NPR: In D.C., A Politics Camp For Girls

July 5, 2017

This year’s Young Women’s Political Leadership program participants were featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

The Inspirational Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

May 2, 2017

As a Latina working in the women in politics world, I often push for greater representation of Latinas. We are underrepresented in the halls of government, and our stories and leadership matter. When I was just starting at Running Start, I had the honor to meet Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina elected to Congress. She couldn’t have been warmer or more enthusiastic about our work. That was plenty for me to become a fan, but she added icing to the cake.  A few days later, I received a letter of support from her—on her official stationery! It now sits in a special spot on the windowsill by my desk, framed and proudly displayed.

The Congresswoman’s support for Running Start has never waned. She served as our 2016 Republican Co-Chair, she’s hosted several of our Running Start/Walmart Star Fellows as Congressional interns, she made a speech on the House floor in praise of our mission (below), and she is always one of the first elected officials to say yes when we ask her to speak to our young women to inspire them.

I was sad to hear the Congresswoman announce that she will not seek reelection in 2018. We will miss one of our best champions in Congress and one of the best role models for girls and young women interested in politics. Just this year, two more Latinas followed in her footsteps and started their first terms in Congress: Congresswoman Nanette Barragán and the first Latina Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto.

To give her the sendoff she deserves, I reached out to some of our alums who have worked in her office and asked them what it meant to them to work for Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. They all wrote back right away—I couldn’t believe it; that never happens! But the Congresswoman is special. The speed of their responses was a testament to the loyalty and dedication she inspires. 


Lucinda Borque, Fall 2015 Star Fellow @Andrealucinda

I was one of the lucky ones. I say this because I interned for the honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. If you ever visited Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office, you would be reenergized with her famous Cuban cafecito (coffee) and her staff. I was asked what Ileana Ros-Lehtinen means to me and I find myself lost for words. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opened doors for me—I did not know what a Republican truly was until I interned for one. She truly reaches across the aisle, someone who always educates, and someone who truly cares about the present and future of our country.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a woman of honesty, integrity, and dedication. She is the voice for the voiceless: Ros-Lehtinen is a woman of character who always speaks her mind and speaks the mind of her people. She takes the time to speak to her constituents and she takes the time to get to know her interns. (I was able to intern for the Congresswoman after completing the Running Start Star Fellowship.) She even gave a speech praising my mother for all the hard work she has done raising her daughters. Being a Latina and a first generation college graduate in my family, and hearing those words being said to my mother will forever be engraved in my memory. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is an inspiration and I thank her for allowing me to be a part of her world. She is my inspiration to keep striving and when I run for office, I can look back and know, I am a lucky one!    


Alexandria Murphy, Fall 2016 Star Fellow @murphalexandria

I am saddened to see that my former boss Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is retiring, but amazed at the incredible career that she has had in public service. I have no doubt that because of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, many future leaders will emerge through her inspiration and leadership. Working for the Congresswoman as a Running Start Star Fellow was simply the greatest time of my life so far. Each day we were greeted in the office with cheerful hellos and cafecito, and the Congresswoman listened to our updates on life, even from the interns. She took the time to make every single person feel important and worthy of being there. Working on Capitol Hill is magnificent in and of itself, but to work for a female Member who so dearly cares about her district and her staff and who paves the way for those that come after her is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t have imagined being a part of a better experience in Washington. There are three portraits in the Capitol which inspire me: Jeannette Rankin, Shirley Chisholm, and (in the House Foreign Affairs Committee Room, as a beacon of hope for future women in public service) the undeniably resilient and forward thinking Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.


Taylor Johnson, Fall 2015 Star Fellow LinkedIn

Photo by Erin Schaff

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen has been an inspiration to me and thousands of young women across our country with political aspirations. Many know her as the first Cuban-American Member of Congress, the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress, or the first woman to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I know her as the woman that other Members of Congress look up to. I have come to know her as a fearless individual who never hesitates to put her party lines aside to stand up for what she believes in and what is truly best for South Florida. During my time in Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s office, I have sacrificed many early mornings and a few late nights and I have developed a serious dependency on Cuban coffee, but all of those sacrifices become worth it in a job where you truly believe in what you do and the Member that you represent. She has taught me to never give up or give in when you believe in something, and that having a crazy work schedule is no excuse to not play on the softball team. She has set the bar on having a successful marriage and loving your children unconditionally. One of the things I will miss the most about the Congresswoman will be the daily phone calls that always begin with a loud, “Dexter Wayne! Love of my life!” that bring all business in the office to an immediate halt.

