“The big takeaways that motivate me are a belief that the concept of democracy that the founders inherited to a certain extent from William Penn, who had inherited it from the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York, this frame of government where everybody has a voice and the people who are governed to have a say in how they’re governed and who governs them. That’s a super important system to me. And even though in some respects, democracy, I would say is under fire around the world in places like Hungary and in Russia, and even in the United States, some might say, I think it’s awfully important to build the best systems that we can to represent people and to give people power and to empower other people to make decisions on behalf of their constituents.

And so I see that as very important, and I also think that we have a pretty unique perspective on that as Americans, we think so much about individualism in the United States, and in some ways I suspect many people, maybe some listeners would even say, “Well, that’s what makes America great,” but it also means that we’re sometimes outside of the lived experience of what data from other countries tells us and what new rules and systems could be adopted and innovated to make sure that people are better represented and have a better voice in government.”

That’s Cynthia Richie Terrell, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, discussing her mission as the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and someone who has spent much of her life in public service.

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Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service? A podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D. C. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. And each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service. Today’s guest is Cynthia Richie Terrell, the founder and executive director of Represent Women, an organization that advocates for reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Cynthia has been in public service for much of her life. She helped found FairVote a group that is helping update America’s election laws, and she has worked for presidential, congressional, state and local campaigns. You can learn more about Cynthia Richie Terrell by visiting representwomen.org. Cynthia, welcome to the Why Public Service? Podcast.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Thank you.

Kevin Kosar:

As our listeners have heard, you’ve held many different positions in public service. For today’s episode, I wanted to speak to you both about your leadership of Represent Women and your career in governance reform generally. So my first question for you is why did you found Represent Women?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Well, that’s a great question. Thanks so much for having me on your podcast. I have always been interested in politics. I graduated from college on a Friday and I got a job working on a US Senate campaign on Monday of the next week. And so there was a very short period of time when I was not employed in politics. And since then, I’ve worked on a lot of different campaigns at all levels of government. And I’ve been involved in the founding of a couple other nonprofits, notably FairVote, which is a organization that works on voting system reform in the United States. And as the centennial of suffrage was approaching about five years ago, I began to think more in an intellectually rigorous way about the fact that the United States ranked so far below other countries in women’s representation. And while I had always known that there was a connection to voting systems and rules that other countries used, it occurred to me that there was no organization in the United States working on studying those rules and best practices and trying to figure out ways to advance those best practices in the United States.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

So that’s why I decided to found Represent Women relate to fill what I saw as a gaping hole in the conversation about representation and about rules and systems that advance representation for women.

Kevin Kosar:

So you founded this organization, but you also serve as the executive director. What are the duties of the executive director?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Great question. I was hoping maybe you would tell me, but this is, as far as I know the duties really, I think, require a sense of vision about you want the organization to go, what the mission is, and then what the strategy is to achieve that mission, all the while still maintaining the current day to day work, but also thinking about what you need to do each month and then by the end of the year, and then ideally thinking about how your organization, or in my case how Represent Women fits into the ecosystem and supports and reflects the best work of other people in the community of people that are working on women’s representation, how I can add to that, and then also how to build the kinds of partnerships that are necessary to really be successful in the longterm. So I think the duties of a executive director really go from the nuts and bolts, making sure your system’s in order and that your books are audited and all your forms are filed and so forth, hiring staff, advertising interns, and then really delving into the program planning that’s required to meet your goals and then figuring out how to work well in the community of people with whom we share goals.

Kevin Kosar:

That’s a lot. Which leads to my next question is what does the average day look like? Or is there no average day?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Well, it’s quite different now, isn’t it in this time of working at home and many Zoom calls everyday. I think this might be my fourth or fifth digital interview or conversation today already. The average day, I think for me is maybe somewhat different from some nonprofit leaders because my staff is so small that each of us plays a role in a lot of the basic elements of the organization, as well as some of those more strategic planning questions. For example, today I have been on a call with my admin intern who is looking at tagging our supporters and tagging all the work that we’ve written so that people can find it when they’re looking on our website and find themselves. I spoke with our outreach team about a summer speaker series that we’re doing on a range of topics related to women’s representation.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

I met with our team that’s working on a presentation on international women’s representation, which I think is very important and interesting. We’re putting the final touches on that. And then I also need to carve out some time today to do outreach to potential donors with a new report that we have on the impact of rank choice voting for women and people of color. So reaching out to people who I know share an interest in that work, but haven’t yet donated, but I’d like them to donate so that I can build our staff. So it’s really that range of things, even getting back to the international chart, for example, just looking at voting systems used around the world and trying to understand how to really define them and then how that information can be useful to a US audience. I did a lot of that today as well.

