Engaging Local Communities and Driving Civic Engagement
How nonprofits can engage local communities to help make a positive change and increase civic engagement
Nonprofit leaders are able to go out and engage communities in ways that can help galvanize the public into improving their city or town. Nonprofits can dedicate their time to fighting for a cause that the local population is passionate about and ultimately bring about positive change in their communities. In the case of the Center for Election Science, the organization engaged with the community in Fargo and St. Louis and helped them improve their local democratic process through approval voting, which can make the local population feel more involved.
Aaron Hamlin is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Election Science, a non-profit organization that works to get the approved voting system implemented in cities across the United States. Since 2018, Aaron and his team have engaged voters in both Fargo, North Dakota, and St. Louis, Missouri to get approval voting passed and empower citizens with a stronger democracy.
More about the Center for Election Science – https://electionscience.org
For nonprofit leadership resources – https://www.aaronhamlin.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings. I am Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. We have been here every week for eight years, 300 episodes, talking to people with great information that helps us do a better job. Today’s guest is no exception. Aaron Hamlin, would you tell us who you are, the work you do, and why you do it?
Aaron Hamlin: Sure. I’m the executive director for the Center for Election Science. I also founded the organization with some folks in 2011. While we have been at it for a while, we have only more recently been able to take off at the beginning of 2018 when we first got our funding.
My background is academically in the social sciences. I have a couple graduate degrees in social sciences as well as a law degree. I have also set up another nonprofit, which was a male contraceptive initiative, which was to bring new male contraceptives to market. A serial nonprofit entrepreneur at this point.
Hugh: Why did you choose to do this work instead of something else?
Aaron: I was in school for a long time. The bulk of that time was because I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. But I had general criteria in my head that would guide me in terms of whether I was in the right ballpark for a place. In addition to intersecting with skillsets I would have or be able to develop, I wanted to do something that was important, had high impact, was tractable, and also could scale at a meaningful level to be able to impact more people’s lives in a positive way. The types of ventures I’ve found myself in fit those types of criteria.
Hugh: Love it. Your site is ElectionScience.org. What will people find if they go there?
Aaron: You will see a map of the U.S. to start with. When you look on that, you see all these “You are here” type symbols across the map, which are chapters across the country. We have a multi-state chapter system where folks can get involved.
It goes to the core of what we are doing, which is to move us away from this choose one voting method where we run into all kinds of problems with vote splitting, where similar candidates are running. As a consequence, they can get artificially lower amount of support. You can end up with the wrong winner.
What we do is work with local communities and help them implement another voting method, which allows them to select as many candidates as they want. Instead of ranking, you’re checking off as many candidates as you want. This method is called approval voting. We work with communities to be able to turn these chapters into campaigns so they can bring approval voting, this method that is used to select as many candidates as you want, to their own city and state. We have been on our way to demonstrate that.
Hugh: Approval voting. Talk about what that is and why it’s important.
Aaron: It’s weird. There is this instance where we get a vote, and there aren’t a whole lot of instances where we can’t be ignored. It’s really exciting. It’s also important to be able to get this part right because the people that we elect determine the policies, govern our day-to-day lives, and decide how enormous amounts of tax dollars are spent. It’s unfortunate that the one time they can’t ignore us, the tool that we have, the agency that we have is poor.
We have this choose one voting method. It’s not very expressive. It is susceptible to vote splitting when similar candidates run. It does a poor job of measuring support for candidates. What we’re looking at with this is seeing this critical point, and we want to give voters a tool that provides them agency so they can collectively decide in a meaningful way who should represent them. The people who are in office, their interests actually align with the voters themselves. Right now, we have this poor tool that puts us in all kinds of predicaments that we can get out of with approval voting.
Say there are multiple candidates you like, particularly in a primary. Under approval voting, you can select multiple candidates. The candidate with the most votes goes onto the general election. Whether you are talking about a general election or a primary, we often run into this instance where there is a candidate that we really like who brings good ideas to the table. Yet they may not be perceived as viable. They don’t have a big war chest or name recognition. But you still like their ideas. Under our current system, you’d be under a big dilemma. Do I still want to support this person and perhaps not get a say in the actual outcome by not selecting one of the frontrunners? With approval voting, what cities are now able to do is select these candidates regardless of their perceived viability and support someone else at the same time to make sure these new ideas get traction and are acceptable.