Above all, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen taught me to not sweat the small stuff, to always take time to laugh throughout the day, even when there are a million and one things left to do before the sun sets. The personal impact she has had on me will stay with me throughout my life, and I could not be more grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me while working for Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. I am honored to serve her and the constituents of the 27th Congressional District of Florida through her last day in Congress.


Alexandra Curtis, Fall 2014 Star Fellow @AllieCurtisRI

My time as a Running Start Star Fellow in Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s office was invaluable to me and many other Running Start alums and how we see our place in the chambers of Congress. Ileana took a genuine interest in her interns, and would even ask us about our thoughts on issues and legislation. The fact that Republicans and Democrats alike are saddened by the news of her retirement is a testament to her honor and legacy. She has been one of the most effective leaders I have seen in action and thanks to the example she set, I left her office knowing that as a young woman I have a place in Congress and I am not only capable of serving in that capacity—I am needed. The Congresswoman embodies all that Running Start stands for and I’m grateful for her exemplary dedication to the program and her leadership in Congress.



Sara Blanco is a women’s empowerment advocate. She graduated from Swarthmore in 2012, where she studied English literature and gender and sexuality studies, and joined Running Start soon after. Currently pursuing a master of public policy at the George Washington University, Sara co-chairs their Women’s Leadership Fellows Program after participating last year. Sara lives in her hometown, Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of Running Start.

Running Start Takes Sole Ownership of Elect Her Program

November 16, 2016


Running Start Takes Sole Ownership of Elect Her Program
Founded in 2007, Running Start Has Trained More than 10,000 Young Women

Wednesday, November 16, 2016—Washington, DC—Since 2009, Elect Her has trained 7,500 college women to run for student government. Running Start, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC, has just transitioned from partnering to taking sole ownership of the program. Elect Her was developed with AAUW, the American Association of University Women. Running Start credits a generous $100,000 grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation with making this change possible.

“We are so excited to take on the whole scope of Elect Her as we grow the program,” said Running Start’s President and Founder,Susannah Wellford. “This allows us to plan a smart, strong expansion of Elect Her. We thank AAUW for working with us on the program over the years and for making this a smooth transition.”

Elect Her is a daylong workshop that trains 1,750 college women at 50 colleges each year in the practical skills they need to lead on campus. It has been held at 86 schools and in 36 states (as well as in Mexico and Jamaica), for a total of 225 workshops. About 50% of participants and 50% of trainers are women of color and 99% of 2015 participants reported that they would recommend Elect Her to a friend. Of the 2015 participants who reported running for student government office, 76% won their elections.

Elect Her addresses a leadership gender gap in colleges and universities that continues in the halls of government. Congress is less than 20% women and more than 50% of Congresswomen participated in student government. Elect Her addresses the lack of parity in campus leadership and trains young women in the skills they can use to run for public office. Running Start works to build the pipeline of women candidates and Elect Her plays a crucial role in that effort.

“As a young woman who has personally seen what Elect Her can do, I am thrilled that Running Start will use this opportunity to bring it to even more young women,” said Allyson Carpenter, alumna. After participating in Elect Her, Allyson ran for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Washington, DC and became the city’s youngest-ever elected official. This year, she became the first woman elected President of Howard University’s Student Association. “I can’t wait to see what Running Start can do with Elect Her moving forward!”

“At Coca-Cola, we are investing in and supporting programs that empower women and girls” said Katherine Rumbaugh, Vice President of Government Relations, Coca-Cola North America. “Through programs like Running Start we can help empower young girls and women to reach their dreams.” Thanks to Coca-Cola, Running Start can continue to create a movement of young women with the skills to confidently take on leadership positions at their colleges and universities who also know that they are qualified and ready to seek public office.

In partnership with the National Campus Leadership Council, Running Start will hold an Elect Her Summit February 17-19, 2017, in Washington, DC, to celebrate relaunching the program. The Elect Her Summit will bring together women in college student government to reinforce their leadership and build a network of women ready to lead in politics.

Running Start is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to training young women to run for political office. Find Running Start on Twitter @runningstart, on Facebook at, and on the web at


Melissa Richmond, Vice President, Running Start
O: 202-223-3895 | C: 818-903-9150 |

Available on Twitter:



For a PDF of this press release, click here.



