With the midterms in rearview and the presidential election still relatively far away, 2019 is a perfect year to put into question the practicality of our electoral system—one that is not codified in our Constitution and does not provide for an accurate representation of the electors’ will.
When writing the Constitution and outlining how our model of parliament should work, the Founders left the rules of the game—how our representatives get elected—entirely up to the states and Congress:
“The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of choosing Senators.” (U.S. Constitution. art. I sec. 4.)
These institutions, in response, opted for the British standard of first-past-the-post (FPTP), whereby the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins. With few other democratic options known to them, there was never any debate on the matter, and FPTP developed throughout the newly independent states. It is arguably the simplest way of naming winners. In fact, its simplicity would be the system’s redeeming quality: simple for the voters, who do not require a high level of literacy to understand the electoral procedure; simple for the candidates, who only need to focus on getting a minimum of one vote more than their closest rival; simple also for election officials, for whom the process of counting ballots and understanding how they translate into a winner could not be achieved through another democratic form.
But this simple procedure does not translate the voters’ suffrage accurately, as FPTP creates an environment where only two major parties can successfully coexist: traditionally, a party of the left contrasting with one of the right, both of which alternate in power. Maurice Duverger developed that theory back in the 1950s, and it has since been broadly accepted by political scientists as a law. FPTP ignores complexity of thought, does little to further the plurality of opinion in legislative bodies, and increases political apathy, with many voters dissatisfied with the meager choice of two viable candidates in a given election. Representatives are elected with the illusion of benefiting from an unconditional suffrage to govern as they like, when their constituents’ choice essentially consisted of picking one of two possible answers.
Before expanding further on the problems presented by FPTP, let us already mention that there is an alternative, one which answers to that system’s inadequacies. It is an alternative recently introduced to the general US population through our New England neighbors. During the 2016 election cycle, Mainers voted 52 to 48 percent in favor of that year’s ballot question 5, which allowed ranked-choice voting (RCV). With 2018 being the first year any state has tried out this electoral system, we can examine not only how RCV works in theory, but also how it has worked in practice.
1 Instructions displayed to voters in Maine on election day. (Sample ballot from Maine.gov)
Also known as instant-runoff voting, preferential voting or the alternative vote system, RCV sets out to use as many rounds as are necessary to designate a winner with a majority. Voters under RCV have the option of not only voting for one candidate but ranking as many of the candidates as they want in the order of their choice. One such voter could fill in the oval for their favorite candidate but also include a second choice, should their first choice get eliminated, as well as additional choices, for as many potential rounds as there are candidates. Once come the time to process the election results, if a candidate manages to get 50-percent-plus-one of their district’s votes, that candidate is elected. However, if no candidate can attain an absolute majority of votes, then an additional round is held automatically, eliminating the candidate with the least number of votes and allocating the candidate’s votes to their elector’s second choices (bearing in mind that they may not have all chosen the same person). This process of elimination-and-transfer is repeated until a candidate reaches an absolute majority.
2 The U.S. Representative ballot section for Maine's second congressional district. (Sample ballot from Maine.gov)
That’s the theory, but we also got to see RCV play out in practice in Maine’s senatorial race and the elections in its two congressional districts. In the first, incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree gathered a majority of 58.8 percent in the first round against her two opponents, thereby eliminating the need for a runoff. But in the second congressional district, none were that fortunate. Three candidates challenged incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin. The congressman came out as the leader in the first round, but his share of the vote—46.3 percent compared to his Democratic rival’s 45.6 percent—fell short of a majority, thereby triggering an instant runoff. The vote transfers from the two defeated independents reversed Poliquin’s lead, and Democrat Jared Golden was elected as the congressman from that district, harboring 50.6 percent of the final share of the votes. In short, RCV worked exactly as it was supposed to.
Opponents to RCV will see in FPTP a successful “gatekeeper of democracy,” one that, by excluding smaller parties from Congress and executive offices, effectively prevents extremists and their parties from gaining political power. They would argue that enacting RCV would pave the way for extremists in power. I argue instead that RCV combats extremist views: under this system, it is not enough for candidates to rally the votes of their own supporters. They also should ensure to appear prominently among others’ second choices, lest they be eliminated early on in favor of more consensual candidates. It is to attract these second and third choices that politicians will realize that appealing strictly to their own narrow base will only ensure their defeat as they are overtaken by candidates with a broader appeal.
We may also look to the examples of Australia and Papua New Guinea where, instead of creating incessant gridlock as opponents to RCV would contend, the system encourages cooperation and compromise in politics, answering to a larger number of electors than just those who voted for the winning party. For instance, in the Australian House of Representatives, the Liberal party and the National party had to assemble in a center-right coalition in order to form a government against the Labor opposition, which virtually represents the only party left-of-center in Australia’s House.
Indeed, whereas FPTP gives rise to single-party governments in a legislature who have broad discretion to operate as they will, establishing RCV as the norm for the election of members of Congress would improve the diversity of opinion and interests. If it caught on, RCV would likely force members of Congress into coalition with smaller parties whose existence would have been made possible by overcoming the two-party system.
Currently, third parties rarely receive a significant amount of support, since, in effect, a third-party candidate often ends up siphoning votes from the major candidate they are the most similar to. For that reason, a vote for a third-party candidate is habitually seen as a “wasted vote”—one that could potentially have served the runner-up in defeating the elected winner. When, in 2000, 2.7 percent of the electorate voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader over Democrat Al Gore (who would have been their second choice), many supporters of Gore saw in those “wasted votes” the reason for the Democrats’ defeat that year and the subsequent election of George W. Bush. Similarly, Ross Perot’s independent run in the 1992 presidential election could have boosted Bill Clinton’s win to his first term in office by hindering his opponent. It is disputed—though obviously impossible to know—whether Perot “spoiled” George H.W. Bush’s chances of reelection, with the independent receiving 18.9 percent of the votes (but no electoral votes), a record for a non-major party presidential candidate. Whenever a successful third-party candidate emerges within FPTP, a trade-off happens which further misrepresents the electorate’s will.
Under RCV, all the headaches related to tactical voting in a field of more than two candidates are eliminated. Within FPTP, these headaches exist as three fundamental questions: Should I vote for the candidate I like the most or one who has a chance of winning? How will others vote and how should that affect my vote? How likely is it that my candidate will win? Add to that some excessive polling, followed by coverage of these same polls on a 24-hour loop, and you are left with a distorted election where few people got to vote for their ideal candidate. Contrast that with RCV, where voters may pick their utmost favorite candidate, while also designating candidates they tolerate as their backups. The anticipated outcome is an elected member who benefits from the approval of a majority of their constituency. This greater level of consent needed for a candidate to secure an election makes the officials elected under RCV more legitimate in their role than those elected with a simple plurality of votes in one round.
All in all, a field of candidates for an elected position should do its best to mirror the complexities of public opinion. In 2016, the two major presidential candidates were historically unpopular, yet there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that one of the two would win. Alternatives, trampled under FPTP, have a chance to emerge with RCV, and even prove to be more popular than the traditional binary choice.
Having emerged successfully in Maine, RCV may have other states thinking over how they frame their elections—and fortunately so. Following the example set by the Pine Tree State, Massachusetts should be among the firsts to make ranked-choice voting a reality for its electorate. Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim had already endorsed the idea back in September, during his unsuccessful bid for secretary of state. Though such matters are not under the jurisdiction of a city council, the General Court (and its veto-proof supermajority) has the authority to change how we send people to represent us in Congress. And, whether it be Congress, state houses or executive offices, wherever FPTP exists, it should be amended with RCV.