The Promise of Ranked-Choice Voting
Recent partisan battles have become altogether too warlike, often following the strict win-lose model and belligerent rhetoric for which wars are famous. Many of the goals we as Friends would like to work on in the political realm are stymied because we’re not hopping into pitched battles, choosing one side, and demonizing the other. The very goals we seek are difficult to achieve using those techniques, which are contrary to our values.
There are many ways to practice a more peaceful approach. I offer some thoughts on one way that applies to public elections: Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV).
The method of voting isn’t normally regarded as a matter of spiritual concern, but Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) has “Voting and Elections” as one of its major issues, and favors legislation that gives the process more integrity. FCNL also campaigns to encourage voting for the sake of greater democracy. Yet as long as the vote is between only two candidates, belligerent tactics remain likely.
Ranked-Choice Voting means that the voter selects a first choice candidate, a second choice candidate, and so on for however many more choices are offered in that race. Voters rank only the candidates they find acceptable, and leave unranked candidates they can’t abide. Here’s how a ballot could be marked in a four-way race:
From the voter’s point of view, it’s that simple. To determine the winner, the most common method is instant run-off: the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is knocked out, and all the remaining votes on ballots where the eliminated candidate was the first choice go to the other candidates. In turn, each candidate receiving the least number of votes is eliminated until one candidate has a majority of the votes. No one wins with a mere plurality: that is, having the greatest number of votes that is still less than a majority. In this system, voters can vote for who they actually want first, before ranking the candidates they don’t like as much but would find more acceptable than others.
In the United States, RCV is being used in Maine and Alaska and several dozen cities. It’s also used in professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (that’s where my positive experience with it is), and it’s used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select the Academy Awards’ Oscars winners.
Many of the goals we as Friends would like to work on in the political realm are stymied because we’re not hopping into pitched battles, choosing one side, and demonizing the other. The very goals we seek are difficult to achieve using those techniques, which are contrary to our values.
The Lesser-Evil Conundrum
This system of voting prevents having to vote for a candidate we don’t want: for example, the depressingly familiar scenario of a candidate who is war-mongering, wants to modernize nuclear weapons, and raise the military budget, running against an alternative candidate who is even worse on these issues. These two options are all we get if we want to vote for someone who can win.
This is the main reason I’m excited about Ranked-Choice Voting. If we can make a first choice, a second choice, a third choice, then we can vote first for what we actually want. Our final ranked choice may be for the lesser evil, so we haven’t thrown the election to the one who’s even worse.
As with many Friends, I tend to vote for the Green Party. In tight elections, we’re accused of being responsible for an unacceptable candidate winning. This was an especially sharp criticism in the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2016. In both cases, people who wanted to escape from the lesser-evil, two-option approach were bitterly denounced for refusing to vote for a candidate who could win.
In 2016, there were about 1.5 million people who voted for the Green Party, and there were about two million people who skipped the presidential vote but voted down the ballot, which is another method of avoiding choosing between two options.
With RCV, voters could feel comfortable voting Green first and Democrat second, or Libertarian first and Republican second. They could choose to stay with one vote only: it’s their choice. They’ve communicated who they actually want, not merely who they find least objectionable.
With RCV, criticism of third-party voters would cease, because the “spoiler effect” of third parties would disappear.
In the example of Greens and Democrats, voting Green first and Democrat second no longer deprives the Democrat of winning over a Republican candidate. It does not deprive the Green Party of votes. A voter could also decide to vote Democrat first but give the Green Party policies more influence by ranking their candidate second. Voters are better able to communicate their preferences and can vote with greater integrity.
Might a third-party or independent candidate actually win that way? Once the problem of choosing between only two candidates is gone, a third-party win becomes more plausible. Regardless, the policies of third-party candidates will have more influence as they receive the votes they’ve earned.
Photo by JeanLuc.
In systems in which only two candidates can plausibly win, candidates are motivated to sling mud at each other. My opponent was caught cheating on a spelling test in the third grade! Aren’t you scandalized? (I made that one up, but it’s based on things I’ve heard.)
If a candidate can get the second-ranked choice of voters then they may be motivated to be nicer to competitors in the race. There’s an incentive to not alienate voters. Even if a candidate doesn’t get the first choice vote, being second choice is a real possibility for candidates with similar policies. That could make the difference in winning. But the second-choice ranking won’t come if the candidate makes the voters angry by attacking their preferred candidate. Greater civility should ensue, and, hopefully, more attention would be given to actual issues. This seems to be the case in the cities that have tried RCV.
All our hard work to persuade people on issues of peace, equality, and compassion will better translate at the ballot box if the election method itself better expresses the will of the voters. Ranked-Choice Voting is one method of doing that.
Plurality Wins and Demagoguery
For decades, many problems in public policy have been traced to politicians winning with less than a majority. With Ranked-Choice Voting, the winner must have majority support. It may be that the candidate gets only a portion of first-choice ranking, but if she or he then gets second- and third-choice rankings, that could lead to majority support. A candidate who can’t get those lower ranking votes doesn’t win.
To put it another way: if there are two different races with candidates who each get a third of the vote in their race, and that’s the greatest number of votes because the rest are split up among several other candidates, then under current rules each candidate wins each race (this is a very common situation in primaries and other multi-candidate races). If the candidate in one race also got a quarter of the second-choice rankings, that candidate now has a majority, and wins the election. If the candidate in the other race got a third of the first-choice vote from a highly enthusiastic group, but is strongly disliked by other voters, they won’t get the second-choice rankings and will not win the race.
Under the current winner-take-all model, there would be no distinction between these two candidates. But in reality, there’s a huge difference: one is acceptable, if not exciting, to most voters; the other’s election could mean a minority view is allowed to ride roughshod over the population.
Plurality wins can put people into office who have unpopular and unhelpful agendas. It would be a different matter if a majority of voters wanted militaristic or racist policies; then we would need to work on educating and witnessing to the population. But if the majority of people are compassionate on specific issues—and polls on many issues indicate that this is true—then it’s not the voting population but the voting method that promotes bad policy. If that voting method doesn’t reflect the will of the majority (indeed, might go against the will of the majority), then some very cruel policies can be imposed on society without democratic support, as we’ve seen both recently and historically.
All our hard work to persuade people on issues of peace, equality, and compassion will better translate at the ballot box if the election method itself better expresses the will of the voters. Ranked-Choice Voting is one method of doing that, and because its practice and advocacy is becoming more widespread, it’s a realistic policy that can be achieved in one organization, one city, and one state after another until it becomes the norm everywhere.