On June 12, Maine became the first state in the nation to use ranked-choice voting in its statewide Democratic and Republican primaries. Opponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the system will “confuse” voters and even violates the Constitution. Nonetheless, ranked-choice voting allows Americans to exercise greater influence in the electoral process, while also presenting a solution to hyper-partisanship.
What is ranked-choice voting? It’s an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates from first to last on their ballot. If no first-choice candidate receives a majority of the votes in the first round, a second round is held. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the eliminated candidate’s votes are transferred to his or her voters’ second choice. The process is repeated until a candidate with a majority emerges.
Under the current electoral system, voters who choose to vote for a third-party or unaffiliated candidate are often accused of spoiling elections or “wasting their vote.” Instituting large-scale ranked-choice voting is the most viable path to overcoming partisan divisions — by making space for third-party candidates and political independents.
Under a rank-choice voting system, unaffiliated or third-party candidates would no longer be labelled as election “spoilers” for splitting the vote on one side of the political spectrum and handing the election to the other side. Any vote given to a “spoiler” candidate as a first choice would likely transfer to that voter’s second-choice candidate, eliminating one barrier that keeps people from supporting a candidate outside of the political mainstream. This would allow American voters to follow their convictions more closely.
More importantly, ranked-choice voting eliminates the “wasted vote” argument. Under our current first-past-the-post system of voting, a vote for a third-party or unaffiliated candidate who has no statistical likelihood of winning is considered a vote wasted. Ranked-choice turns this on its head, creating a system in which every facet of every vote counts, permitting voters to vote their consciences without rendering them effective nonparticipants in the democratic process. A ranked-choice system maximizes democratic legitimacy by guaranteeing that all votes matter.
When the Maine Supreme Court reviewed the validity of the people’s referendum that instituted ranked-choice voting in 2017, Justice Donald Alexander argued that ranked-choice voting violates the “one man, one vote” principle. This argument depends on a narrow definition of a vote as a single choice, rather than the full expression of a political opinion. Voting is meant to give citizens control over the political process. Ranked-choice voting fulfills this purpose most effectively by allowing voters the opportunity to express their political voice fully, rather than limiting it to one choice.
Another argument against ranked-choice voting is that voters cannot handle the “confusion” of having to place candidates in numerical order. Switching systems, critics say, would result in decreased voter turnout. Maine State Senator Ron Collins argued before the election that ranked-choice voting “will surely lead to lawsuits, confusion, and chaos.” This contention is an insult to American voters.
We can be trusted to elect our leaders, yet would somehow be driven away from the polls if asked to rank them? This argument is undercut by a study by political scientist David Kimball at the University of Missouri, which found that ranked-choice general elections are associated with a 10-point increase in voter turnout. When voters know their vote actually counts, they’re more likely to show up at the polls.
These thinly-veiled defenses of the first-past-the-post voting system are designed to lock voters into a two-party system. Ranked-choice voting poses a threat to two-party dominance because it offers people a way to respond to hyper partisanship. Ranked-choice voting provides legitimate alternatives to voting for a candidate backed by a major party; it forces candidates to campaign more broadly and appeal to more people in order to win. This in turn draws candidates towards the center, forcing compromise.
I am the National Campus Program Director for Unite America, an organization that works to elect centrist, independent political candidates to state and federal offices in an effort to promote cooperation in the political system. Our candidates must fight an uphill battle just to get on ballots, and then they must wage a war to convince people conditioned by partisanship to vote for an independent. Ranked-choice voting eliminates the psychological barriers to voting for an independent candidate, threatening the bases that partisan candidates currently depend upon and giving unaffiliated candidates a stronger chance at success.
Would Bill Clinton have been elected in 1992 had Ross Perot voters ranked George H.W. Bush as their second-choice candidate? Would Hillary Clinton have been the Democratic nominee in 2016? Would Donald Trump be president?
Ranked-choice voting in the United States is a revolutionary idea that will alter the course of American democracy — one that all Americans who trust their voices in the electoral process should support.
Alexis Mealey is a writer for Young Voices and a BA candidate in Philosophy and Government at Harvard University. You can follow her on Twitter here.
This op-ed was first published by Real Clear Policy on July 31, 2018
Illustration by Mikhaila Markham