A Better Way to Vote?
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Ranked-choice voting could be part of the solution to our toxic politics, growing polarization, and poor governance
Despite majoring in mathematics, my first (and really only) exposure to voting theory was in my role as an assistant teacher at an academic summer camp. Our middle school students learned that voting theory is an intriguing mix of politics, behavioral theory, and mathematical reasoning. Like many Americans, I had never considered all the possible ways to vote and express preference in a democracy. In every circumstance where I had cast a vote, whether it was in a student council election or a presidential primary, the plurality method had been used. That is, each voter selected a single candidate to vote for. When the votes were tallied, the candidate with the most votes was the winner.
In that summer course (guided by the excellent textbook "Excursions in Modern Mathematics," by Peter Tannenbaum), we explored ways in which this plurality method can be problematic. The most obvious concern with this method is that the winner can easily fail to win a majority of the votes when there are more than two candidates. For example, Paul LePage, who served as governor of Maine from 2011 to 2019, won both his gubernatorial elections with a plurality (just 38% in his first election). In elections with more than two candidates, the winner of a plurality election can actually be loathed by a healthy majority of voters.
The plurality method can have other consequences for our politics. It reinforces polarization because candidates can win by appealing only to their most extreme supporters. In our two party system, it also discourages the emergence of candidates who don't belong to one of the two most powerful parties. Voters are understandably wary of voting for a "spoiler" who might earn enough votes to ensure that a non-preferred candidate is able to secure a plurality. Even if that third party candidate's views are much more in-line with a voter's politics, there is a rational argument for not voting for them because doing so could result in the election of a candidate who is least desirable.
Ranked-choice voting has emerged recently as a real alternative to plurality voting. In this method, voters are able to rank as many candidates as they like according to their order of preference. When the ballots are collected, if the voters' top ranked picks constitute a majority for a candidate (more than 50% of the ballots), then that candidate is the winner and the election is over. If no candidate earns a majority of top picks, the candidate with the smallest number of top picks is dropped. If a voter chose the dropped candidate as their top pick, their second ranked candidate is elevated and used to update the candidate tallies. If a candidate obtains a majority after this round, they are the winner. If not, the process is continued until one candidate has a majority. For those familiar with a run-off election, this version of ranked-choice voting is basically a run-off election in which voters express all their preferences on a single ballot and do not need to go to the polls more than once. Check out this cute video for a dead-simple example:
The state of Maine recently switched to ranked-choice voting joining cities such as San Francisco and countries like Australia and Ireland. A major appeal of the method is the fact that voters can express their true preference without worrying about "throwing away" their votes. That's because even if their top choice is dropped due to lack of support, their second choice will be used instead.
In a time when U.S. politics seems especially hopeless, I believe that ranked-choice voting could have a role in rehabilitating our democracy. Our politics have never been more polarized. But candidates in a ranked-choice election have a real incentive to appeal to a broader range of voters since earning second choice rankings could be key to winning an election. This could result in less polarizing candidates. The field also becomes more friendly to candidates with a wider range of views who are not endorsed by a major party. Since voters will not be concerned with spoilers, they will be more open to candidates who best match their preferences even if they would be unlikely to win a plurality election. Elected officials facing ranked-choice reelection campaigns will be aware of the need to appeal to moderate voters and will govern accordingly.
Ranked-choice voting alone won't fix our democracy. A true package of reforms is needed, including remedies for gerrymandering and our problematic campaign finance system. The use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate in recent decades has eroded our government's ability to legislate. The right to vote is under a variety of threats. But there is reason to think that a change such as ranked-choice voting could be a logical precursor to other necessary reforms. It's hard to imagine making progress in any of these areas when our institutions are being crushed under the weight of expanding polarization that seems to compound with each election. Perhaps a change in our most fundamental democratic act could set the stage for the civil discourse and accountable governance that we need.