In fifth grade, I dressed up as a ballot box for Halloween, encouraging people to place treats in either the slot for John McCain or Barack Obama. As I walked from house to house, a few neighbors took me in and emptied loads of their candy into one of the two pouches. At one point, I was even surrounded by some parents who, pulling a handful of goodies from their own child’s bag, placed them in one of mine. I will never forget the enthusiasm I felt that night from people who, just four days later, would cast their votes in a historic election, one that saw the highest levels of turnout since 1968. Even though I was in a costume and conducting an extremely unscientific poll, the thrill of election season was not lost on my 10-year-old self. It’s fair to say I was hooked.
As a Twin Cities native, ranked choice voting first popped up on my radar a couple years later when I was in middle school and Saint Paul implemented the voting method for its municipal elections. Even before I learned that RCV can help prevent “spoiled” elections and negative campaigning, it just made sense to me that we should have the ability to rank our preferences - a decision-making technique that is practically second nature to us. Any time I was involved in making a decision, like what movie my friends and I wanted to see, or what food my family should eat for dinner, I would implore them to write down their rankings on a piece of paper so I could quickly tabulate the results. Not only did the eventual outcome leave more people satisfied, but I always had fun transferring and reallocating the votes!
The summer after my first year of college, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Senegal for three weeks to conduct collaborative research. We asked Senegalese participants in our focus groups their opinions on politics and other issues. We even had the chance to observe a polling place in action during parliamentary elections. Senegal is one of the more stable democracies in Africa, and yet many young people expressed frustration that their political system seemed stagnant and unresponsive to concerns of the masses.
Here in the United States, Americans have similar feelings about their representatives. Congressional approval has remained below 30 percent for the past decade. The incentives to form new coalitions to pass legislation have all but disappeared as partisanship has increased. By implementing RCV, voters will no longer be stuck in a zero-sum game where there is a constant fear of the “spoiler effect.” A more nuanced approach that taps into our human nature is needed to elect our leaders and promote a healthy discourse not dependent upon the area in which you live or whether your preferred candidate is one of the favorites to win.
As an undergraduate student hoping to one day pursue a master’s degree in public policy, I chose to intern at FairVote because of their advocacy efforts to expand election reform, giving me the opportunity to conduct both quantitative and qualitative research on an issue that I am passionate about. Democracy has always been messy, and it always will be, but that should not discourage us from demanding solutions to the inequities of voting in our cities, states, and country. Looking back on the 2008 election, despite there being record levels of turnout, two out of every five people decided to stay home. Is this the best we can do? I think not. I believe implementing RCV will go a long way in combating voter apathy and promoting an engaged electorate. Elections should be an exciting event for everyone, not just 10-year-olds on Halloween.