Hugh: What is the benefit in building community where you have these systems active? How does it impact the democratic process and the local culture?
Aaron: One thing that’s exciting with our chapter system is we recognize that the folks in the community are the real experts overall. They know the history of their community. They know the key people involved. In working with those folks, they are able to send the message for why this is important for them. It could be an instance where they just aren’t getting candidates running who are talking about key issues that are relevant for their community. Some of the more viable candidates who maybe have more money, they want to ignore bigger issues. With approval voting, and these folks being able to advocate for approval voting in their communities, they are able to in some instances attract candidates who otherwise wouldn’t run.
One of the cities who have adopted approval voting—Fargo, North Dakota—we are seeing a lot more candidates run for mayor this time. Some of the new media outlets are saying it’s because of approval voting maybe. Previously, if some of these candidates would have run, they may have worried about being brushed aside. Now with approval voting, people can look at them on their merits. If they bring good ideas to the table, if they show they are qualified, they can get those votes. But if they didn’t have the same name recognition, they may have been ignored otherwise.
With approval voting, we are seeing this dynamic of a much more open political dialogue than previously because you are able to see new ideas get to the table. When they have merit, they can get traction in the ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
Hugh: Fascinating concept. As a serial social entrepreneur, what are some of the leadership challenges you had in setting up this particular nonprofit? This is an idea that is way away from what the norm is. It’s a great idea, but you certainly had some naysayers and pushback. What were the challenges in setting this organization up?
Aaron: This is probably a story that a lot of folks working in the nonprofit sector or setting up nonprofits are familiar with. In the beginning, there is no funds. You can’t take on some of these aggressive projects. In the initial phase, we were just thinking about which voting method we wanted to advocate for.
After coming to approval voting, we still had a challenge. It did a lot of things really well. It did well in terms of winner selection; measuring candidate support, which we have been able to do empirically and got published in the European Journal of Political Economy, comparing two control measures that approval voting does better than other voting methods in terms of assessing matching skills. It does a good job of measuring candidate support. Even with all these great things about it, such as being practical and simple and easy to implement and understand, one challenge with advocating for approval voting as an organization was that it hadn’t been used before.
A lot of times, with an organization, particularly things that are newer concepts, you have to look at proof of concept, replication, and scaling. We went into this knowing that was what we had to do. We worked initially with a smaller city, Fargo, which is about 120,000 people. We worked with a task force at the commission created. One of the members of the task force, after the commission decided not to listen to the task force, which was recommending approval voting, got on the ballot and passed it by 63%. After the folks in Fargo were able to gather their own agency with approval voting, looking at a larger city. We have since done that with St. Louis, which is 300,000 people. Now we are working with folks in Seattle, Washington, which is expected to go on the ballot this November. Seattle is 750,000 people. It’s polling at about 70% right now there.
One of the challenges that a lot of folks face is when you are doing something new, you have to share proof of concept, replicate, and scale. Fortunately, we are moving along that path.
Hugh: You have to talk about the benefits, don’t you?
Aaron: Yeah. We are in this situation where we have this key instance where we are talking about electing people to office that have this enormous power. Being able to give people agency in a way that they otherwise don’t have, this key leverage point is critical. We are really excited about empowering folks in these communities.
Hugh: It’s been a tough system to get into if you didn’t have money and power, hasn’t it?
Aaron: Yeah. We think about this viability component too often unfortunately in terms of deciding where our vote goes. We use these proxy measures for viability like name recognition, how much money a particular candidate has. How much money a candidate has and how familiar their name sounds aren’t necessarily good predictors for how well they are going to represent you in office. It’s important we have a voting method that allows you to support candidates that speak to you, that communicate the ideas and policies you care about.
Hugh: Wow, this is a fascinating concept. It helps us rethink some old systems, which we really need to do in a lot of areas. We are troubled about a lot of things with our voting. The old guard people coming in with power and not using it the way they had promised they were going to use it.
You may not like this analogy, but if you watch a NASCAR race, they talk about people in the top 10, the people who have shown promise. There are people who are placed in different spots. They are not devalidated, but they are a work in process. Sometimes they might win another race. It’s a chance for people to get out and prove themselves. Is that a fair analogy, or is that way off base?