Get to the Top Together: Five ways women can elevate each other through peer-to-peer sponsorship.

September 26, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download-5I met Alyse Nelson in my late twenties when I was a young associate at a law firm and she was a young State Department staffer. Now I am the president of the national nonprofit Running Start, and Alyse is the CEO of the global nonprofit Vital Voices. Over the almost 20 years since we first met in a meeting where we were the youngest people in the room, we have taken every opportunity to help each other get to the top. I have nominated her for awards, and she has nominated me for awards. She has spoken at my events, and I have spoken at her events. When we have difficult business decisions to make, we call each other to talk them over. We introduce each other to helpful people, and we invite each other to strategically important events. I can’t count the number of times Alyse has introduced me to people by saying, “This is Susannah Wellford, President of Running Start. You should know her – she does great work!” And I do the same for her.

This type of peer-to-peer sponsorship is incredibly important. It not only credentials a rising leader as someone to pay attention to, it also helps make leadership less lonely when you can rise alongside a colleague instead of climbing the ladder alone. Different from traditional sponsorship or mentorship, peer-to-peer sponsorship is something that you can start doing right away in your career to elevate your friends and colleagues and to get the support you need to rise. Men already do this for each other (think meetings on the golf course), and we should get smart about doing it too.

Here’s a blueprint for concrete ways you can sponsor the women coming up beside you:

Amplify. The Washington Post had a great piece last week on how senior women in the White House “amplified” each other’s opinions in high level meetings: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution – and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” So make sure you speak up to support your colleagues, both in professional and social settings.

Repost. When a Facebook or LinkedIn contact of yours posts an article or an accomplishment, repost with a positive comment. Better yet, post something positive yourself when you hear good news about a peer’s success. Most women still are not as comfortable touting their success as men are, so you can help by posting for them.

Nominate. When you see a call for nominations for an award, nominate a woman in your network. Nominating someone is not a short process, but if your peer gets the award it can be life-changing for them. Take the time to nominate your peer and make sure to tell them when you do. Even if they don’t win, they’ll know you truly support them. Google “nominate a woman” to see dozens of opportunities.

Invite. When you are invited to a work-related event, ask for a plus one and instead of bringing a date, bring a woman in your professional network. Having a date at a networking event is stressful anyway – you should be there to meet as many people as possible which is hard to do with someone on your arm. The key to success in politics and business is networking and being in the right rooms. So help a colleague out by bringing her along and then talking her up to the people you meet.

Recommend. When you are asked who would be good to sit on a panel, attend an event or fill a job, put the women in your network forward. Positive word of mouth goes a long way, and when you promote your peers, you help to get their names known. Remember that “binders full of women” comment from the 2012 election? Well, you actually should have your own binder full of amazing women at the ready when you are asked, “Who would be good for this?”

The great thing about all of these tips is that if you do these things for your peers, they will reciprocate and do them for you. Leadership for women has for too long fallen into the “crabs in a barrel” trap: If only one woman can get to the top, she must do whatever she can to hold the rest of the women down. We are better than that. We need to pull each other up each step of the way so that we can make it to the top together. And an added bonus: Along the way these peers who you support often grow into your closest friends.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Leading as an Introvert

September 26, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

downloadWhen I was a child, I realized that I liked being alone – and that most people didn’t. When other girls begged to go to sleepovers or to have playdates after school, I was happier alone in my room, cozy under the covers reading a book. Even my choice of friends reflected this preference: My best friend knew that when she came over she should find something to play with in my house while I did my own thing, sometimes in another room. We got along great.

This wasn’t easy as a kid, and it’s not much easier as an adult. The world loves extroverts, those people who are always “on,” who love interacting and engaging with people and who look totally comfortable with the spotlight on them. The people we see in the news every day – politicians, CEOs, media stars – are all perceived as extroverts, and their extroversion seems integral to their success. So where are the role models for an introvert who wants to lead?

When I speak to groups of young women, I ask them to raise their hands if they think the world would be a better place if more women were in power. Every hand in the room goes up, no matter where I am in the world. But when I ask them to raise their hands if they want to be that woman in power, almost all of the hands stay down. Why don’t they want to run? Well, there are lots of reasons, but one I am so tired of hearing is: “I am a behind-the-scenes person.” When I dig deeper into what they mean by this, they often tell me that they are introverts, and that they could never do the things you need to be a candidate: ask people for money, speak in public, do media interviews, knock on strangers’ doors.

