A necessary improvement to our democracy

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I recently read a Mac Weekly opinion piece by Connor Valenti, entitled “Simply voting third party won’t change our democracy.” In it, Connor highlighted flaws in the United States’ electoral system that destroy the viability of third parties in elections, thwarting democracy by preventing a significant number of voices from being represented. In his closing paragraph, Connor presents ranked choice voting as one aspect of the solution to this issue of representation; I would like to expand on ranked choice voting as a necessary reform to achieve not only increased third party representation, but also more positive campaigning and the elimination of costly runoff elections.

Currently, the vast majority of U.S. elections, including the presidential election, use a first-past-the-post system, in which voters choose one candidate they want. The votes are then tallied up, and whoever gets the most votes wins. This is problematic for a couple of important reasons. For one, a candidate can win with less than 50 percent of the vote. For example, Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, has won his last two elections with 37.6 percent and 48.6 percent of the vote respectively, with the majority both times split between his Democratic challenger and the liberal independent Eliot Cutler (“Maine gubernatorial election, 2010”, “Maine gubernatorial election, 2014”). Paul LePage does not represent the ideological beliefs of a majority of his constituents, and yet he was elected due to the first-past-the-post voting system. This is not democracy. LePage’s elections highlight the other interconnected problem with first-past-the-post: the spoiler effect. If a voter knows that the party that most closely represents them has a small chance of actually winning the election, they are incentivized to vote not for that party but for the major party they dislike the least, perpetuating the two party system that exists in American politics. If a voter chooses to vote for a third party candidate, they split the vote between candidates that are closer ideologically to them and allow the person they dislike most to win the election.

Ranked-choice voting is an alternative to first-past-the-post voting. It has been used in Minneapolis city elections since 2009 and St. Paul city elections since 2011, as well as in a select few other U.S. cities and around the world in Australia, India, Ireland and Papua New Guinea. In a ranked choice election, you rank your choices 1, 2, 3, etc., in order of preference. If no candidate has a majority after the vote, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their ballots are reallocated to the second choices of those who voted for them. This continues round by round until someone receives 50 percent of the vote. This style of election eliminates the non-representative candidate because a majority of votes is required to win. It also puts the kibosh on the spoiler effect. If someone puts, say, Jill Stein as their number one and Hillary Clinton as their number two, they are able to support the third party candidate that most closely represents them without splitting the vote with Clinton, who is the major party candidate that most closely represents them. In ranked-choice voting, there is no ‘lesser evil voting.’ You don’t have to choose between ‘voting your conscience’­—voting for the candidate that represents your values and who you believe would be the best person for the job—and voting for the major party candidate that you hate least.

A couple of other benefits of ranked-choice voting? Candidates run more positive, issue-based campaigns. Candidates are penalized for vicious attack ads as these alienate the voters of other candidates, as the supporters of the attacked candidate will have negative views of the attacker. Instead, candidates must talk about the issues and why another candidate’s supporter should deem them worthy of their second place vote. Ranked-choice voting also has fiscal benefits. In the current first-past-the-post voting system, costly, low-turnout runoff elections are held when a candidate receives more votes than anyone else, but a location-specific threshold percentage required to win the election is not achieved. A recent school board runoff election in Alabama that involved just seven counties cost taxpayers $500,000 (Sharp 2016). A 2009 runoff election in New York City, held after no candidate surpassed the city’s threshold of 40 percent, cost the city’s Board of Elections $15 million dollars (Roberts 2009). The need for these runoffs would be eliminated with a ranked choice voting system, because runoff elections occur immediately based on preference votes until a 50 percent plus one majority is achieved. Runoffs are built into this system. If Alabama and New York City had used ranked-choice voting in their elections, these places could have used their money to fund more important things than runoff elections that almost no one eligible actually votes in. Why maintain the ineffective status quo that has caused such enormous disillusionment in this election cycle when there is a viable, practiced alternative to it with such numerous benefits?