Could this tiny (and boring) voting tweak save our democracy?

You may not know it, but there’s a new game in town when it comes to how we vote — “ranked choice voting” (RCV) or “instant runoff” voting could be coming to save a democracy near you. RCV is a procedural change in how we vote (I know, yaaawn), but it may actually be the first exciting thing to happen to American elections since women got the right vote.

With this little tweak, we may be poised to make US elections dramatically more democratic.

So, if you will, bear with me through a couple paragraphs that read like a math textbook, and you’ll see why this could be a revolutionary new way to elect our politicians.



RCV is actually quite simple, though the full force and effect on our elections can be confusing.

Instead of choosing only one candidate for each category on your ballot, voters instead rank all their choices from first to last choice. If three candidates are running for Mayor, you’d be asked to rank them from #1 (your first choice) to #3 (dead last).



Credit: Voter Choice Massachusetts


If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, they’re declared the winner. If no candidate gets a majority, that’s when the power of RCV kicks in.

If no candidate tops 50 percent of first-place votes after the first count, the candidate who got the fewest votes is knocked out of the race, and their supporters’ second-place votes are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues, round after round, until one candidate receives 50 percent of the first-place votes in the race.

Mathbook closed.



RCV is an unusual form of voting in the United States. Maine was the first to use it statewide in their 2018 primary season, but half a dozen major cities, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Cambridge have already started using ranked voting to elect their city councils and mayors. Additionally, countries like Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have all used RCV in one form or another to elect city, state, and federal politicians.

Why has this new form of voting started to grow in democracies around the globe?

In Maine’s case, the impetus to shift the electoral process came about after two elections in which former Maine Governor Paul LePage was elected with less than a majority of the vote. RCV is meant to prevent that by electing the candidate a majority of the voters prefer, even if that candidate isn’t always their first choice.

Ranked-choice advocates say this is simply a more democratic system and less expensive than planning a runoff election (thus the alternative moniker, “instant runoff voting”), which have to be held separately, cost several millions dollar, and typically have very low turnout.



But more importantly, proponents of this system feel that it more reliably selects the candidate that a majority of voters prefer. Have you ever heard someone complain that voting for a dark horse or third-party candidate means they’re “throwing away” their vote?

No longer do voters have to worry about “strategically” casting a vote for the lesser of two big-party evils. Constituents can vote their conscious, even if their top candidate has no chance of winning, and when their first choice is eliminated, their vote will go to their second-choice candidate. The civic hazard of choosing a third party candidate, and accidentally “giving your vote” to a candidate you hate, is eliminated completely (remember the concerns about Sanders voters in 2016 and Nader voters in 2000).



But this new system of voting may impact more than just the calculus of how we cast our votes. Many suggest that ranked choice voting changes the ways candidates and their campaigns have to conduct themselves during election season.

Maine’s Attorney General, Janet Mills, believes ranked choice voting affected the tone of Maine’s 2018 primary. Candidates realized they could not risk alienating other candidates or their supporters for fear of losing crucial 2nd and 3rd place votes. Negative campaigning and extremist views are seen as more of a risk in a RCV system, because candidates could turn off many more voters and lose ground as candidates are eliminated and 2nd and 3rd place votes are redistributed.

“It was important to be nice to each other. Everybody’s campaign was better than it would have been because of ranked-choice voting,” Mills said after her victory. “The people voted on this several times for good reasons. They expected and intended that the level of civility would rise with this tabulation, and I think it did so.”

It’s pretty simple, but incredibly powerful. If candidates need to appeal to a broader number of their constituents, primaries and elections may not be so divisive and pugilistic.

There’s no better example of this tonal shift than a unique partnership among two competing candidates. Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet, Democrats running against each other in the Democratic primary to be Maine’s Governor, made the unusual decision to endorse each other for the race.

In a video they jointly released to Maine voters, Sweet and Eves encouraged voters to rank both of them in the top two position on their ballot. “We believe that the only way that the Democrats are going to win in November is if we nominate a strong progressive and you’ve got two of us right here,” Sweet says in the video. Each asked supporters to give them their first-choice vote, and give the other a second-choice vote to ensure someone with their shared values would make the cut.



In the final count, neither candidate was elected, but the collegiality they showed made headlines across the nation.

Perhaps a voting system that allows us to vote for exactly who we want while increasing the civility of our campaigns is precisely what America needs right now. Fortunately for us, more and more cities and states are experimenting with ranked choice voting, so we’ll all come to better understand its pros and cons in the next few years.

So, keep an eye out. If RCV continues to show promising outcomes, we should all encourage our city councils, state government, and yes, even our federal legislators, to consider a new way to democratize our democracy.



Rewards majority support: The voting continues until one candidate has the majority of votes, so the final winner has support of the majority of voters.

Discourages negative campaigning: Candidates who use negative campaigning may lose the second or third choice vote of those whose first choice candidate was treated poorly.

Provides more choice for voters: Voters can vote for the candidate they truly feel is best, without concern about the spoiler effect. Instead of feeling compelled to vote for ‘the lesser of two evils,” as in plurality voting, voters can honestly vote for who they believe is the best candidate.

Saves money by eliminated the need for separate run-off elections: Instead of needing to hold a second election to choose among the top candidates — which cost millions and often have significantly lower turnout — an election can reach a majority with a single ballot. In 2017, Alabama’s runoff election cost the state $3 million.



It is new and confusing to voters: A certain percentage of people don’t like change. This can make them unhappy or confused as to how to vote under the new system.

It will require education: Cities and states will have to educate their voters about this new system to prevent voters from voting improperly. In San Francisco’s 2011 election using RCV, 1.2% of ballot had errors and could not be counted.

The ballots and tabulation process can be more expensive initially: RCV tabulation either requires a specialized computer system, or is labor intensive to count by hand, with risk of errors. Some states and cities would have to purchase new voting machines or hire more staff to implement RCV.

You could still fail to get a candidate with a majority: If enough voters did not give any votes to their lower choices, then you could still fail to get a candidate who ends up with a majority. To counter this, Australia requires that voters do rank every candidate, even if they really don’t want some of the candidates.


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Amit Thakkar

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