Ranked-choice voting is the best fix for our democratic crisis

Ranked-choice voting is the best fix for our democratic crisis

There’s no denying it: The Donald Trump era exposed serious deficits in our democratic process. While the For the People Act and numerous other state and federal proposals aim to fix them, the biggest problem of all is something that can’t be fixed by mere legislation: the Electoral College.

Let’s not beat around the bush. When we have an electoral system in which it is remotely possible for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote and still lose the election, that system is not sustainable. Just days before Election Day 2020, for instance, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight estimated that Joe Biden would not have been favored to win the Electoral College unless he won the popular vote by at least 3-4%. Silver also concluded that Biden would have needed to win the popular vote by at least 4-5% in order to close off any realistic path for Trump to win.

However, those who claim we should keep the Electoral College maintain that it is the only way to keep rural areas from being steamrolled by larger cities. For instance, in his book A More Perfect Constitution, Larry Sabato claims that without the Electoral College, smaller states would “have little chance of seeing the presidential candidates” during a campaign. As Sabato sees it, the Electoral College is necessary to force candidates to prove they can govern the entire country.

But if the 2000 campaign raised serious questions about why the Electoral College is still around, the 2016 and 2020 campaigns should have removed any defensible reason for it to exist. There has to be a way to ensure a presidential candidate can prove nationwide appeal without maintaining a system where said candidate can still lose the election while winning the popular vote by a margin outside the range for a recount in nearly every jurisdiction. I submit that there is a way to jettison the Electoral College and move to a more modern electoral system—one that is suited to a country with a significant urban-rural divide. That solution is one that has worked well in Australia for over a century, and has already been implemented here in several states and cities. That solution is ranked-choice voting.

Granted, there are a lot of reasons why the Electoral College’s time has long since passed. For instance, it was written into the Constitution in an effort to placate Southern states who wanted their large numbers of slaves to count in their populations. As most of us know, the Northern states were unwilling to count slaves at all. They needed the Southern states for the new government to be viable, so they agreed to let slaves count as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. Even this undercount was enough to give slaveholding states an outsized advantage in the House—and hence, in the Electoral College, since the number of electors each state gets is based on the combined total of each state’s Congress members and senators.

Moreover, the Electoral College leaves too much room for bad actors to have an adverse effect on the election. In 1948, for instance, third-party segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond was potentially in a position to effectively decide the next president despite winning only 2.4% of the popular vote and not even campaigning outside the South. In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s margin over Richard Nixon was so close that slates of mostly segregationist unpledged electors that won a grand total of 0.42% of the vote plotted to deny Kennedy the presidency if he didn’t agree to their demands. More recently, in 2020, Kanye West admitted that his long-shot bid for president was actually intended to screw over Biden. Fortunately, that gambit ended in the space of 24 hours later that August when he couldn’t get on the ballot in enough swing states to even potentially affect the outcome of the election.

However, these pale in comparison to the prospect of someone losing the popular vote and still being elected. No functioning democracy can or should tolerate a system in which one candidate can win even if he trails by as much as 3% of the popular vote.

Why not opt for a two-round system used by other countries with presidential systems? After all, such a system would theoretically make it less likely for third parties to end up as spoilers. However, France’s 2002 presidential election put the lie to this notion. Initially, it was almost a foregone conclusion that incumbent Jacques Chirac would face Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the second round. However, a clown car of splinter candidates cannibalized the left-wing vote, allowing far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to nose Jospin out for the second slot in the runoff. Chirac won the runoff after virtually the entire French political spectrum united against Le Pen. However, considering that left-wing candidates garnered over 44% of the vote between them in the first round, a convincing argument can be made that if not for the large number of left-wing candidates in the field, Jospin would have made the runoff and potentially upended Chirac.

No such worries would exist with ranked-choice voting. In a ranked-choice voting system, the voter ranks all the candidates in order of preference. When the ballots are counted, if one candidate gets a majority of first-preference votes, that candidate wins. However, if no candidate gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and his or her votes are distributed to the other candidates in accordance with the voter’s second preference. The process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority.

Australia has used ranked-choice voting, or “preferential voting” as they call it down under, since 1918. Like the United States, Australia is a federation—one with an even more pronounced urban-rural divide than we have here. In all but one of Australia’s six states, large majorities live in the state’s capital city. 

Take Sydney, Australia’s largest city, for instance. It accounts for just over two-thirds of the population of New South Wales. The second largest city, Melbourne, accounts for over 70% of Victoria’s population. One of the few places on this side of the Pacific where you see this kind of centralization is in New York City. The New York state portion of the metro—the five boroughs, Long Island, and the lower Hudson—accounts for 65% of the Empire State’s population.

