Democracy is important. The ancient Greeks knew that. Everyone else forgot it for a couple thousand years, and then America remembered. Suffering beneath the widespread paw of the British tea-and-taxes machine, a spunky bunch of would-be American patriots found common ground in vanquishing the evil empire and building atop its ashes a democratic nation.
Similar to their plight, I find myself under the collective weight of the internet’s political bros, banded together to remind me that the newly-conceptualized United States was never intended to be a proud democracy, but instead a rudimentary republic, one built out of equal parts compromise and necessity. I acquiesce; they’re right. The United States is not and has never been a proper democracy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds.
The history of the United States is a thinly-veiled chronologue of mind changing, starting from the very beginning. Almost immediately after signing the Declaration of Independence, our foredaddies decided after the fact to fix Wolves amend it, adding on the Bill of Rights we now know as integral. We changed our minds in deciding brown people were… people and that women had brains that could be aimed toward voting. We decided that words on paper meant something real when we wrote the Declaration of Independence and went back on that decision when we signed treaties with our native neighbors. I’m starting to regret the “we” motif. Regardless, none of this is what I want to talk about here. That’s not what this is.
What this really is is a chance for me to soapbox about how we vote and how the American voting system is one of the worst we’ve ever come up with. There are a lot of problems with American democracy. Many, even. There are… easily-exploitable voting machines, gerrymandered districts, campaign finance issues driven by widespread inequality, and other problems I can’t even think of. Today, though, we’re keeping it simple and starting at the top with the very way we vote.
Designing the American system of democracy, our nation’s architects made the wise decision to allow the people to vote for their government. Then they fucked everything else up. Again, this is ignoring the stipulation that “the people” means “light skinned, land-owning, penis-holding people”. We don’t have time for that. We’re running right past the ballot box and all its obstructions to look at what happens after your vote is cast.
Assuming good faith by your polling place and its (typically) elderly caretakers, your vote becomes an essential tally-mark beside the name of the candidate you vote for. Depending on your personality, profile, and privilege, that name probably has either a (D) or an (R) next to it. If you’re feeling particularly wasteful (we’ll get to that later), it might have a different letter or set of letters. In most elections, we can expect one of each of these to run. In some, the vote difference between the two in the end will be significant. In many, it’ll be small. And in most American constituencies, whichever of the two gets more votes wins. That’s democracy, clad bright in red, blue, and white. The decision most people agree with is the decision we make. But what about when it’s not the decision most people agree with? In a clean-cut, Democrat vs. Republican (and no one else) election, someone is getting over 50% of the votes cast. Majority wins. But what about a dirty not-clean-cut election where other names are on the field. Greens, Libertarians, Prohibition Party, American Anime Party… that’s just the tip of it. Imagine independents, write-ins, ballots cast without a vote. In this scenario, it’s very easy to imagine that one of the major candidates wins with somewhere around 45% of the vote to the other candidate’s, say… 39%. In this case, the candidate with 45% wins without securing a majority. More wanted them than the runner-up, but 55% of the district’s constituents wanted someone else. In most of America, this is how elections work.
Now, for some, 45% is close enough to 50%. It’s not, but let’s entertain the idea anyway. In the United States, third-party candidates don’t usually gain enough traction to knock Dems and Republicans collectively beneath the 85% mark, but they certainly could with the right conditions in place. Beyond that, though, other countries that (somehow) maintain multi-party systems with the same method of voting (lookin’ at you, Canada) do have a very real problem with this downside of plurality voting. It’s not at all unheard of for a candidate with less than 40% of the vote to win an election. Similarly, while this problem is rare on the main stages of American politics, it’s really not that uncommon at other levels. In primary elections, for example, it’s pretty normal for a party’s eventual contender to be the person who won the most votes in a relatively crowded field, sometimes well beneath 50%. In Presidential Elections (one of which is already underway), the people who win early primary states get the benefit of a strong bump to their chances at eventual victory without the requirement of satisfying over half of a state’s party voters.
This is a problem, but it’s one we can fix by changing our electoral system. The one we currently use is termed “first-past-the-post” (FPTP for brevity/sanity), referring to its allocation of victory to the person with the most votes (but not necessarily most of the votes). The result is a hypothetical scenario where a candidate with a simple plurality (more votes than any other candidate) can win an election without securing a majority (over 50%) of the votes.
Even in cases of majority confidence, though, first-past-the-post just isn’t that great. A candidate who manages to win 51% of the vote is still one who lost 49% of it. Again, the indoctrinated fools among you might think “That’s the point. Majority rules. That’s the way it goes.” and that the unrepresented should suck it up. Then, in a whisper, you’ll remind me that “OK Boomer” is the N word of 2019. All my best friends are made of straw.
Back on task, Winston Churchill admitted that democracy was a flawed and imperfect system whose only benefit was its supremacy against all other forms of government. If I really mean to rip apart our democratic underpinnings, I’d better have an alternative suggestion, right? And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written this part. Put plainly: yes.
