’t let a crisis go to waste.” We had been proposing risk-limiting post election audits for years, but it was only when people saw the actual problem happen that they decided we needed to act.
Eichen: Let’s shift gears. I’ve long been fascinated by states as laboratories for democracy. Rhode Island became the ninth state to pass AVR and second with risk-limiting audits. Do you think that a small state like Rhode Island can serve as a model for the rest of the nation?
Marion: Absolutely. We’re both a laboratory and a model. Because we’re so small we can implement many types of election reforms far more easily than larger states can—particularly when it comes to voting. In most states, county governments run elections. But Rhode Island doesn’t have county governments, as most things are run on a statewide basis. Changing election laws in Rhode Island therefore doesn’t require the coordination of a bunch of counties.
And, of course, we also have some of the political conditions to support real reform, like a supportive Secretary of State and legislature. That helps.
Eichen: Do you find that the momentum for democracy reform is increasing?
Marion: I do. In all likelihood, D.C. is not going to be doing much on these issues any time soon, and, as such, the emphasis has shifted to the states. And there is plenty of momentum—not just in blue states, but in red states like Alaska and Montana, too.
Eichen: Given that, are you frustrated by the lack of media coverage about the progress being made?
Marion: For me, the frustrating thing is the lack of coverage on the local level. When I started doing this work almost a decade ago, our local paper was much stronger. It has shrunk significantly since then. That means the stories of victories aren’t being told. On the other hand, the national press corps chasing the White House and Congress has grown, largely telling a story of inaction. So, yes, it’s frustrating.
Eichen: Does this constant coverage of inaction then turn people off from politics?
Marion: I’m not sure if I have enough perspective to know, but I would believe that, yes.
Eichen: So what’s next for Common Cause Rhode Island?
Marion: We’re fast approaching the 2020 census and redistricting soon thereafter. We’ve always chased the redistricting process but not gotten ahead of it, so this time around we are going to try to get ahead of it. We are going to propose taking the redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature as states like California have successfully done.
Eichen: Well, best of luck. I hope the rest of the country takes note of what you are accomplishing in Rhode Island.