Can Electoral Reform Save America?

As Maine goes, so goes the nation (if we’re lucky).


in Blog


On this year’s Election Day, voters will be presented with a choice that can have profound consequences for democracy in America in the future. No, I’m not talking about the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I’m talking about a ballot initiative about electoral reform in the state of Maine.

Voters in Maine will read the following description of Question Five, the Maine Ranked Choice Voting Initiative:

Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins a majority?

To put it more simply, in a race with three or more candidates — say, four: Dewey, Juana, Democracy, Arnott — you the voter can put a number between one and four after the name of each candidate, from your favorite to the one you despise and want to keep as far away from power as possible. If one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate is the winner, just as in our present system.

But what happens if none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote? Here is where our present system and ranked choice voting part ways. Our present system, inherited from Britain in the colonial era, is called “plurality voting” or “first-past-the-post.” In races with two or more candidates splitting the vote, the election goes to the candidate who got the most votes, even if they fall short of the 50 percent mark. In other words, under our existing system, if three or more candidates split the vote, the winner can be a candidate the majority of voters voted against.

This result seems bizarre and undemocratic — and it is! Ranked choice voting cures this problem. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the candidate ranked second on each ballot. Maybe this will produce a winner — that is, a candidate who now tops a majority of the vote. If not, the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is out and his or her ballot go to their next-ranked choice. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, you get a winner who has the highest level of support from all of the voters — and wins head-to-head against their strongest opponent in what amounts to an “instant runoff.” (In practice these calculations are done quickly by computers once the votes have been tabulated.)

Let us return to our candidates: Dewey, Juana, Democracy, Arnott. Let’s say that supporters of Dewey, Juana, and Democracy agree that Arnott is evil incarnate. When the votes are counted, Dewey gets 24 percent, Juana gets 25 percent, Democracy gets 25 percent — and Arnott gets 26 percent.

Under our existing plurality system, Arnott wins — even though she is the candidate who is most despised by 74 percent of those who cast a vote. Evil Incarnate wins! Cue scenes of the Apocalypse.

Now rewind the tape. We will play the same election over again, with the same four candidates and the same distribution of preferences. Only this time the voters get to rank the candidates on the ballot sheet, from one to four. Arnott, the number four choice of all voters other than her own supporters, would lose by a three-to-one margin to any of the other candidates and will lose during the ranked choice voting tally. The winning candidate will be far more acceptable to voters, even those who did not get their first choice.

The case of Donald Trump proves the real-world importance of this issue. Trump, the most divisive GOP nominee since Barry Goldwater in 1964, received the nomination of the Republican Party for the presidency with 13.3 million votes cast for him — even though 16 million votes were cast against him in the Republican primaries. Trump is the standard bearer for the Republican party, even though most Republican primary voters preferred somebody else — all thanks to the perversity of our inherited, centuries-old plurality voting system, which creates perverse outcomes like this when more than two candidates split the vote.

What if the same 17 candidates had contested the Republican nomination in 2016 under the rules of ranked choice voting? We can’t be sure who would have won. But we can be sure that the tone of the Republican primary would have been far more civil.

The evidence has been compiled by FairVote, an electoral reform organization co-founded by former independent presidential candidate John Anderson and Rob Richie that promotes electoral reforms including ranked choice voting and proportional representation (disclosure: I am a member of Fairvote’s board). According to FairVote, in cities which have adopted ranked choice voting like Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota; Cambridge in Massachusetts; and Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro in California, studies show that candidates spend less time criticizing their opponents and engage in less negative campaigning than in cities using the mainstream plurality voting method. Campaigns in ranked choice voting systems are much more civil.

The reason? Machiavellian strategy. Under the plurality voting system used in the Republican primaries, negative campaigning like that associated with Trump makes sense. It pays to drive the numbers of your opponents down, by smearing and ridiculing them (Trump said Jeb Bush had “low energy”) or making preposterous charges (Trump referenced a conspiracy theory that his rival Ted Cruz’s father had something to do with the assassination of John F. Kennedy).

But under ranked choice voting, Donald Trump and the other candidates would have sought to be the second choice of other candidates, in addition to the first choices of their own supporters. Thus the outbreak of civility in American cities that have scrapped first-past-the-post plurality voting in favor of ranked choice voting. Any rational candidate’s closing statement will include a variant of this line: “If I can’t be your first choice, I respect your decision to vote for one of my esteemed rivals, but please consider ranking me number two on the ballot.” It’s not just niceness — it’s Machiavellian niceness.

There’s yet another benefit to ranked choice voting: Third party candidates are no longer spoilers. In our existing plurality system, voting for a third party candidate can backfire, by electing the major candidate you dislike most. Under ranked choice voting, however, the votes of supporters of Greens, Libertarians, and other minority parties are not wasted but redistributed to candidates who represent the next best choice from the perspective of third party voters.

Thus the importance of Question Five, the Maine Ranked Choice Voting Initiative.

On November 8, by making theirs the first state in the Union to adopt ranked choice voting at the state level, voters in Maine can strike a blow for civility, viewpoint diversity, and truly representative democracy in American politics, instead of negative campaigning, character assassination, and gridlock. As Maine goes, so goes the nation — if we are lucky. •

Images courtesy of Martin Bamford via Flickr (Creative Commons)