The reason I am bothered by this response is that I strongly believe that anyone can learn to lead. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, speaking in public is hard. You are not going to be good at it the first few times you do it, no matter what your personality, and you only get better through lots of practice and experience. The same goes for asking people for money or their vote. We are all uneasy with asking others to invest in us, and it takes real skill and practice to feel comfortable with the ask. No one is born with these skills, and everyone can learn them.

As an introvert, I know what I am talking about here. Years ago I had the opportunity to become president of the Women Under Forty PAC, a group I had cofounded. I really wanted the job, but I knew that stepping up to president would mean doing all the things I “couldn’t” do as an introvert, particularly public speaking. I had a long talk with myself and realized that this was a fear I needed to overcome because I was deeply invested in the mission of the organization. A few weeks later I was invited to speak on a panel at American University, and I was both incredibly nervous and pretty terrible. But the next time I was invited to speak at an event I was better, and the time after that I even enjoyed myself a bit, and the time after that I felt fairly competent.

Now, as the president of the nonprofit Running Start, I probably look like an extrovert. I speak in public frequently, throw myself into every networking opportunity I can find, and fundraise like a pro. But I am still an introvert: After a speaking engagement or networking with folks at an event, I recharge by being alone. While some people get their energy from being around other people, I get my energy from being by myself. Once I understood this, leadership got easier.

In Susan Cain’s excellent book “Quiet,” she posits that some of the best leaders are actually introverts because introverts tend to think before they act and to focus more on other people than on themselves. And clearly many of the people in the public eye who we think of as extroverts are actually introverts in disguise. So I make sure the young women I speak to know that it takes people from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of personalities to produce the best leaders – and that they should stop hiding behind the scenes if their real talents lie in taking the lead.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

What Can Politics Learn from Uber?

September 7, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download (3)In the business world, if you don’t keep your customers happy, you’ll be out of a job. Consumers who love the product experience and the company behind it will buy more, be more loyal and will even be willing to use their social capital to spread the love. Businesses have done a great job lately of listening to consumers and innovating systems that can bridge the gap between customer satisfaction and corporate success. Politics has been much slower to respond to this new customer-driven, tech-focused economy – and would be wise to take notes from the business world.

First, let’s look at how businesses used to be. Industrial-age businesses were designed to produce their products better, faster and cheaper. They were hierarchical and often HIPPO-driven (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). This worked because in a non-tech focused world, time horizons were much longer, competition was seldom global and workers had one kind of job year after year. The mission was to create consistent and predictable business outcomes through astute management. And it was feasible that a leader at the top could make definitive decisions for the whole company based on a tiny fraction of the knowledge available today.

Modern businesses are a different animal. They are tech-native, consumer-focused, globally connected and growth-oriented. Successful ones have shed the outmoded operating and leadership models of the last century and are experimenting with new ways to do business, lead people and interact with customers. They lure diverse talent using powerful missions and values and unleash that talent to tackle new challenges.

Our leaders in government and political institutions can learn a lot from modern business to adapt to the world’s changing landscape. So, what can politics do to respond to these demands?

For starters, harnessing social technology to connect with constituents on the real issues facing their lives is right in front of us. We can also embrace innovative solutions that break down the power structures that help old school leaders prevail, including the power of money and the power that parties play in who gets elected. What if politics tomorrow looked more like Uber? Uber creates an incentive for the two stakeholders – the passenger and the driver – to treat each other in a civilized manner. Both parties are accountable for their actions. If the driver is late or doesn’t drive safely, he gets one star instead of five. If the passenger is rude or abusive, her reviews are likewise downgraded. Dual accountability driven across a social business platform powers a system that is better for everyone.

But we have a long way to go before we can get the Uber experience in politics. Here are some standout attributes that the world of politics can adopt from modern business to create a better system for both voters and candidates:

Become Consumer-Focused. Use technology to access the customer voice, then use it to guide and refine outcomes. Social businesses connect buyers and suppliers and foster conversations from which insights can be gleaned and put to use in developing new paths forward.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.


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Chris Baer leads Global Experience Design for Marriott International’s Learning and Development practice and has a background in brand marketing, operations and digital experience design. He holds a certification in coaching from Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership and is a graduate of RISD. Chris is a contemporary artist in his free time.