FPTP isn’t the only system of voting, but it is one of the worst. Beside it are a number of more appetizing options. Among them, my favorite is Instant Runoff Voting. Over here, it’s sometimes called “Ranked Choice Voting”. My neighbors in Minneapolis will recognize it as the way we elect our mayor and the way we should elect just about everyone else. On the voter’s side, it’s remarkably simple.
In casting an Instant Runoff ballot, instead of choosing which politician gets your single vote, you rank candidates in preferential order. After all votes are cast, candidates are eliminated from the bottom up. If your first choice candidate was the one who received the fewest votes, your vote is automatically (instantly) transferred to your second-choice candidate. As candidates are eliminated, your vote continues to move until there are two candidates remaining. At that point, the person with the most votes wins.
So let’s imagine this practically: you’re voting in an election for mayor. There are six candidates running: Best Candidate, Good Candidate, Fine Candidate, Bad Candidate, Hitler’s Ghost, and Jeb Bush. You decide to select Best Candidate as your first preference, Good Candidate for your second, and Fine Candidate for your third. Feeling satisfied, you cast your ballot and head home. When the polls close, you tune into election coverage and find out that the ballots have all been counted and that the placements are as follows:
- Bad Candidate (33%)
- Good Candidate (25%)
- Fine Candidate (15%)
- Best Candidate (12%)
- Jeb Bush (10%)
- Hitler’s Ghost (5%)
Now, in a first-past-the-post election, Bad Candidate would win, even though he didn’t receive more than half of the votes. In this election, though, things aren’t over yet. Because Hitler’s ghost only received 5% of the election’s first-choice votes, he is eliminated from the running and the votes he received will be redistributed based on voter preference. Without recalling voters to the polls, the election moves onto its next round, and the results are as follows:
- Bad Candidate (36%)
- Good Candidate (25%)
- Fine Candidate (15%)
- Best Candidate (12%)
- Jeb Bush (11%)
With Hitler’s Ghost eliminated, his votes are reallocated to those still in the running. In this scenario, Bad Candidate benefits most and remains in first place, though he still has yet to secure a majority. This round, Jeb Bush comes in last, smashing dreams nationwide. He may have had the power to unite the electoral college, but he couldn’t kick it in your small town. His votes are redistributed based on voter preference and Round 3 begins. The results are announced as follows:
- Bad Candidate (42%)
- Good Candidate (26%)
- Fine Candidate (18%)
- Best Candidate (12%)
In Round 3, Best Candidate falls short, failing to receive enough second- or third-choice votes from either of the two lower-placing candidates to stay in the race. In a system that allows you only one vote for one candidate, you’ve just been silenced. As fortune would have it, this is not that system. With Best Candidate’s elimination, your vote goes to your second choice, Good Candidate. The votes are recounted and the results are as follows:
- Bad Candidate (42%)
- Good Candidate (36%)
- Fine Candidate (20%)
The vast majority of Best Candidate’s votes went to Good Candidate, with Fine Candidate picking some up as well. With three candidates remaining, Bad Candidate is still in the lead, but Good Candidate is decidedly closer. In fact, she now has a larger share of the vote than Bad Candidate did in round one, indicating that at least 36% of the town’s residents would rather see Good Candidate elected than Bad Candidate. Again, we still don’t have our majority, so let’s watch as another round of my made-up election plays out. Fine Candidate is eliminated, the votes are redistributed and the results are as follows:
- Good Candidate (52%)
- Bad Candidate (45%)
It’s still a pretty close election, but in the end, Good Candidate won out, because, ultimately, more people wanted her to be mayor than her opponent. In our current FPTP system, Bad Candidate wins with only a third of the votes. In this cuter, Instant Runoff system, Good Candidate wins with a majority of the votes cast.
Now, to some, this may seem like we’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist; sure, this is a better way of electing to a position from a pool of six candidates, but most races aren’t between six candidates, they’re between two big-namers and a few little guys with no chance at victory. Indeed, the Democratic-Republican divide is so entrenched in our nation’s political mind that few elections across the 50 states differ significantly from the standard One Democrat vs. One Republican structure. But like the miracle cure that it is, Instant Runoff Voting can change that too.
The reason elections in the United States are narrowed down to the two deeply-entrenched and ultra-powerful political parties is fear of the Spoiler Effect. Simply put, the Spoiler Effect occurs when a vote cast for a preferred candidate takes away a potential vote for an otherwise acceptable candidate, leading both to lose to a less desirable candidate. In the terms of example above, think of a scenario where the mayoral election is between Best Candidate, Good Candidate, and Bad Candidate. Even though more people don’t want Bad Candidate as mayor than do, Best Candidate draws more votes away from Good Candidate than Bad Candidate, resulting in a situation where neither has enough to win, and with no one on Bad Candidate’s side to take votes from him, he wins the election handily, and (again) without a majority.