Just before Australians went to the polls in 2019, Jacob Deem of Griffith University in Brisbane offered this simple explanation of how preferential voting works. 

Deem noted that preferential voting ensures that whoever wins a seat in Parliament “more closely reflects the will of the people.” Along similar lines, Stephen Morey of La Trobe University in Melbourne explained in 2019 that preferential voting ensures that every candidate elected to Australia’s House of Representatives is elected with the support of an absolute majority of voters in their seats. That’s probably why you don’t see rural Australians clutching their pearls over being swamped by Sydney and Melbourne.

Additionally, this system allows third parties to have a greater voice. In 2019, Lee Drutman of Vox noted that ranked-choice voting forces candidates to compete to be voters’ second and third choices—thus allowing third-party and independent candidates to actually influence the outcome of an election rather than serve as spoilers. In contrast, we’ve seen far too many elections in this country where third-party candidates wind up as spoilers.

The amplified voice ranked-choice voting gives to third-party candidates was amply demonstrated in the 2018 race for Maine’s 2nd congressional district, which covers the northern four-fifths of the state—Bangor, Lewiston, Auburn, and Presque Isle, among other places. Maine voters adopted ranked-choice voting for most elections in a 2016 referendum. However, due to concerns that the referendum conflicted with language in the state constitution requiring elections to be decided by a plurality (or “first past the post”), the legislature suspended its implementation until 2021 pending a constitutional amendment. Supporters of ranked-choice voting mounted a successful “people’s veto” referendum in 2018 to restore it for primary elections at all levels, as well as for presidential, senatorial, and congressional elections. Maine’s largest city, Portland, started using ranked-choice voting for municipal elections in 2011, but this was a nonpartisan race. The race for Maine’s 2nd congressional district, in contrast, was the first high-profile partisan race in the country to use ranked-choice voting.

The two-term Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin—at the time, the only Republican congressman from New England—crassly declared that he was the only person qualified to represent the largest district east of the Mississippi. Poliquin’s arrogance would come back to haunt him. On election night, he led Democratic state representative Jared Golden by 2,171 votes—but only garnered 46% of first-choice votes. That meant that the second-choice votes of the two independents in the race, Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, would decide the winner.

About a week after the election, an exit poll by Fair Vote indicated that over 90% of Bond’s and Hoar’s voters picked Golden as their second choice—a result that, if accurate, would hand the seat to Golden. As it turned out, when the second-choice votes were counted, Golden won by over 3,000 votes after the second-choice votes of Bond and Hoar flowed overwhelmingly to him. Watch his victory speech here, via The Kennebec Journal.

Poliquin tried to challenge the result to no avail, and finally accepted his defeat on Christmas Eve 2018. However, it stands to reason that the margin would have been even closer had Poliquin made even a minimal effort to appeal to Bond’s and Hoar’s first-choice supporters rather than insist he was the only person qualified to hold the seat.

Alaska adopted ranked-choice voting as well in 2020, to take effect with the 2022 elections for Senate and governor. At the same time, it switched its primaries to a nonpartisan blanket primary. The top four finishers will advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. It’s been argued that such a system could actually benefit incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose unwillingness to kiss Trump’s ring has Alaska’s deeply conservative Republican base up in arms. Longtime Alaska pollster Ivan Moore told NPR in February that while Murkowski’s chances in a closed Republican primary would be slim at best, the new system assures her of a general election berth “just on name ID alone.”

Alaska’s new system could potentially be lethal to any designs former Gov. Sarah Palin might have on that Senate seat. Palin hinted in July that she was seriously considering a run, telling a conference of her fellow Christianists that she would need them to back her more than they did in 2008 as John McCain’s running mate.

However, Palin’s only other appearance on a statewide ballot doesn’t bode well for any potential Senate prospects. In 2006, she essentially backed into the Republican nomination for governor. The incumbent, Frank Murkowski—Lisa’s father—was miserably unpopular, with an approval rating of just 21% at the time of the primary in August. Any passable challenger would have defeated him; as it turned out, Frank Murkowski was pushed into third place in the primary. Palin then only garnered 47% of the vote in the general election, short of a majority.

