The U.S. electoral system is riddled with flaws. It suffers from voter suppression, gerrymandering, an unrepresentative Senate that privileges land over people, and archaic certification systems that can be subverted by anti-democratic holdouts.
But a more fundamental problem is the voting method itself. Most states use what’s called first-past-the-post, where every person chooses the candidate they like best, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Its virtue is simplicity, but it has undesirable consequences.
With first-past-the-post voting, voters have an incentive to cast their ballots strategically rather than according to their principles. If you vote for a candidate who has no chance of winning, your vote is “wasted” and has no effect on the outcome of the race. Worse, two or more similar candidates can split their base, spoiling each other and handing victory to someone that none of their voters wanted. (This is an especial problem for non-white candidates.)
To stop this from happening, you have to guess who’s most likely to win among the candidates you find tolerable. You have to vote not for who you personally want, but whoever you think is most acceptable to the electorate as a whole.
This kind of self-compromising and second-guessing is bad for democracy because it prevents voters from expressing their actual preferences. It encourages candidates to stifle their sincerely held views for fear of losing support, and rewards bland centrists who kick the can down the road and focus on being as inoffensive as possible.
(If you think Donald Trump was a counterexample, he isn’t, because the U.S.’ broken electoral system permits something worse than first-past-the-post: a candidate who can win with a minority of votes.)
First-past-the-post systems dam up progressive change and thwart decisive action when it’s urgently needed. They shut out minority opinions and inevitably collapse the spectrum of political opinion into two giant conglomerate parties that don’t represent anyone well. As a consequence, they encourage voters to tolerate incompetence and corruption – because if we don’t back our guy, someone even worse might get in. Last but not least, they incentivize uninformative horse-race coverage, where the media focuses on who’s “winning” instead of whose policies and ideas are best.
But a better way is possible. In a 2019 referendum, New York City overwhelmingly approved ranked-choice voting, joining many cities and some states, and that’s what will be used in the upcoming 2021 primaries for mayoral and city council elections.
In ranked-choice voting, also called instant-runoff, voters rank candidates in their order of preference. If no one wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Whoever ranked that candidate as their first choice, those people’s votes go to their second-choice candidates. This repeats until there’s a winner.
In a ranked-choice system, the outcome more closely tracks voters’ real desires. Minority parties can compete without fear of playing the spoiler, creating more room for independence and a flourishing diversity of political debate. Party machines are weakened, and corrupt or incompetent politicians are easier to weed out. It helps women and people of color build electoral power.
To be sure, ranked-choice voting isn’t exempt from strategic considerations. Arrow’s theorem proves that all electoral systems, including this one, can give rise to seemingly “unfair” outcomes.
Imagine a scenario that looks like this. The table lists three parties, the percentage of people who select that party as their first choice, and which party those people put down as their second choice:
Social Justice Warriors 34% (34% Lukewarms) Lukewarms 32% (15% SJW, 17% C&H) Crosses and Hoods 34% (34% Lukewarms)
The Lukewarms have the fewest votes, so they’re eliminated, and their voters are redistributed among the remaining parties according to their second choices. Which results in:
Social Justice Warriors 49% Crosses and Hoods 51%
Not a good outcome for the SJWs.
On the other hand, if a small number of Social Justice Warriors – just 2% of the overall population – strategically put Lukewarms as their first choice:
Social Justice Warriors 32% (32% Lukewarms) Lukewarms 34% (17% SJW, 17% C&H) Crosses and Hoods 34% (34% Lukewarms)
which results in a very different outcome that I’m guessing the SJWs would find more acceptable:
Lukewarms 66% Crosses and Hoods 34%
Now, under a ranked-choice system, strategic voting is a lot more difficult. To pull it off, you have to guess not just the electorate’s first choices, but their second choices – and possibly third or fourth choices too, depending on how many parties there are. In most realistic situations, people won’t be able to do this, and voting their honest preferences will be the default.
This points to the most obvious disadvantage of ranked-choice: it’s more complicated! It’s not enough to pick your favorite candidate; you have to decide how you feel about all the others. I can believe that there are voters who will give up rather than participate in this system, or waste their ballots with invalid choices.
Such is the argument in this column, which effectively asserts, “Americans are too ignorant to inform themselves about even one candidate! We can’t possibly ask them to learn about more than one”:
A Pew Research survey found that 34% of Republican voters and 32.5% of Democrats couldn’t even name their own party’s nominee for Congress; now voters are expected to have five informed choices, in order of preference?
More absurdly, the article claims that RCV disenfranchises voters whose ballots are “exhausted” – that is, all their preferred candidates are eliminated before the final round, so their votes have no influence on the outcome – as if FPTP voting doesn’t disenfranchise far more people under the same standard.
Also, those who don’t understand RCV can get upset at counterintuitive results. A case in point was the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont, where a candidate, Bob Kiss, who was trailing after the first round ultimately won the election. This isn’t unexpected in ranked-choice systems, but the popular anger over this outcome led the city to repeal its RCV system (only to bring it back earlier this year).
But in the long run, as people get familiar with it, these problems should fade away. If New York and other trailblazing cities lead it to be adopted elsewhere, so much the better. It’s going to take a lot more work to overhaul our broken electoral system into a democracy we can truly be proud of, but this is a good start.