Back in July, I wrote about the urgent need for reforming the system in which congressional and state legislative districts are drawn. Today, I'd like to write about another reform is our election system that I think is badly needed: the implementation of Ranked Choice Voting. It goes by other names, such as Instant Runoff Voting or Alternative Vote, but in this piece we'll be using the term Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV.
Virtually all elections in the United States, from those in which we choose the President of the United States down to those in which we choose our city council members, are decided by a "winner-take-all" system (called "first-past-the-post" in the United Kingdom and other countries), in which the candidate who receives the largest number of votes wins. Whether the winner actually receives a majority of the vote doesn't matter. In any winner-take-all election with more than two candidates, the winning candidate can actually be a person whom the majority of people voted against.
Consider, for example, the 1992 presidential election, which featured Republican George Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, and independent Ross Perot. Bush received 37.4% of the vote and Ross Perot received 18.9%. Clinton, the winner, received 43%, considerably more than either of the other two candidates, but considerably less than a majority. It's impossible to know, had Perot not been a candidate, how much the 18.9% of the vote that Perot received would have gone to Bush and how much would have gone to Clinton, but the fact remains that the majority of the American electorate voted against Clinton and yet Clinton became President. This was nothing out of the ordinary. Indeed, out of the fifty-seven presidential elections held since the founding of the republic, sixteen have seen the winner take office without having won a majority of the vote.
Winner-take-tall elections limit the choice of a voter to a single choice for a single candidate. Suppose, for example, that a voter in 1992 really wanted Perot to win, but simply couldn't stand Clinton and wanted him to lose. Should he vote for Perot, whom he really wanted to win, or should he vote for Bush, who had a better chance of beating Clinton than Perot did? In other words, can he cast a ballot for the candidate he really likes if it increases the likelihood that the candidate he really dislikes will win the election? This is a conundrum faced by many voters in countless elections in the United States, whether we're choosing the President of the United States or our representative on the local city council, and one I have confronted many times myself.
Ranked Choice Voting differs from winner-take-all elections in that, rather than simply casting a single vote for a single candidate, voters get to rank their favored candidates on a scale, with their first choice ranked as 1, their second choice ranked as 2, and so on. If any candidate wins 50% or more of first choice votes, that candidate wins. If no one does, then the candidate with the lowest number of first choice votes is eliminated and the second choice votes of the voters who choose the eliminated candidate as their first choice are moved into the columns of the other candidates. The process repeated until there a candidate receives more than 50% of the first choice votes.
Imagine a city council election with four candidates, which we'll call A, B, C, and D. First round results are as follows: Candidate A wins 35%, Candidate B wins 30%, Candidate C wins 25%, and Candidate D wins 10%. This means that D is eliminated and his second choice ballots are distributed to the other candidates. Assume that supporters of Candidate D really liked Candidate B, so half of them choose him as their second choice and the remainder were split between Candidate A and Candidate C. This means that the second round results were as follows: Candidate A wins 37.5%, Candidate B wins 35%, and Candidate C wins 27.5%. This means that Candidate C is eliminated and his third choice ballots are distributed between the remaining two candidates. Let's assume that three-fifths of Candidate C backers choose Candidate B as their third choice and two-fifths choose Candidate A. This means that the third results have Candidate A winning 48.5% and Candidate B winning 51.5%. Since Candidate B has secured greater than 50% in this round, he or she is the winner of the election.
Even though Candidate A received more first choice votes than Candidate B, the eventual outcome is more reflective of the actual desires of the electorate than would have been the case in a winner-take-all system. The RCV process sounds complicated, but in the age of computers the result can be known in seconds. As far as the voter himself is concerned, it's as simple as 1-2-3.
The key advantage of RCV is that it eliminates the "spoiler effect" of candidates, which have bedeviled many an American election. Perhaps the best-known example is the role played by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Down ballot, there are many examples over the years of Democrats beating Republicans because Libertarian candidates won a share of the vote larger than the Democratic margin of victory. Under RCV, voters are free to vote for their truly preferred candidates without the risk of helping an unfavored candidate win.
The Republicans and Democrats don't like the idea of RCV, because protecting the two-party stranglehold on American politics is one of the few things the two major parties can agree upon. RCV would give much greater influence to marginalized third parties and independent candidates. At the same time, the prospect of obtaining genuine political influence would encourage such players to move away from the radical fringe and adopt a more serious and practical role in the political process. In the United States, the Green Party is something of a joke, whose members spout outlandish ideas and often adhere to conspiracy theories. By contrast, in many European countries where Green parties actually win elections, the Green Party is a genuine political player which participates in government in a responsible and respected manner (albeit supporting policies with which I often disagree).
In short, RCV would inject American democracy with a breath of fresh air, giving the electorate a means of choosing their representatives in a manner that better reflects the true wishes of the people, which is the whole point of a representative democracy. It would also help break the two-party stranglehold over American politics, which has been a powerful means of the establishment to maintain its control over the functions of government, often to the great detriment of the people.
It's also been pointed out that RCV reduces negative campaigning. After all, in a race with more than two candidates, the people seeking office will need to appeal to the supporters of their opponents in the hopes of gaining their secondary votes in the event that no candidate wins a majority in the first round. Studies by Rutgers University have suggested that negative campaigning in municipal elections using RCV were considerably lower than in similar elections using the traditional winner-take-all systems. Living as we do in an age of hyper-negativity as far as politics are concerned, this is a point not to be underrated.
Skeptics would say that RCV is overly complicated and too cumbersome to be used as an election system in the United States. This is manifestly false. The same Rutgers study that found that RCV reduced negative campaigning also found that the considerable majority of voters in RCV elections found the system simple and easy to understand. Moreover, RCV has been used successfully in many parts of the world, most notably in elections to the Australian House of Representatives and to Australian state legislatures. Systems very similar to RCV are in use in Ireland, Malta, and India, and are also used to elect the Mayor Of London. In the United States, RCV has been used for municipal elections in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other communities. It's been used in primary elections by the Republican Party in Utah and the Democratic Party in Virginia. It's also been used in non-political elections, such as the vote for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In all these cases, RCV has worked just as it is supposed to work.
I consider Ranked Choice Voting to be among the most critical electoral reforms needed in the United States in the early 21st Century. If I had my way, a constitutional amendment would be enacted that simply read, "All elections for public office in the United States of America, on all levels of government, shall be conducted using a system of ranked choice voting." Those few words would go a very long way towards more firmly establishing democracy in this nation and represent a big step forward towards the ultimate realization of our country's potential.