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Australia’s elections show a way to come out on top

If May’s biggest political surprise was the new ruler of Westeros on “Game of Thrones,” the result in Australia’s national election were a close runner-up.

For weeks, opinion polls had predicted that the Labor Party would defeat the conservative Coalition led by the Liberal Party. But, just as with Brexit and with President Trump’s victory, the “experts” were wrong. Voters returned Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government. Morrison promised strict controls on immigration, and economic stability through creating jobs and cutting taxes. He questioned whether Labor’s climate change policies and plans for higher taxes on the wealthy would slow three decades of economic growth.

Morrison earned his victory. Australia has the high voter turnout that comes with compulsory voting and the majority wins that come with ranked choice voting (RCV).

Australia has used RCV for more than a century. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. It takes 50 percent of votes, plus one, to win a House seat. If no candidate wins a majority with first choice support alone, candidates with the fewest votes get dropped and their votes count for their next ranked choices. You rinse and repeat until someone wins a majority, mimicking an “instant runoff.” Despite an average of nearly seven candidates per House race, RCV in Australia elects a majority winner every time.

Americans of all views should take a look at the benefits of RCV. It’s a politically neutral reform designed to elect candidates who combine strong and wide support, even as it gives voters the freedom to back the candidates they like the most without worrying about electing those they like least. It ends “spoiler” candidates controversies and upholds majority rule.

At least a dozen cities have enacted RCV, including in Utah, Colorado and Minnesota. Maine voters used RCV last year for all primary and congressional elections. They changed their system because they valued the state’s tradition of third-party independent politics, but also to defend against electing public officials opposed by most voters. Three recent governors won, despite more than 60 percent of voters preferring someone else.

Maine might explain why some Republicans are reluctant to embrace RCV, however. The most recent non-majority governor was a Tea Party conservative, Paul LePage, who may have seen the proposal to adopt RCV as an attack on his credibility. Republicans grew more frustrated last year when former Rep. Bruce Poliquin lost despite holding a small lead in first choices over Democrat Jared Golden, 46.3 percent to 45.6 percent. Without an initial majority winner, the independent candidates were eliminated and their voters’ backups were counted, propelling Golden to victory in the final instant runoff.

“There’s a member of Congress sitting today who came in second,” intoned U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). But that’s not what happened, and McCarthy and other skeptics would see the fairness of this system if they studied the Australian results.

RCV was key to Morrison’s win. His coalition’s biggest victories came in Queensland, often considered a bellwether swing state like those across the U.S. industrial Midwest, and the capital of the nation’s mining industry. Morrison’s conservative coalition won seats from Labor there, thanks to votes that were redistributed to the ruling party from minor parties who backed controls on immigrants or opposed more environmental regulation.

Republicans have no reason to be afraid of RCV in the United States. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won six states — Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico — with less than 50 percent of the votes and with Libertarian Gary Johnson in third place. Five Democrats serving in the U.S. Senate today won a Senate race in an election where votes for Libertarians more than doubled their victory margin.

In Congress and in the states, Democrats often seek electoral reforms aimed at making it easier for Americans to register to vote and cast ballots. Republicans in recent years have focused more narrowly around voter ID and cleaning up voter rolls to prevent fraud. RCV offers a chance for the parties to act together to uphold majority rule while allowing voter choice.

The results are clear, abroad and at home: RCV rewards candidates who convince a majority of voters — whether conservative, liberal or moderate — that they have the best ideas to win a fair fight. Ranked choice voting just makes sense. Unlike that ending to “Game of Thrones.”

Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote. He is co-author of “Every Vote Equal” and “Whose Votes Count?” Follow him on Twitter @Rob_Richie.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” (Norton). Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.