In more familiar terms, this could be a politician from the Green Party taking votes from the Democratic Party and giving the win to the Republican Party, or a Libertarian doing the opposite (please don’t @ me, Libertarians. I understand your groovy centrism). Running as a third-party candidate in the United States is all but a lost cause, because the risk of the Spoiler Effect sits on top of the hefty battle against name recognition that already befalls anyone who attempts to go up against the titanic Goliaths that are either party.
Instant Runoff does away with this fear by welcoming third-party votes while still allowing for the escape route of including an established-party candidate as one of your latter preferences. A third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) party candidate cannot steal votes from a more conventional candidate because votes are fluid and smoothly moved from eliminated candidates to those still in the running.
Practically applied, this doesn’t mean we transition from a two-party system to a successful multi-party structure overnight, but once the citizenry become comfortable with this new system’s capability for change, the speed with which that change is applied may surprise us. To be fair, the difference might not be entirely positive. While the obvious potential beneficiaries of the system might be already-established third parties like the Libertarians and the Greens, this new method of voting opens the door for all sorts of ideological contests to the established order. It wouldn’t be too insane to see a sort of far-right populist party snag a couple congressional seats, and some of the more… socialism-prone districts might not pass up the opportunity to elect a candidate who is socialist-in-name-also. Obviously, the weight of each of these depends on where you fall on the political spectrum. I’m not a radical centrist, so they don’t scare me as equally as they might the heroic defenders of the “both sides are bad” bastion. Still, while Instant Runoff has potential to give a voice to fringe ideologues, its core effect is more likely to benefit those closer to the center in any given jurisdiction.
Because Instant Runoff Voting lets voters rank their candidates in preferential order, it creates a new avenue for partisan voters on “both” sides to direct their eventual votes toward a candidate they can both agree on, rather than alternating between comparative extremes. Again, this doesn’t mean that the winning candidate will be the most centrist, but instead that the person who most adequately represents an individual district‘s center becomes more likely to win. Liberal districts will still likely elect liberal candidates, conservative districts will, in all likelihood, still elect conservative candidates, but both will be restricted more by the pull of minority groups in the interest of creating a more realistic majority.
We all agree that I’ve just given you your new favorite system of voting, but for all our excitement, what’s there to worry about if we enact an Instant Runoff system? The biggest concern is complexity. Opponents of Instant Runoff Voting point out that the system is naturally harder to understand than FPTP, and that that increased level of complexity and confusion could keep potential voters from voting. It’s a fair concern, especially when we recognize that it’s more likely to keep uneducated voters from the ballot box than anyone else.
The answer, though, isn’t nearly as complex: education and simplification. Sure, Instant Runoff is a bit more complicated than First-past-the-post, but voting is more complex than not voting. If we’re going by the simplest system, maybe we should all be content with staying in bed and letting the guy with the biggest stick make all of our decisions. The alt-right is giddy. Our first step should be to make this system as simple and easy to explain as we can. The first first step? Getting rid of the term I’ve been using this whole time. “Instant Runoff” is perfectly apt and descriptive enough for statisticians and political scientists, but it’s too needlessly wordy for wide-spread adoption. “Ranked choice voting” already exists as an alternative name, and I think it’s lovely. It’s not quite as descriptive, but it paints a better picture without requiring an advanced education. It’s no “freedom dividend“, but it’ll work.
Once people understand that they’re ranking their choices rather than choosing just one, everything else becomes pretty trivial. For example, if somebody knows that they prefer Good Candidate to Fine Candidate and Fine Candidate to Bad Candidate, does it matter that they understand the intricacies of how their votes are counted? As long as the numbers make their way onto the paper, the system works the same whether you understand it or not, which is more than can be said about our current system. Ask yourself, is this really more complicated than the electoral college, where the result of the popular vote for each state is translated into electoral recommendations (which can be followed or ignored at will) sent to electors nominated by an arcane, faceless system, which then somehow translate to electoral votes that may or may not mirror the popular will of the people? If we can accept that unamended shitshow for 250 years, surely we can stomach this.
Instant Runoff Ranked choice voting is already in place and functioning at some level in countries around the world. Australia has used it in its House of Representatives elections since 1919, which really makes us look dumb for just considering it now. In the United States, its application has been limited mostly to cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Oakland, but no one has gone harder for ranked choice than Maine. Bills passed in the Maine legislature mandate ranked choice voting in both state and federal elections. A subsequent Supreme Court bummer took away the vote at the state level, but it’s still how Maine’s United States senators and representatives are elected. Starting next year, it’s how Mainers will cast their vote for President. Instant runoff may not yet be mainstream, but it is Mainestream, and that’s all the more reason to love it.
Tell your friends!!
(Originally published on bengrapevine.com on November 23, 2019)