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Choosing Ranked Choice
How plurality voting has failed us and why ranked choice is an answer to reforming our voting system.
January 23, 2021
2020 marks a significant election year: an opportunity to decide our nation’s leader amidst a global pandemic, the largest racial movement in U.S. history, and the ticking time bomb of climate change. Our decisions in 2020 and nearing election years will shift the future of America in unprecedented ways.
Our decisions in 2020 and nearing election years will shift the future of America in unprecedented ways.”
During this unparalleled, pandemic-coinciding election year, we must take a leap to think outside the status quo of the way we elect our officials. Voters have been set into the century-old box of a plurality voting system and been told to choose a winner, an action we’ve blindly done again and again at the ballot box. But as 2016 has demonstrated, simply showing up at the polls isn’t enough to ensure majority rule. On the 2020 ballot and in future elections, voters can’t simply just keep voting. We need to re-evaluate the way we choose who takes on the role of being our collective voice across local, state and federal offices.
Is the way we choose our representatives fair, or is it outdated? How can we best reflect majority opinions through voting? Let’s take on these questions and make ourselves heard not just by voting but by also advocating for the way we should vote, whatever your opinion may be.
Ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting (IRV), has been arguably the most popular alternative listed to plurality voting. RCV works by having voters rank their favorite to least favorite pick of the candidates. The ballots are then calculated by looking at the first choice; if any of the candidates has a majority, they win the election. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate who had the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated and all the ballots that ranked the now eliminated candidate first are re-allocated to go to whoever was the second choice candidate on each of said ballots. The process repeats until an outright majority is declared.
In the current system where a candidate can win without a majority and even by a slim margin, RCV offers a method of voting that has the potential to more accurately represent constituent opinions. RCV can minimize what is dubbed the “spoiler” effect, when a popular candidate barely loses the election because other, less-popular candidates who had similar values split the vote.
This happened in the Massachusetts 4th District Democratic Congressional Primary where Jake Auchincloss, a candidate plagued with controversy who ran on a “pragmatic progressive” platform narrowly edged out the popular and highly progressive Jesse Mermell. The 9-way race had 3 other female candidates with similar progressive values to Mermell, and many believe this split Mermell’s vote and led her to lose with 21.4% of the vote to Auchincloss’s 22.4%.
RCV reduces the “spoiler effect” because it implores voters to grant their first choice preference to perhaps a less popular candidate who they like the most, instead of picking a single winner that is not their ideal candidate but has similar values and is more popular. Since the voter is ranking and not selecting a single winner, there’s more freedom to actually mark their favorite candidate in first place, instead of settling in an attempt to avoid the “spoiler effect.”
In addition, RCV has the benefit of pushing campaigns toward a more positive and uplifting culture. Political tactics like “mudslinging” are less likely to occur, since it can reflect poorly on candidate A’s ranking on a voter’s ballot when candidate A once attacked candidate B, the voter’s favorite candidate. Furthermore, RCV races could build coalitions between candidates of similar values, who would now be motivated to help each other in rankings, rather than the status quo of aligning candidates placing heavy emphasis on the issues that divide them in order to stand out. Elizabeth Warren in the Boston Globe advocates that this “replace[s] the politics of personal destruction with positive coalition.”
There are also less straightforward benefits that, although still need to be further researched, could potentially be widely concluded as an effect of RCV. RepresentWomen, a research advocacy 501(c)(3) organization, found that RCV has a positive impact on female and person of color representation in a decade-long analysis over 156 local level elections.
FairVote, another 501(c)(3) that is well known for championing the spread of RCV, claimed a greater voter turnout in the 6 largest U.S. cities using RCV through their own analysis. FairVote also cites a 2016 University of Missouri – St. Louis study by Professor David Kimball and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Anthony, which concludes that RCV reduces the substantial drop in voter participation between primary and runoff elections (although an overall strong impact has yet to be found).
Although more diverse studies need to be conducted on RCV and it should be trialed in many more elections, much of the data collected on RCV points in an optimistic direction.
RCV is a rapidly growing idea. Over the past few decades, 18 cities have decided their city or county-wide elections through RCV. And now in 2020, we can see that it’s certainly made a breakthrough. RCV was used in this year’s Democratic primaries in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming. In Massachusetts, the choice to make RCV the voting system for primary and general elections is on the ballot. Maine will make history in November for being the first state to use RCV in a presidential election.
The momentum for RCV reiterates our obligation to constantly revise and reform our democracy when needed. In general, beyond just looking at RCV, there is a need to consider re-evaluating our current election system as a whole.
RCV seems to have many benefits, but I don’t think we are yet in a place where we can be completely sold on it. There are limited studies and it hasn’t yet been implemented in enough elections to report clear and measurable positive impact. Scouring the Internet will also give you some division on the topic, with strongly worded articles deeming RCV a necessary action and others saying it’s a mistake.
There should be one main idea that resonates above all and it’s that we need to mobilize for some form of change to protect our democracy. 2020 elections are in about a month and a half and the partisanship in Washington is eroding a concept that may not have even been there from the start: the representation of all voices. But looking toward 2024, I encourage you to start thinking beyond the status quo in voting and as a whole.
Start the discussion. Advocate. And push for the representation you want to see in our democracy. If there ever was a year to make our voices heard, it would be now.