The Independent's Case for Ranked Choice Voting

It’s no secret that political polarization is rising. This trend is driven by many factors, including narrowing ideological diversity within parties, geographic sorting by party, and partisan media silos. This partisan divide has led to gridlock in congress, constant scandal around the presidency, and a dangerous rise of anger among citizens. While these are long running trends without a simple fix, there is an often overlooked dimension of this trend: our electoral system fosters polarization.

The vast majority of American elections are run on a ‘First Past The Post’ election method, meaning each voter casts their vote for a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. In multi-seat elections, voters cast as many votes as there are seats, and the highest vote getters win the seats. Note that the winner is not a candidate who receives a majority of votes, simply whoever receives the most. Therein lies the fatal flaw of a winner take all election system.

Consider an election with just four candidates. Should any of them win more than 50% of the vote they would win, as our intuition about majoritarian government would suggest. However, the real threshold for victory is much lower. If one candidate receives just 26% of the vote they could win the election if the other three split the remaining votes evenly. Now our assumption of “majority rule” comes into question. An overwhelming majority of voters voted for a candidate other than the winner. This problem only becomes “more apparent/pernicious/harmful/alienating...” when there are more candidates.

If you add the political spectrum to this analysis, one extremist candidate could win the election over three closely related moderates. The inevitable result of this system is a two-party system: there will always be an incentive for voters to rally around one of two candidates deemed viable. Third party candidates will always either be the spoilers or, if they manage to surpass a mainstream candidate, the spoiled. As Unite America knows well, the two party system is a significant part of America’s polarization problem.

First Past the Post replaces ideological diversity with a flawed choice between two unsatisfactory choices. Do not mistake it for a moderating force, because it forces candidates to the poles, not the center. Each of the two major candidates wants to create an electoral coalition to get the plurality, but doesn’t need or want to reach out to the communities associated with their opponent. This further depresses the ability of people from across the ideological spectrum to express their true preferences. The electorate is effectively split into teams, which means some number of people on the ends, or in the middle, have to make some unpleasant decisions.

There is another way. Voters Choose is an up-and-coming political advocacy group dedicated to electoral reform, organized around the principle that voters should be able to express the full range of their preferences. That’s why we believe in a ranked choice voting method, where people’s ordinal preferences are translated into point values. If voters had the ability to rank their preferred candidates, then they could better express their preferences, force politicians to campaign in all kinds of communities, and make candidates outside of the mainstream parties viable. Under the Voters Choose system, candidates of all stripes would have to compete not just for a first place vote, but for the second and third place rankings as well. Voters could better weigh the particular stances of each candidate in a broader field, rather than relying on party allegiances to decide all of their votes.

The ranked choice voting movement is gaining momentum: some versions have been implemented at the local level, a statewide referendum in Maine has brought the issue into prominence, and there’s even talk of it at the national level. We’re glad to see the issue come into focus, although we believe big changes start small. Ranked choice voting is a big idea, with a multitude of variations, but we believe ours is the most representative and intuitive. We are committed to beginning the long road of reform at a local level, and we believe radicals and independents alike can find common cause in making elections more representative.

Our politics may be more divisive than ever, but we as a people have more options than we are led to believe. To truly unite America we have to reject the false dichotomy of either joining the partisan cacophony or disengaging all together by rejecting the false dichotomy of the two party system. To fix our politics, we must fix our elections.

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Andres is a Harvard sophomore concentrating in Economics with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. He is a member of the organization Voters Choose a a non-profit advocacy group committed to reforming elections and fixing our politics.

Views and opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect those of Unite America.