Voices & Choices

When Plurality Rules: House Republicans Need Ranked Choice Voting

When Plurality Rules: House Republicans Need Ranked Choice Voting
Attribution: Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons

For weeks now, the race for Speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been riddled with tension and disunity among Republicans. Following John Boehner’s resignation, numerous candidates have entered or withdrawn from the Speaker race, highlighting the deep divisions within the Republican Party and the House as a whole. Before Paul Ryan’s announcement yesterday that he would be willing to run for the seat as a unifying candidate, many doubted whether any candidate could achieve the necessary majority. Much of this uncertainty could have been avoided if the House had used ranked choice voting to select a Speaker.

Historically, Republicans have dealt with deeply contentious House Speaker races by forgoing the majority requirement all together. For example, in 1856 the House held upwards of 130 votes for Speaker over the course of two months. The race was so contentious and divided that even over the course of 130 ballots, no candidate was able to achieve 50% of the vote. The House was eventually forced to abandon the majority requirement and elect a Speaker by simple plurality, meaning the candidate with the most votes would win even if they received less than 50%. Under this relaxed standard, Nathaniel Banks finally won the speakership, two months later, with just 103 votes, or only 23% of the total House.

Plurality elections like this one are a problem because a candidate can be elected with so little support. Banks had a very weak mandate going into the Speakership. When leaders don’t need a majority to win, they have no incentive to reach out beyond their very narrow band of supporters, and they enter office without consensus support. These same problems plague plurality elections across the country at the local, state, and national level. In competitive races with more than two candidates, winners frequently receive less than 50% of the vote, and candidate can win despite the fact that most voters would have chosen someone else.

For these reasons, the House should use ranked choice voting to elect a speaker efficiently while maintaining its majority requirement. Winning with a majority will empower the next House speaker to lead with a strong mandate, and bring greater united to a party that needs it. Using ranked choice voting to achieve that majority would have allowed the house to avoid such prolonged periods of uncertainty and divisive politics within their own party. When House members can rank candidates for Speaker instead of just choosing one, they can fully represent their preferences in just one vote instead of engaging in multiple rounds of elections. FairVote has observed in the past how multiple elections for the same position, which are necessary if no candidate achieves a majority, are “often divisive and exacerbate existing fault-lines within the party.” With ranked choice voting, the House could have avoided these past weeks of discord, and efficiently elected the strongest leader with majority support.


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