Palin’s red-meat approach to politics and her appeal to the religious right might be enough to get her into the general election. However, if the final count comes down to her and Lisa Murkowski, it’s a near-mathematical certainty that Palin would drown under the weight of Democratic second-choice votes. Of course, if she somehow pushes Murkowski to third place, any competent Democrat would likely pick up enough second-choice votes from Murkowski to flip the seat blue. Simply put, there is no realistic scenario in which Palin would have enough second-choice support to become Alaska’s second female senator.

On paper, ranked-choice voting should address Sabato’s claim that the Electoral College assures that candidates have to prove that they can appeal to the entire country. What better way to assure that appeal than a system that guarantees the winning candidate will have a majority, and which also forces candidates to appeal to people outside their own party?

Indeed, a good argument can be made to use it in primaries as well, as Maine has done at all levels since 2018. The Democrats used ranked-choice voting in the 2021 primary for mayor of New York City—the real contest (for all intents and purposes) in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by almost 6-to-1, and where the GOP has been more or less nonexistent since Mike Bloomberg left office in 2014. Much of the conversation centered around how Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams’ glide to the nomination was interrupted when Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia picked up a surge of second-choice support from other candidates, enough to vault her into second place over professor Maya Wiley, who had finished second in the first count.

Ultimately, Adams won by almost 7,200 votes on the final count. However, Garcia was able to keep it close in part because Adams wasn’t very popular among those who didn’t rank him as their first choice. According to Rob Ritchie, CEO of FairVote, on paper Adams “may be more aware that he has to bring the city together.” At the same time, as Business Insider noted in its post-mortem of the Democratic primary, Adams can claim to have the support of a majority of Democratic voters. By comparison, Bill de Blasio was essentially crowned as Bloomberg’s successor by tallying just over 260,000 votes in the Democratic primary—well short of a majority.

When I read this, it made me wonder: What if the Democratic presidential primaries used such a system? It would have certainly knocked down the perception among Bernie Sanders’ diehard supporters that the Democratic establishment had a thumb on the scale in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020. After all, if supporters of other candidates ranked Hillary or Biden highly among their preferred candidates, they would be able to claim—strongly—that they could appeal across party factions. They would also be able to claim, and equally strongly, that they had the support of a majority of the party base. Certainly in 2016, it would have been far easier for Hillary to unite the party around her.

Business Insider also noted how well ranked-choice voting worked downballot in New York City. In the race for a city council seat in Queens, after the first count Julie Won only led her nearest challenger, Amit Bagga, by just over a percentage point, tallying 18% of the vote. After 15 counts, however, Won finished with 56% of the vote, a margin of over 13 points. The raw totals are even more stark. In the first round, Won finished with only 3,000 votes out of over 12,000 cast. The primary, however, was basically a clown car—15 candidates, not surprising since whoever won the primary would be all but assured of a seat on the council. In the final tally, however, she finished with 6,800 votes. Business Insider summed this up best—“a complicated, complex field simplified with a simple trip to the ballot box,” at a fraction of the cost of a full-fledged runoff.

To be sure, it may take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to enact the constitutional amendments necessary to implement ranked-choice voting. An amendment would have to be proposed by one of two mechanisms. The most common method would be garnering the support of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. It could also be proposed if two-thirds of state legislatures agree to call a convention. In either case, the amendment would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Granted, the most recent amendments were proposed and ratified in less than a year, and as long as three years. But they were passed in a far less-polarized environment than is the case today.

We need only look at how vehemently much of the GOP opposes the For the People Act. It would expand voting by mail, something the COVID-19 pandemic proved was sorely needed. It would also make it illegal to communicate disinformation about voting, which would prevent a repeat of the rash of Russian-flavored disinformation we saw in 2016. It would require that all voting machines be made in this country, and with the capability for voter-verified paper trails. It would also tighten ethics requirements for federal officeholders, and ban partisan gerrymandering. And yet, The Wall Street Journal sees this as an effort to stack the deck in Democrats’ favor, while National Review called it an assault on democracy. Along similar lines, Sen. Mitch McConnell denounced it as “a one-sided (Democratic) power grab.” Expect similar pearl-clutching to ensue if any amendment to repeal and replace the Electoral College were to gain any traction.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Once the fight to scrap the Electoral College begins, expect it to be a long one. But the success in Australia for over a century, and its more recent success in Maine and New York City of ranked-choice voting proves it would be well worth the effort. Moreover, the alternative is allowing the existence of a system in which it is possible for a candidate to be elected despite having clearly lost in terms of raw votes. Implementing ranked-choice voting would not only give this country a more modern and more democratic voting system, but would do so in a way that would eliminate any defensible reason to retain a system that makes it possible for a candidate to decisively win the popular vote and still be denied victory.

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