Kevin Kosar:

Wow, you’ve worked, and it’s quite rare, at all tiers of government, federal level, state level, local level. You’ve had communications with people who are campaigning at those levels, people work at those levels. Have you drawn any general lessons about governance from these experience?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

I would say it’s awfully important to have a goal that you’re aspiring to. It’s very important to have a big vision and to really have a sense of what brings you to this work. What brings me to this work, I think if I didn’t wake up every morning with a sense of excitement about engaging with a new audience or doing new research, launching new inquiries into women’s representation in certain categories that we haven’t thought about, if I didn’t have that sense of passion, I think it would be hard to do the work well. At the same time, I think it’s awfully important to listen to the people around you, to be a good a moderator, I guess, of what’s aspirational, but really what’s also practical and strategic. So it could be that we want to get five reports out and it’d be great if we could get them all out by the end of the week, but that’s just not possible to do a good job on five different reports.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

So I think being a good leader is really about having a sense of where you want to go, but also hearing others and engaging others and then evolving. And if a way I’ve been thinking about something or talking about something it turns out really isn’t the best way to do it, it’s, I think, having the humility to recognize when it’s time to retool and to rethink how we’re talking about how we’re approaching things. So I think of it as a really a learning process, but also keeping my eyes on the prize all the time.

Kevin Kosar:

As a followup on lessons learned. When I read your work, when I listened to you speak, I often see the words, systems, rules. What are the big takeaways about systems and rules in terms of governance and governance reform?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Well, that’s a great question, and really, probably one of my favorite questions. And sadly, I think not one that many Americans engage with enough. The big takeaways that motivate me are a belief that the concept of democracy that the founders inherited to a certain extent from William Penn, who had inherited it from the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York, this frame of government where everybody has a voice and the people who are governed to have a say in how they’re governed and who governs them. That’s a super important system to me. And even though in some respects, democracy, I would say is under fire around the world in places like Hungary and in Russia, and even in the United States, some might say, I think it’s awfully important to build the best systems that we can to represent people and to give people power and to empower other people to make decisions on behalf of their constituents.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

And so I see that as very important, and I also think that we have a pretty unique perspective on that as Americans, we think so much about individualism in the United States, and in some ways I suspect many people, maybe some listeners would even say, “Well, that’s what makes America great,” but it also means that we’re sometimes outside of the lived experience of what data from other countries tells us and what new rules and systems could be adopted and innovated to make sure that people are better represented and have a better voice in government. And so I guess I see as my challenge in this work to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States is to bring a systems thinking lens, a data driven lens to this work of getting more women in office. My goal really, or part of my strategy, is to help people pivot exclusively from a how to prepare the individual person to run for office, but how to prepare the system so that individuals can run successfully in it.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

And there are a lot of steps in that process, but I think when we embrace the fact that systems really impact outcomes, I think we’re all better off. And I’ll just mention that this weekend was the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which I like to talk about a lot, because it was a systems reform that advanced opportunities for people who simply didn’t have access to those opportunities before it existed. And I think those systems strategies have been used for Title IX, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, even suffrage itself are all examples of changing rules and systems and not the individuals impacted by those rules and systems. And one of the advantages I see of that is that kind of change, I think, is the most enduring kind of change and is a kind of a change that everybody can get on board with because they see it’s just leveling the playing field for whatever group of people are disadvantaged by the current system.

Kevin Kosar:

This systems approach to governance for form. That was what you were doing and continue to do also with your other work with rank choice voting, correct?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Correct. Exactly. Yes.

