Making the case for ranked-choice voting

After all the ballots were counted in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 2018, Democrat Jared Golden, a 36-year-old Marine Corps veteran, trailed Bruce PoliquinBruce Lee PoliquinMaking the case for ranked-choice voting The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Maine governor certifies Dem's win in disputed House race, but calls it 'stolen election' MORE, the Republican incumbent, by about 2,000 votes. But on November 15, Golden was declared the winner. Thanks to ranked-choice voting, which Maine voters had ratified in a ballot initiative (applicable to state and federal offices) in 2016 and re-affirmed in 2018, Golden picked up votes given to independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar in the first round. The final tally was 50.53 percent for Golden to 49.7 percent for Poliquin, a difference of about 3,000 votes.

Also known as instant-runoff voting (IRV), the system allows, but does not require, voters to rank candidates on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, and second preference choices are allocated to the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until someone obtains a majority.

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Invented by an American, MIT professor W.R. Ware, around 1870, ranked-choice voting is now used in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Malta. Although Maine 2 marked the first time RCV decided a congressional election, the method is now used in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana in congressional primary contests with more than two candidates and to ensure that military and overseas ballots are counted in run-off elections. As of 2019, RCV has been adopted by about 20 cities, including Memphis, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Sarasota, and San Francisco. Bills authorizing some form of ranked-choice voting have recently been introduced in several states, including New Mexico, Massachusetts, Alaska, Utah, and Vermont.

That said, ranked-choice voting has received less attention from policymakers and the general public than it deserves. In my judgment, a compelling case can — and should — be made that RCV can play a significant role in addressing our hyper-partisan, polarized political environment.

By placing a value on winning as much second or third round support as possible, ranked-choice voting reduces incentives for negative campaigning and exclusive appeals to those at the edge of the political spectrum, who tend to cast ballots in disproportionate numbers in primaries.

Instead of forcing voters to choose between opposite poles, RCV would allow independent candidates to run, without the danger that they will become “spoilers.” 

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At the same time, RCV increases the likelihood that more moderate candidates, with an inclination to cross the aisle, will get nominated and elected. The old “first past the post” plurality rule, reformers point out, enabled nine of Maine’s last eleven governors, including the volatile and vulgar Paul LePage (who won his first race with 37.6 percent of the vote), to take the oath of office without receiving the support of a majority of the electorate; it allowed Lori Trahan to win the Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ 3rd district, with 21.7 percent of the vote, two-tenths of a percent more than the runner-up, in a ten person race.

Contrary to claims that ranked-choice voting is too complicated, confusing and cumbersome for many citizens, evidence suggests that virtually every voter casts a valid first-choice ballot. RCV may actually increase turnout by generating more competitive races with a broader range of candidates. A recent study of 79 elections conducted in 26 cities identified a 10 percent increase in ranked-choice primaries and general elections, compared to non-RCV contests. Technology now permits officials to run ranked-choice voting algorithms as early as election night — or once absentee and provisional ballots have been processed.

According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans believe that “significant changes” should be made to the design and structure of government. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution, it is important to note, were silent on whether “winner take all,” pluralities or majorities should decide elections. Ranked-choice voting is not a silver bullet, as Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, emphasizes in “Ill Winds:  Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”  Given our antiquated voting machines, and, of course, our gridlocked Congress, RCV is not likely to become the norm any time soon.  “But it is a considerable step forward,” and, given the experience of RCV cities — our “laboratories of democracy” — and in Maine, the reform may be gaining momentum.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, and the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.