Electing Our Way to a Better Future: The Promise of Ranked-Choice Voting

The United States prides itself as the birthplace of modern democracy, embracing the many freedoms and liberties that our Founding Fathers enshrined in the Constitution.  The freedom, and the diversity that derives from it, are evident throughout society in businesses, philosophies, and varying ways of life. However, elections, the most fundamental aspect in the great project of democracy, lack this freedom. This lack of freedom is not, however, caused by a dearth of political variation, as seen by the numerous factions within the Democratic and Republican parties, in addition to third parties.  The bipartisan nature of the American political scene results from a more systematic process that leads to the suppression of voter choice.

This process is how our nation tallies votes and selects the winner of an election. The winner-take-all system allows candidates to win without the full consent of the governed. If the candidate has the most votes out of all contenders, even if it’s not a majority, that candidate gets elected. This victory by plurality can result in an unpopular figure winning an election or primary, due to the size and turnout of his or her base. Additionally, a mentality that assumes either one of the two established parties will win, and that a vote for a third party or independent is a “wasted vote,” becomes a dominant thought in the electorate. This mentality then only incentivizes the Democrats and Republicans to demonize each other, in order to frighten independent voters, and thus energize their respective bases.

No party should be assumed the victor in a democracy and win based on the fear that a vote for a less-established candidate is a waste. To further the experiment of democracy, one should be able to vote without fear of the “wasted vote.”

The implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) would balance the increase of political expression with pragmatism.  In RCV, voters rank the candidates by preference.  If their top choice receives the fewest votes, then their second choice becomes their top choice. Candidates are eliminated until one receives over 50% of the votes.  This system allows voters to select who they truly want, while still supporting other candidates they find palatable.  For example, in the 2016 Republican Primary for President, there were multiple moderate and conservative candidates. The votes were split so much that Trump won multiple primaries with only 30%-40% of the vote. RCV would probably have resulted in more victories for Rubio and Cruz, since they were the frontrunners in their respective camps.

One unique point for the institution of RCV in primaries and elections is that James Madison would have been a supporter of its implementation. While writing the Federalist papers, Madison  warned of the power of faction in our republic.  In order to dilute their influence, he argued that having more factions was the answer.  In Federalist No.10, he elegantly states, “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” The use of RCV is certainly better than to accept the bipartisanship of today.

The implementation of ranked-choice voting in the American electoral system would be feasible. It fits within the single victor framework that is used throughout the United States, and the only change is how the votes are tallied. Additionally, this single victor would, if multiple rounds are required, receive a majority of support from the electorate.  Sadly there would be a pricetag to update voting systems.  In Maine, implementing RCV will cost around $1.7 million.  However, this price is justifiable in the fact that RCV would result with candidates who hold true majorities, and would end the complacent nature of the two established parties.

As stated earlier, the Republican and the Democratic parties feel as though they have guaranteed wins due to the wasted vote belief.  All these parties have to do is either sway moderates or motivate their ideological bases.  With ranked-choice voting, independent and third party candidates can threaten this status quo.  Centrists could win support from independents and luke-warm Republicans and Democrats, while more ideological candidate could sway the bases of the two parties.  RCV would force the Republicans and Democrats to actively pursue policy changes, instead of just using soundbites to get elected, and not assume certain voting blocs are guaranteed to be to vote for them.

One can already see ranked-choice voting in use throughout the United States. Currently, RCV is primarily used in locality/city, and in political party elections.  Maine, through a public referendum, began the process of implementing ranked-choice for state and federal elections. Sadly, RCV in Maine was declared to be in violation of the state constitution and this ballot measure could either be killed by legislators or saved if legislators amend the Constitution of Maine.

Change and reform of established systems can be unsettling to all at first glance.  RCV is a mechanism that is new to the American political scene, and is somewhat complicated to understand at first.  However, the current system is broken, and needs to be fixed.  Action is needed to preserve our Republic from hyper-partisanship and legislative deadlock.  This new system of voting, while not radically altering our system of governance, would make elections fairer and more representative.  The voices of independents, third-parties, and outsiders would increase their electoral power, bring competition back into elections, and shock the two established parties out of complacency.  It is time for the American electorate to rejuvenate this democratic experiment.