Cultivating the Old Girls Club

September 7, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download (2)I got a card in the mail last week that I can’t stop thinking about. I’d lost a close friend, and Patti Russo wanted me to know that she was thinking about me and hoped I was doing OK. I also got a text from Anne Moses telling me she was there if I needed to talk.

Why is this unusual? Because Patti, Anne and I run national political organizations training women to run (Women’s Campaign School at Yale, Ignite and Running Start). We are direct competitors, fighting for the same funding, the same publicity and a share of the same demographic. But the women’s political world that we belong to is groundbreaking in our commitment to work together to get more women elected, rather than to pull each other down to elevate our own groups.

When I speak to women around the world about barriers to leadership, I consistently hear that other women are their worst enemies. This is so widespread that I’d put it in the top 10 of reasons why women feel they can’t succeed. Women are said to be the worst bosses, not supportive of their peers’ ambition and reluctant to pull up those coming behind them. The “mean girls” stereotype is alive and well. Meanwhile, the men have theOld Boys Club which still seals deals on the golf course or over a cigar at the club. Theysponsor each other while we too often hold each other back. How can women hope to succeed in business and politics when we aren’t opening doors for each other?

A few years ago, philanthropist Swanee Hunt created a group called Political Parity to address how we can do a better job of getting more women elected to political office. She invited the leaders of women’s political empowerment groups from around the country to meet regularly to share ideas and find ways to work together. And while I had a passing acquaintance with these women before our Parity meetings, it was at these day long sessions that I developed real relationships with many of them that were both personally fulfilling and that led to innovative partnerships. These meetings remind us that our greatest strength comes from putting our heads together to solve problems, and that as allies we are far more powerful than we would be in our individual silos, carefully guarding our ideas.

At an impromptu lunch this July during the Democratic National Convention, Russo, Erin Loos Cutraro (She Should Run), , Erin Vilardi (Vote Run Lead), Cynthia Terrell (Representation 2020), Tiffany Dufu (Levo League), Jessica Grounds (Project Mine the Gap) and I sat together talking. It can be lonely being the head of an organization, difficult to be a working mother, hard to navigate fundraising, board relationships and keeping staff happy. We talked equally about personal trials and business opportunities. We laughed a lot. I am so grateful to this network of women who support me and make me smarter about how I do my job.

And I’m glad that we are setting a good example for the women we serve that we are stronger when we work together.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

Clinton Can’t Break Every Glass Ceiling

September 7, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

download (1)In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Yet, 45 years later, black women in the South like Annie Lee Cooper still could not register to vote because of Jim Crow laws. Cooper was denied the right to vote over three times in Selma, Alabama, and upon finally successfully registering, she was fired from her job.

Experiences like this are why black women in America cannot fully identify with white women. As black women, we’ve faced exclusion from the Women’s Suffrage Movement,demeaning stereotypes of deviance and the relentless struggle of defending our femininity. Sojourner Truth attests in her infamous speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” that black women weren’t included in the idea of the ideal American woman. The neglect and invisibility of black women’s existence and their struggle is still ongoing today with issues that black men tend to be the face of, such as police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline.

And so, as a black woman, when I hear Hillary Clinton say, “I can’t believe we just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet,” I feel that the symbol of her presidency doesn’t really break the glass ceiling for me, even with her platform of avid feminism for women as a whole.

The term “glass ceiling” first emerged in the 1980s to describe the transparent barrier that prevents women and other minorities from climbing up the corporate ladder in the workplace. Particularly in the field of politics, women have historically been underrepresented in leadership. If Clinton wins the presidency, it will be a monumental step for women towards more representative government. To some, the election of this country’s first female president means the shattering of the ancient glass ceiling that hangs over the head of every woman who enters politics.

But the glass ceiling is more than a vivid metaphor of exclusivity that will disappear after one election; it exists as a barrier within the minds of many young women in the way that they view themselves and their capabilities as women of different races, sexual orientations and belief systems. Until every young woman can look at the country’s leaders in political office and see an accurate representation of themselves, the glass ceiling will still exist.

Clinton is a 68-year old straight white woman, and as inspirational as her candidacy and possible presidency might be, there are still young American women who would never consider running for office because of their intersectional identities. Clinton cannot represent every type of woman in America because she has not had the same experience as a black woman, a Latina woman, a Muslim woman, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman or many others. Although she supports many issues and policies that I believe can positively impact women as a whole, I cannot fully relate to her on the experience of being a woman in America.

