How Ranked Choice Voting Improves Elections

ADAM GINSBURG: Almost immediately after Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced he was considering seeking the presidency as a centrist in 2020, he faced an onslaught of criticism. Much of the outcry—which included criticism from prominent figures on the Left and an op-ed written by fellow billionaire and presidential-campaign-flirter Michael Bloomberg—rested on a key assumption: that, as Bloomberg put it, “an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the president.” 

But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if we had a system that encouraged third party candidacies and a diversity of ideas instead of the stale, stagnant, two-party status quo? And what if Americans didn’t have to hold their nose and vote for the least-worse candidate but could instead vote for a candidate that genuinely excited them?

Ranked choice voting would provide that change.

Ranked choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, is a voting reform measure that allows voters to rank their candidates by preference. 

Here is how the system works, according to FairVote, an organization committed to voting reform:

“If no candidate has more than half of those [first-choice] votes, then the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice will then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate has more than half of the active votes or only two candidates remain.”

Most directly, by ensuring that the candidate that wins the election has a broad consensus of support, ranked choice voting guarantees that our elected officials truly represent the interests of the majority. Furthermore, ranked choice voting allows voters to select their favorite candidates without fear that they will unintentionally throw the election to their least desired choice. 

Indirectly, ranked choice voting could play a role in dampening divisive rhetoric that surrounds many campaigns by forcing candidates to run on inclusive, issue-based platforms to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate.

Ranked choice voting has already been successful on a statewide level (in last year’s Congressional elections in Maine) and in major cities (like San Francisco, where it has been in place for years). Could it achieve similar success on a national level, particularly in presidential elections?

According to the Constitution, each state is awarded the same number of Electoral College votes as the number of representatives they have in Congress at a given time. Each state thus has two “senatorial” electors plus at least one “house” elector, depending on the state’s population. States then have the freedom to allocate their Electoral College votes however they wish. The vast majority of states apportion all of their electors to the presidential candidate that aggregates the most votes in the state; in other words, they use a winner-takes-all system. 

In Nebraska and Maine, however, the “house” electoral votes are apportioned based on congressional districts. If a candidate wins the popular vote in a particular House district, they win that “house” electoral college vote. Then, the final two “senatorial” electoral votes are awarded to the overall popular vote winner of the whole state.

The most feasible path to ranked choice voting in presidential elections is through individual states amending their state laws to apportion their electors via ranked choice voting. Of course, this would require other states to follow in the path of Maine and Nebraska in bucking the entrenched winner-takes-all status quo—a prospect that, while possible, is not a plausible option in all 50 states, particularly in states where legislatures have an interest in preserving the status quo.

A more far-fetched but also more durable option is a constitutional amendment. Such an amendment, which would need to go through thetraditional, deliberative amendment process, would enshrine ranked choice voting in our Constitution as the method of choice for apportioning electors. This alternative comes with its own drawbacks: the trampling of states’ rights, the reality that many states would not want such a change, and the near impossibility of proposing and ratifying a constitutional amendment in general. 

In either case, the road to making ranked choice voting a reality would be long, arduous, and fraught with obstacles. However, there is another area of the 2020 elections that could benefit from ranked choice voting—the Democratic primary.

It is no secret that there are dozens of Democrats potentially seeking the party’s nomination. Pundits are expecting a fierce primary—one in which candidates might siphon off votes, weaken each other’s candidacies, and accidently forge a path to victory for a nominee most voters find unpalatable.

Establishing ranked choice voting in the presidential primaries—an idea that was actually proposed in the New Hampshire state legislaturethis past week—would ensure that the candidate that eventually becomes the party’s nominee is satisfactory to a majority of the party’s electorate.

Here’s the bottom line: it takes time and concerted effort to alter a stagnant, calcified system. Those who are entrenched in power have an interest in maintaining the status quo and will often do whatever they can to preserve their power. Consequently, there is a good possibility that ranked choice voting will not be instituted in any part of the 2020 elections. 

Nevertheless, the fact that ranked choice voting is seeping into the national consciousness (presidential candidate Andrew Yang endorsed it) bodes well for the future of voting reform.

Max Magid