Ranked Choice Voting Makes for Good Politics, and for a Better Democracy
American democracy is broken. While American democracy is not inherently flawed, perverse incentive structures have led to crippling dysfunction in Washington. Instead of governing, many politicians are seemingly on a never-ending quest for media exposure, social media followers, and campaign donors. In our hyper-partisan, outrage-driven media landscape, politicians have little incentive to work across the aisle on shared problems and forge bipartisan compromises. Politicians who do stray from the party line or appear to give the other side any sort of policy “win” are under the perpetual threat of a primary challenge.
As an outside observer, watching politicians of all political stripes struggle to contrive explanations to justify seemingly blatant hypocrisies or to deny basic truths in the name of politics is frustrating and hard to watch. From a politician’s perspective, however, political contortionism is simply a mode of political survival, a byproduct of the incentives our system has created. It is often disappointing, yet not surprising, when politicians act predictably within this incentive structure. That said, it remains infuriating that politicians have not en masse sought to realign the political incentive structure, a realignment that would be consistent with their own political self-interest.
Ranked Choice Voting is one means by which politicians could break the two-party stranglehold and realign incentives to encourage bipartisanship and political cooperation. Specifically, ranked choice voting ensures that a winning political candidate has majority support from the voting public. It achieves this result by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Until one candidate has 50% plus one vote of the total vote, over successive rounds, the next-place votes from the candidate receiving the least votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates until one candidate reaches the necessary threshold.
When multiple candidates run for one office, candidates often split the vote, creating scenarios whereby a candidate wins with a plurality, but not a majority of votes. As a result, third-party candidates can and have had an outsized impact on election outcomes. Notably, if not for third-party candidates, history may have turned out differently. Woodrow Wilson may never have become President, George H.W. Bush may have been elected to a second term, and Al Gore and Hillary Clinton may have been each elected President.
Implementing ranked choice voting would have a profound impact on American politics. Foremost, ranked choice voting would eliminate the spoiler effect and encourage the viability of third parties. Viable third parties would in turn force Democrats and Republicans to compete to be the second choice of third-party voters, which would likely result in governing coalitions amongst different parties and in the broadening of legislative priorities. In addition, ranked choice voting would temper the power of primaries by allowing a losing primary candidate to compete and still win in a general election. The built-in runoff aspect of ranked choice voting would also eliminate the need for costly runoffs (as repeatedly seen in Georgia). Finally, ranked choice reduces votes that do not go toward the winning candidate. By increasing the threshold to win beyond a simple plurality, more voters participate in selecting the ultimate winner, leading to less political disenfranchisement and disillusionment.
Several states and cities, notably Alaska, Maine, and New York City, have already adopted ranked choice voting, and others are slowly following suit. Yet, the pace of adoption lags the speed in which American democracy is being threatened. That said, for wide adoption, clearly Democratic and Republican leaders would need to see ranked choice, or any election reform for that matter, as serving their own political self-interest.
For Democrats, ranked choice voting would quiet the omnipresent fear that left-leaning third parties will spoil Democratic victories in close elections. For Republicans, in recent years, Donald Trump has been the singular litmus test for their party. However, if ostracized Republicans (e.g., Reps. Cheney, Kinzinger, and the like) run as third parties in 2024, it could split Republican tickets and threaten Republican majorities. Alternatively, President Trump has declared his candidacy for the Republican nominee in 2024. Should he lose the nomination and run as a third-party out of spite, it may spell doom for Republicans. Ranked choice voting would alleviate those concerns.
By realigning the political incentive structure through emphasizing coalition building and ensuring that candidates have at least majority support from their electorate, ranked choice encourages moderation and serves as a counterweight to the forces stoking the flames of division online and in our media. Beneficial to both parties, ranked choice voting makes for good politics and, therefore, a better democracy.