The election of 2016 was a low point in American politics. Not because of who won, and not because of how he won, but because it was between two of the most historically disliked candidates in the past 40 years. As Nate Silver noted on fivethirtyeight.com, polling data showed no two candidates were more historically hated in the months before the election. Thirty-seven percent of those polled had a “strongly unfavorable” view of Clinton, while 53% had similar views of Trump. That’s unprecedented.
How did we get to the point where two such widely disliked candidates managed to secure the nomination of their party? How did we sink to forcing Americans to hold their nose and choose the lesser of two evils? What about those of us who don’t like voting for evil, period?
The problem is not who we vote for. The problem is how we vote. Most American elections are conducted as a “first past the post” system: Whoever gets the most votes wins. It sounds simple, and it’s what voters are most familiar with, but it’s got loads of problems. There’s a better way: Ranked Choice Voting.
With ranked choice voting, or RCV, voters can vote for multiple candidates on the ballot. They rank each one as their first choice, second, third, and so forth. If whoever has the most first choice ballots gets 50% of the vote, they win. If not, the candidate with the least first choice votes is thrown out, and those ballots are awarded to their second choice candidates. The process continues until a candidate gets a majority of votes.
Why is this better?
For one, it encourages candidates to appeal outside their base, potentially to voters with whom they disagree. What a concept! When a candidate understands that being a voter’s second or third choice is important, they are more likely to reach out to undecided, unaffiliated, independent and moderate voters.
Compare this with the presidential campaigns of the past 20 years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that even if I don’t like Candidate X all that much, the stakes are too high to let Candidate Y win. The writers of The Simpsons had it right way back in 1996. Watch the clip “Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos”. Comedy then, tragedy now.
RCV also makes it easier for independents and third parties to have an impact. Suppose there’s a candidate out there whom you like, but has little or no chance of winning. Right now, you might not vote for them because you have to worry about “throwing your vote away”. So you grit your teeth and vote for someone with only one redeeming quality: They’re less objectionable than their opponent.
But with RCV, you can make Candidate Longshot your first choice, and Candidate Electable your second. You and Candidate Longshot’s supporters have made your voices heard, and your votes are no longer mere “spoilers”. If no candidate gets 50% of the first choice ballots, than your votes for Candidate Electable get counted too. What’s not to like?
RCV is not some crazy, far-fetched notion. Maine adopted it in 2018, and will use it in its first federal election next fall. Many cities, including New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis, use it for various elections. Numerous chapters of the League of Women Voters have endorsed it. Australia, Ireland, the U.K. and New Zealand employ it at multiple levels. Closer to home, Telluride has used it for over 10 years.
Sure, RCV isn’t perfect. It’s a little more complicated than first-past-the-post, and will take some getting used to. But it allows for much more accurate displays of voter preferences, more competition, less polarization, more appeals to independent and unaffiliated voters.
Most importantly, it could help cure the sickness of polarization and dogmatism that ails us as a country.
Colorado swings purple: Independents and moderates make up a large portion of the electorate here. We’d be a great place for more cities to try RCV, better still at the state and federal levels.
How about it, folks? A better, healthier type of politics would be something we’d all be thankful for.
Barry Fagin is Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can contact Dr. Fagin at email@example.com.