Constitution Day, celebrated annually on September 17th, commemorates the founding fathers who designed and signed the Constitution in 1787. To celebrate, FairVote reflects on the founders’ vision for American democracy and how ranked choice voting corresponds with that vision.
When the thirty-nine signatories of the Constitution emerged from Independence Hall in September 1787, the Constitution they released was much more than just an intricate new plan of government. The Constitution was a grand endorsement of representative government, where politicians are selected by and accountable to their citizens. In Federalist No. 39, James Madison underscores the value they placed on representative democracy by expressly detailing how government officials in the Constitution are in some key ways accountable to the American people, and by arguing that this accountability is an essential part of the nation’s political character. While Americans have continually strived to preserve this principle, there is growing disconnect between voter and politicians.
This disconnect between citizens and their representatives ultimately begins with the way America elects its politicians. By only allowing voters to select one candidate and declaring the candidate with the most votes the winner, our system almost forces voters into the two party duopoly. In rare cases where voters do have a diverse slate of candidates, many voters go to the ballot box afraid to vote for candidates that truly reflect their views and instead feeling pressured to vote for a “lesser-of-two-evils” candidate. This makes it difficult for candidates outside the political mainstream to win elections and discourages third parties, independents, and innovators inside the two major parties from running. So, these diverse viewpoints go unheard and unrepresented in our local, state, and national politics.
Luckily, ranked choice voting is a simple reform that can restore the founding fathers’ vision of representative democracy without requiring a constitutional amendment. Ranked choice voting gives voters the freedom to rank the candidates in order of choice: first, second, third, and so on. Then all the first place votes are tallied. If one candidate has a majority, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes.
Allowing voters to express their full range of choices empowers voters to support their favorite candidates — without the fear of electing someone they oppose, making it possible for candidates outside the political mainstream to have a voice in democracy. Consequently, ranked choice elections do a better job of conveying Americans’ political opinions and give more people a chance to be represented in government. Ranked choice voting upholds majority rule and ensures that politicians with broad, consensus support represent the will of the people.
Throughout its history, American democracy has matured alongside the nation. The fifteenth and nineteenth amendments made the government more representative by granting suffrage to more Americans. The seventeenth amendment stipulated the direct election of U.S. Senators to ensure that the government was representing its citizens and not big, private interests. Building on the legacy of these reforms, Constitution Day is a great opportunity to consider how changes to our electoral system, like ranked choice voting, can uphold and improve upon the founding father’s vision for American government.
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