June 2018 Column: Ranked Choice Voting
Last week, Maine voters upheld the country’s first statewide Ranked Choice Voting law. Passed initially by the voters in 2016, and again last week after an attempted repeal by the legislature, RCV is now settled as the law in Maine. Already other states are considering following Maine’s lead, the New York Times recently endorsed RCV in an editorial, and prominent figures have thrown their support to the system-changing concept.
Near the lead, as usual, is Massachusetts. RCV is not a new idea in our state – Ellen Story introduced a bill to implement it years ago – but in the last couple years, a real campaign to educate the public about the concept has developed. The group is called Voter Choice Massachusetts, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending one of their presentations where they explained how RCV ballots are counted using cookies.
To understand the exact process by which RCV ballots are counted, you should look it up online, where you can find videos that are easier to understand than wordy explanations. The gist of it is that voters indicate their order of preference by filling in the “1” bubble or the “2” bubble, etc, next to each candidate’s name. First choice votes are counted, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and the ballots that ranked that candidate first are redistributed to their second choice. Counting proceeds in a series of such rounds until some candidate has a majority of votes.
Our current election system pressures voters to coalesce in two mutually exclusive and antagonistic camps in order to win a majority. Ranked Choice Voting eliminates this pressure by eliminating the need for strategic voting. Two similar candidates can run in a RCV election without hurting the other’s chances. A major party candidate doesn’t have to worry about a “spoiler” third-party candidate: if Jill Stein voters had been using ranked ballots, they would have presumably ranked Hillary Clinton second. Instead of taking away enough votes from Clinton to give Trump the margin of victory in several states, they would have given Clinton the win.
If implemented in a slightly more system-changing way, Ranked Choice Voting could be used for general elections without primaries. This would be the greatest change to our election system – along the lines of California’s open “jungle” primaries, where candidates compete in one nonpartisan primary and the top two go on to the general election, but better because there would not be the fear of candidates from one party splitting votes and reducing their chances.
And better because it would be both cheaper and more democratic: dramatically more people show up for general elections than primary elections (in our district in 2016 it was something like three times as many) and so under a partisan primary system, a tiny minority of citizens are deciding our representatives. Under a ranked general-only system, more voters would be involved in the process of choosing representatives. And because we’d have one instead of two elections, we’d save millions of dollars.
The low-turnout primaries are also what make it possible to gerrymander Congressional seats for the Tea Party – the most extreme voters turn out more often in primaries, pulling each party’s elected officials to extremes of polarization even though most of the country’s public is not polarized on most issues. With a single ranked ballot, a Tea Partier could never beat a moderate Republican, Independent, or Democrat.
Another benefit of RCV is that it promotes positive elections. Voters’ choices are no longer mutually exclusive, so candidates must ask voters for their second choice if not their first, which means they can’t be bashing the voter’s first-choice candidate. Politicians in towns and cities that use RCV for mayoral or council elections testify that this is indeed the case. In fact, similar candidates who highlight a shared vision could increase both their chances of getting elected – the opposite of today when we worry about vote-splitting.
Politics in the U.S. right now are frustrating and divisive, and yet crucial to effecting serious change to improve the lives of people here and around the world. If we are to see a more productive Congress and state legislatures across the country, we will need to change the election system that has been played on in recent decades to create this mess. Ranked Choice Voting is a big first step toward a more inclusive, democratic, and productive political system, and Massachusetts should be the next state after Maine to take a lead in spreading this policy.