Aaron: Sure. I don’t follow NASCAR very closely. In that instance, it’s more of a level playing field. You give everyone an opportunity. Right now, when you look at the way politics is handled, and the type of boundaries they are forced to operate in, not so much in terms of a level playing field.
Hugh: That’s a really important benchmark. Go back to the challenges. A lot of us have trouble getting volunteers or group support or funding. We want to talk about what we do instead of the results of what we do. I know I asked it before. How did you drill down on “You need this because here is the value it’s going to bring to your community?” How did you get to that point? I’m sure it was not a slam dunk convincing people to do something so different.
Aaron: Part of it was I had to go through that realization myself. Here, we’re talking about this concept that is not a very common one to think about. We’re talking about the voting method. If you took a person off the street and asked them, “What’s voting?” they would say, “You choose one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins.” That’s an example of voting, but that’s not voting itself. Voting is a collective decision process where we express information, there is some calculation method, and we get a result. That result tells us who is in that office.
For me, when I first realized that voting methods were a thing, and there were different ways of doing this, I was in grad school in 2008. I was in this student group. We were all talking about who we were going to vote for out at dinner. We were going around the table. I was listening to my friends talk about who they were going to vote for. They were voting for people I knew who were against their interests. They did not agree on the policy issues, particularly the policy issues that we were in the student group for. I was a bit baffled by this.
As I walked away, I knew I could keep giving my friends a hard time, maybe have fewer friends who were willing to put up with me during grad school, or maybe think about this in terms of- When you look at things at the population level and are thinking about behavior, a lot of that behavior tends to come from parameters that force behavior to move in a certain way.
My friends in this instance were acting against their interests. They were doing that not because they wanted to, but because there was a voting method that forced them to vote in a certain way. When I asked about that, they said, “I don’t want to waste my vote. This person is not going to win anyway.” I saw that it wasn’t them behaving foolishly. They were acting rationally given the parameters around them.
From that, I thought, Okay, well, maybe there is something with this voting method component. Maybe there are better ways to do this to encourage better behavior. From then on, I became obsessed with voting methods.
Hugh: So often, I vote for the candidate that is less bad than the other one. Same reason. You’re stuck in a system, and you have to do either/or. It’s this dualistic thinking that we get stuck in. It’s this or that. What you’re giving people is options to think creatively. It’s a powerful concept. How many chapters do you have around the country?
Aaron: We have dozens of chapters around the country, including looking at states, which is where we’re pivoting to next.
Hugh: You have one in Virginia, but it looks like it’s on the other side of me.
Aaron: The challenge with states is they are a bit more efficient in terms of campaigns because you hit federal offices, all the state offices, and all the local offices at the same time. There are only 20 or so states that allow statewide ballot initiatives. There is a conflict of interest with folks in office. We basically make sure we are talking a bit more with the people versus the people who are elected first. At least earlier on.
For instance, after we were able to work with a lot of these communities so that 10+ states are using approval voting, which for clarity is not the same as ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting involves ranking. Approval voting involves selecting as many as you want.
But as we move further down the line, we can begin talking a bit more with non-ballot initiative states. At that point, there will be more precedent. The ballot initiative states, this is where the lower hanging fruit is, or the earlier part of the adoption curve, which is why we’re focusing on them first.
Hugh: The next question is actually two questions. It’s about why you chose a nonprofit specifically. I want to drill deeper into that. How does this drive civic engagement and participation? There is two pieces to this.
Aaron: In terms of a nonprofit, that’s a good question to ask. I talk with a lot of people who often want to set up their nonprofit. When I’m talking with them, one of the first things I ask them is are you sure? Are you sure this is both something that you want to put all this energy behind, and are you also sure this is the right mechanism? It may not be.
For the Center of Election Science, we don’t specifically provide a sellable good or service in the way that a for-profit business would. Because we don’t have that same kind of profit model, it doesn’t make sense for us to do that. In that context, a nonprofit made sense.