Representation is about more than the issues that a leader supports; it’s about the archetypal image of a politician being one that reflects every constituent. For me, seeing a black woman serving in a position like president of the United States would break a completely different glass ceiling because of the empowerment that comes from knowing that it is possible to overcome the struggles unique to women like myself. In the United States, fewer than one in four political leaders are women, and within that group, women of color are terribly underrepresented. We still have a long way to go before the glass ceiling for every American woman is broken.

downloadReniya Dinkins was a Summer 2016 intern at Running Start. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she is currently a rising junior at Columbia University with a major in political science and concentration in sociology.

The Second Choice, and the Right One

August 22, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

This election season, I have spent a lot of time looking into innovations to make politics better represent us. From using technology to make voting more accessible, to apps that make us more politically aware, to campaigns to bring in new voices, I am encouraged that there is a groundswell to change politics as we know it. This summer I got to test out ranked choice voting to see firsthand whether it really does result in a better choice for the majority of voters. Here’s what I found.

downloadAt our week-long political leadership program in June, Running Start held a campaign simulation. Our 60 high school young women from across the country divided into six teams and choose from a hat to see which campaign positions they would hold, including who would be the candidate. Normally in these simulations, the participants volunteer to be the candidate and they tend to be who you would expect: confident, extroverted and practiced at public speaking. But in ours the candidates were thrust into the spotlight, which took some of them far out of their comfort zones.

This is how Nen Mai, a quiet Kachin girl from Houston ended up being one of our six candidates. Nen is a passionate young woman who emigrated a few years ago from the Kachin State in Burma without knowing a word of English. The first day of the program I never heard her say a word. When she finally did speak to me her voice was so quiet that I had to lean in to hear her. Definitely not the typical candidate. But Nen was at Running Start for a reason. She was an ethnic Kachin and her family had suffered back in Burma. She was granted asylum in America and felt lucky to be here. But she quickly learned that no one in America had ever heard of the Kachin people or had any idea of the persecution they were suffering. She came to Running Start to learn how to be a voice for her community.

Running Start attracts many students like Nen. They have something they want to say, but they don’t know how to be the messenger. They are quiet, shy, unsure of their voice. These people don’t usually get much of a chance to influence others. Especially in politics, we tend to favor the natural extroverts – people who are comfortable in their own skin, socially gifted, and who can speak with a loud, clear voice. These are not always the best people to elect, but just like in high school, politics can be a popularity contest where the captain of the football team is the most likely choice.

So during our campaign simulation I watched Nen struggle. Making a campaign video, speaking in public and networking to support her candidacy were all hard for her. She was not a natural. But she learned some things. If you have a quiet voice, a microphone can make all the difference. Owning your shyness can be incredibly endearing to people. And persistently advocating for your cause will get people to listen to you, if not the first time then certainly by the fourth.

Nen made a big impression on all of us, but I didn’t expect her to win the overall race. The other candidates were strong and confident. Their videos were more polished, their social media campaigns cooler with better graphics, and they were master networkers. The final day the candidates gave speeches. Nen’s was not the conventional best – she was awkward and halting in her speech – but she spoke passionately about her Kachin identity and her mission to educate the world about their struggle. People roared when she was done – in part because they knew how hard it was for her to be up there.

When it came time for voting we gave the students a choice: they could vote to elect their first choice (winner takes all) or they could try ranked choice voting where voters rank candidates in their order of choice, with an instant runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent. They overwhelmingly chose to use ranked choice voting. Then we voted twice. First, everyone cast one vote for their first choice. Next we voted again and had them rank the candidates in order of preference, one through six.

Here is what we learned: While the traditional vote yielded a great choice, she only got 30 percent of the total votes. 70 percent of the voters had chosen someone else and were disappointed. With ranked choice voting, no one got over 50 percent of the vote and so the instant runoff was triggered. The result was that everyone’s second choice won with huge support. And, no surprise, it was Nen. Everyone was happy that Nen had won – they all supported her almost as much as their first choice candidate. Ranked choice voting gave the group a consensus winner – as well as allowing someone decidedly non-mainstream to prevail. Maybe it is time to look at new voting systems so that we are all happier with who we elect.

Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.