Ranked choice voting (RCV) is possibly my favorite policy position. The concept is simple: A voter is allowed to pick their first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. Out of the list of candidates in an election, if no candidate has a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred to each of their voters second choice. This process is repeated until one candidate has a majority. This new system would be more fair to third parties and would allow us to escape the toxic two-party system we currently have. Though RCV isn’t perfect, it is a step to eliminating the two-party system I have come to hate.
Maine enacted RCV for all state wide elections in 2016 via ballot initiative. It has already changed the results of a key election: Maine’s Second Congressional district. Republican candidate Bruce Poliquin had a plurality with 46.3 percent of first choice votes, while Democrat Jared Golden had 45.58 percent. After the independent candidates were eliminated, Golden won with a majority of 50.5 percent.
On Nov. 13 2018, a week after the election, Poliquin filed a lawsuit against the state of Maine on the basis that the constitutional standard that a plurality wins an election should void RCV. Maine’s district court judge ruled that results must be accepted as a consequence of RCV but did not address the constitutionality of RCV.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center released a report describing the shortcomings of RCV (it should be noted that the think tank is closely connected to the conservative donors like the Koch brothers. They pointed out that jurisdictions which use RCV elections have a large number of “exhausted ballots,” which they define as ballots that are either incorrectly filled out or where all the candidates ranked are eliminated. Incorrectly filled out ballots should decline over time as people get more familiar with the system. Having exhausted ballots is actually a feature of RCV. If voters believe the election was managed unfairly to benefit the top two candidates, they can protest by not ranking the front runners, since the high number of exhausted ballots would challenge the credibility of the election. This is similar to how Puerto Rico’s 2017 statehood referendum was discredited due to low turnout. A voter could also just have no preference between the top two.
The report also points out the controversial RCV result of the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont. The election had four major candidates: progessive Bob Kiss, Republican Kurt Wright, Democrat Andy Montroll and independent Dan Smith. Wright had a plurality in the first round and the second round after Smith was eliminated, but lost to Kiss after Montroll was eliminated.
The problem with the election was that Wright supporters generally preferred Montroll over Kiss. If Wright had been eliminated before Montroll, Montroll would have won. A head-to-head election between Montroll and Kiss would of resulted in 7.8 percent margin of victory for Montroll. Therefore Wright supporters would have been happier with the election outcome if they ranked Montoll as their first choice. This is the exact situation RCV is supposed to prevent.
According to the study, RCV changed election results from plurality 16.84 percent of the time it has been is use. That marks a pretty big improvement in democracy, so one imperfect election result should not discount its benefits.
Our lackluster level of political discourse may improve if RCV were implemented and the number of parties increased. More parties would put more opinions out in the public view, which should increase the quality of discussion. Even if our discourse was healthy, shouldn’t we always be trying to better our democracy? We shouldn’t be reckless, but as more states implement RCV we should be watching with a close eye.
The biggest roadblock to a multi-party system is the electoral college. Winning the electoral college requires a majority of electors, so it doesn’t work well with RCV. Abolishing the electoral college would solve this problem. It’s difficult to implement a 21st century voting system when we are stuck with an 18th century one.
Matthew Nola is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org