Maine’s 2018 congressional election provides tantalizing evidence that ranked choice voting could help improve our democracy.
Three candidates vied for the congressional seat and Democrat Jared Golden was declared winner, the first member of Congress ever to be elected by ranked-choice voting.
What is ranked-choice voting?
When casting a ballot, we typically vote for one person, regardless of how many candidates are on the ballot. With ranked-choice voting, voters select their first choice from among the candidates on the ballot — and then they have the option of selecting their second, third and fourth choices, etc.
A candidate who wins a majority of first choice votes is declared the winner. However, according to FiveThirtyEight, “If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and his or her supporters are redistributed among the remaining candidates based on whom they ranked second. If still no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the next-fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and so on until someone wins 50 percent plus one vote.”
Do the advantages of ranked choice voting outweigh the disadvantages?
Because ranked choice voting is more complicated, it
- May suppress voter turn out
- Could result in increased prevalence of counting errors
- May be more costly
While these disadvantages are real, the advantages of ranked choice voting are substantial and compelling, especially at this time in our nation’s history, characterized by rancor and divisiveness. Ranked choice voting
- Provides an incentive for a candidate to appeal to a wider cross-section of the electorate and not to pander to the extremist fringes.
- Encourages candidates to campaign more civilly, because of the possible price paid by demonizing an opponent whose supporters presumably would rank the demonizer as a last choice.
- Minimizes the likelihood that a third party candidate will play the “spoiler.”
- As The Atlantic Monthly points out, “it eliminates the need to choose ‘between the lesser of two evils.'”
- Ensures the winner has a majority of support.
Does ranked choice voting work?
Ireland, New Zealand and Australia all use ranked choice voting in national elections. And it works. As The New York Times observes: “Nearly everywhere it’s in use, voters and candidates say they’re happier with it. This is probably because it encourages candidates to reach out to as many voters as possible, which ranked-choice advocates say generates more moderate politicians and policies that more accurately reflect what most people want. Aiming for broad appeal also results in more positive and substantive campaigns, they say, because candidates don’t want to risk attacking their opponents and turning off voters who might be willing to list them as a second or third choice.”
And according to USA Today: “Candidates in a ranked-choice system have a real interest in playing nice. If they are unsure about whether they’ll win on the first ballot, they have a strong incentive not to denigrate or insult the candidates whose second-rank votes they might want. A clear front-runner need not behave, but everyone else will. Negative advertising can thus be costly for all except a clear front runner — which can change importantly how campaigns proceed.”
A tonic for a broken democracy?
Ranked choice voting sounds like a tonic, just what the doctor ordered for our hyper-polarized electorate and broken, dysfunctional national politics.