There are certain limitations that we have in terms of lobbying. We can lobby as a 501(c)3, and we opt into something called the expenditure test, which gives us some clearer parameters in terms of what we can do. As we go into states, we will be setting up a 501(c)4, which is another type of nonprofit that doesn’t have the same kind of limits on what you can spend on lobbying, which is necessary to be able to take on campaigns of that scale.
Within a nonprofit, it allowed us to do all the activities that we needed to do while not having the financial profit motive that a for-profit corporation would have. It was a good fit overall.
In terms of your other question, which was about turnout?
Hugh: Driving civic engagement and the democratic process.
Aaron: You told your own story as well. It’s so common. We have all been there. I would say we dare to look past the first two candidates. We look to see what other people are thinking in terms of their policy ideas. As we are going through, some of these ideas sound pretty decent. I wouldn’t mind supporting this person. They seem to have good ideas they are bringing to the table. But then you realize you only get one vote. This person is not going to win. I want to be able to have a say in the outcome. If I choose this other person, I’m not really doing that. We find ourselves in this predicament.
The other thing with approval voting that empowers and encourages people is it emboldens them to be able to look past the first couple candidates, not just the ones that are polling the highest at that moment in time. It’s really exciting that this can set off a positive feedback loop in terms of introducing new ideas, allowing ideas to gain traction that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have. We have all these issues that a lot of the folks in office abandoned us on. When the “viable candidates” are the ones that control what we can think about in terms of policy, they can limit us. If they don’t care about a particular issue that the rest of the world does, we don’t get any representation there.
Approval voting makes it sound so that people can dare to run and get traction in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. That’s one thing we see time and time again. Newcomers and third parties are able to gain support in a way that is invisible under our current system and even other methods that involve ranking.
Hugh: Wow, that’s a clear value proposition right there. It encourages more people to get involved on both sides: running for office and being able to interview and have meaningful conversation with people who they may think they are not going to win, but you can still vote for them. Folks, you might have a radical idea, but that’s good. You can sell the radical idea. You keep mentioning “we.” Do you have a team around you?
Aaron: We have a very diligent process for hiring staff. As a result, we have a wonderfully talented team as well as a board of directors. Chris Raleigh, our Director of Campaigns, comes from the political world, helping candidates run. He has done a tremendous job with setting up this structure.
Our Director of Operations and Programs, Caitlyn Alley Peña, has done a wonderful job of making sure we have this backbone in our organization where everything runs smoothly.
Michael Piel is our Director of Philanthropy. He does a wonderful job of making sure our donors are publicly thanked and engaged and are aware of the meaningful work they are allowing to be done.
Our Director of Research, Whitney Hua, has set up this amazing nationwide polling process across all the ballot initiative states to let us know that approval voting is viable in all these states and also giving us the opportunity to plan far into the future. Our team has been wonderful.
Hugh: Choosing the right team and letting them do what you have asked them to do. Here is a good leader, folks. Pick the right team, lets them do their thing.
Highlight the director of philanthropy. He thanks donors, lets them know what’s happening. We often skip over that part. That part is so critical. Let people know what’s going on. When you come around to your annual campaign, you are not trying to climb a hill to see if they will donate again. They are already on board and are convinced you have been good stewards of their money.
Aaron, I am inspired by this. Thank you for your work in improving our communities and systems. What parting challenge or thought would you have for leaders out there as we leave this good interview?
Aaron: I tend to think about problems in a systematic way. I think there are different kinds of tools for this in thinking about what’s important, not trying to take on too much. If you take on too many different things, you can split your effort in terms of what’s most important and do a bunch of things not so great. It’s important to think about where your focus is.
Also, step back and think about the overall outcome that you want. As you’re working on making decisions within the organization to focus on “If we are going to spend resources on this particular activity, does it help us overall achieve this outcome that we want? If it doesn’t logically connect in some way to being able to achieve that outcome, maybe we should do other things.” We are often limited with resources and time. We have to think carefully about these big decisions.
Also, make sure you hire really well.
Hugh: Those are all wise words. Aaron Hamlin, you can find more out about The Center for Election Science at ElectionScience.org. You can find out more about Aaron at AaronHamlin.com. He has some great articles and resources for nonprofit workers. Aaron, thank you for being here and sharing some great resources with us today on The Nonprofit Exchange.
Aaron: That’s sweet. Thank you so much, Hugh.