Kevin Kosar:

And for listeners who are not familiar with rank choice voting, can you explain why this is a systems change and why it’s advantageous?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Sure. Well rank choice voting is a great example of a mechanism to ensure that the most voters can cast votes for candidates who represent them in an election. And it replaces the winner take all voting system, which the United States inherited from the UK and which is used by Canadians and French, and still a number of countries use it, but the largest type of democracy or the most quickly growing type of democracy with new democracies, new as in, in the last 100 years or so is a system that’s based more on the concept of a proportional representation system where votes really translate into seats effectively. And what rank choice voting does is, is akin to that. In that it lets voters say, “Here’s my first choice. Here’s my second choice. Here’s my third choice on a ballot.” And if somebody wins for an executive race like mayor or in a presidential primary or governor, then that candidate wins.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

But if somebody gets under 50% of the vote, in other words, a plurality, but not a majority of the vote, then the last place finishers eliminated and their votes are then shared with the remaining candidates. And if there’s a majority winner after that process, then they win. But the process continues until a majority winner is selected. The reason I think that reform is important in a foundational way is I think that it helps the United States meet the aspirations of the founders, which was to ensure that the majority of people really have a say in who governs us and the outcome of elections. It’s important in my particular work on women’s representation, because as it turns out, having a ranked ballot means that there’s more civility in election. If you and I are both running for a seat, I want your supporters to rank me second on their ballot.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

So it’s a way of building in an incentive for civility, which helps address polarization in these very polarized times we’re living in. And it also can cost less because it replaces runoffs, which often cost quite a bit of money to run in. So that’s another benefit of it. And then it also, of course, eliminate split votes among like-minded candidates. So that’s another reason that women benefit from it, but really in many respects, everybody benefits from it. And it’s actually being used now by democratic and republican parties for internal elections. And in primaries, the republican party just use it in primaries in Virginia, for Congress a couple of weeks ago, and a nice, a great woman, Alicia Andrews won, but it’s also been used in presidential caucuses and primaries this year. And it’s used in a few dozen jurisdictions in the United States. The state of Maine uses it. And then it’s on the ballot or being considered in terms of legislation in, I think, I don’t know, a few dozens of states have some legislation pending in the state legislature. So it’s an exciting time for systems thinking in that regard.

Kevin Kosar:

Improving the system, improving the incentives, improving the results. That makes a lot of sense. Going back to your leadership position at Represent Women, what’s the toughest part of your current job?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

TO be honest, it’s having such a small staff. I feel like we have so many, I think, great ideas and I don’t see other people working on them. And I wish we had the resources to be researching things, more areas of representation, best practices that exists in different circumstances. And then really could be doing a better job packaging that data, helping to visualize that data, and then sharing it with a wider audience. It’s awfully tough, we have a three person stacks, but I think the interest in our work is growing. We had, oh, I don’t know, 160 or so intern applications this for the summer. So there’s a lot of interest in our work, but we need more staff to get it done. That’s the bottom line.

Kevin Kosar:

So for my closing question, I always ask my guests why public service? You could have chosen another career path, but you’ve taken your life and devoted it to the hard work of improving governance, why?

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

I think part of it is that I’m a Quaker. My family has been Quaker for the last 400 years or so. So I believe deeply in that value of adding to society, that that’s our purpose is to make the world a better place. I guess that’s just been so much part of my upbringing and what my family has done. And pretty much all of the people before me have contributed in some way or another. So in that sense, it comes very naturally. I also, I had a father who was a philosopher. He taught at Colgate University and he really thought all the time about our ethical obligation to other people and that idea of a social and political contract among citizens in a society and what it means to be an ethically contributing member of a society. I talked a lot about the categorical imperative when I was growing up, Kant’s categorical imperative, probably more than most eight year old girls, I would say.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Actually, to be honest, it never occurred to me to do anything other than, than public service in some way. Maybe it’s a little grandiose of me, but I feel like we need more people who bring a passion and a love of country and a love of people all together and really help people out. I feel like I certainly get a lot of value from that. And maybe it’s a privileged thing to be able to spend the time doing this work. I readily admit that, but I’m certainly driven by my Quaker ancestors and my parents and the people around me who were all – I certainly fit into my bubble.

Kevin Kosar:

Someone has to do the work. And my hope with this podcast is that more listeners will decide to choose public service. Cynthia, thank you for joining me today.

Cynthia Richie Terrell:

Thank you so much for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service? A podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter @RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreet.org. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor Parker Tant from parkerpodcasting.com.