Fixing America’s Presidential Elections in Just Two Steps (Part 1)

Okay okay okay, you came to see a sucky website. Let’s get that over first. Here’s RangeVoting.org. It looks like a 3-year-old made it as a school project and forgot to erase it from the internet in the late ’90s. But it may be our best hope for saving America’s democratic values. Let me explain…


Deep down, we all know it. We all have a nagging sensation there’s something wrong with our elections. Maybe you remember when Ralph Nader jumped in the 2000 presidential race and suddenly changed everything. Maybe one time you forced yourself to vote for a candidate you didn’t like because you thought they had greater chance of winning. Maybe you even went as far as asking someone why the election system is set up the way it is. If you did, you likely received the answer, “That’s how our Founding Fathers wanted it,” or, “That’s just how we’ve always done it.”

If you were satisfied with those answers, then there’s no reason for you to be here. Go ahead and close this tab.

But if you think maybe, just maybe, there’s more to this story, and there could be a better option out there, then read on.

Ask the average American about different voting systems and their opinions on them, and you’ll likely get a blank stare or some mumblings about the Electoral College or Popular Vote. The truth is, voting systems are boring and complicated. They are tasked with absorbing complex public opinions on a multitude of issues, then condensing that data into a single output. Not easy, not simple, and not exciting.

But voting is important. It is the only bridge between the people and the government. Without voting, there is no democracy. Unfortunately, in America today, our metaphorical bridge is more of a tightrope. Allow me to explain…

To know what a bad voting system looks like, we need to know how to spot a good one. I imagine it would produce a large array of choices. It would be fair and give everyone a chance. Voters could be precise with how they cast their vote. Each vote should make a difference. It should be intuitive and straightforward.

Ask the average American about different voting systems and their opinions on them, and you’ll likely get a blank stare or some mumblings about the Electoral College or Popular Vote.

These are reasonable criteria.

Now I will examine the American system to see whether it fits these criteria. When it doesn’t, I’ll suggest some methods to fix it. Our system is divided into two parts: casting votes, and recording votes. We cast votes through the First Past the Post (FPTP) method, and we record them in the Winner-Take-All Electoral College.

So reforming presidential elections comes in two steps:

1. Fixing the Ballot

2. Fixing the Electoral College.

Let’s discuss step one.

Casting Votes: Fixing the Ballot

First Past the Post ballot

You’ve probably already met the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system. In FPTP, each voter is allowed only one vote, and must give that vote to only one candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins. This is the system America uses in all federal elections, and it is recognized among voting reformists as the worst commonly used voting system.

We use First Past the Post (FPTP) because it produces tight voting margins where just a few votes can completely change the outcome. Ideally, this means that elections will hinge on a small group of moderate voters that candidates will squabble over in order to gain an edge. If the beliefs of the small group of voters change, the government will change, meaning the government is extremely responsive to public opinion changes. But as you will see, this isn’t always the case, and there are many detractions to FPTP that far outweigh its benefits.

The embedded video effectively explains the major problems with FPTP, but I will explain them in writing as well.

FPTP encourages the following problems: vote splitting, strategic voting, and spoiling.

FPTP encourages Vote Splitting

Imagine a Republican primary with 13 candidates, and 5 of these candidates are standard, rank-and-file Republicans. Now imagine 40% of Republican voters support rank-and-file Republican candidates. Those 40% of voters will be split between 5 candidates, meaning even though their ideas are supported by 40% of the constituency, they will only receive an average of 8% of the vote.

Basically, FPTP punishes agreement among candidates, because if you appear at all similar with another candidate, you risk splitting votes with them. Candidates in FPTP races recognize this, and they heavily invest in negative advertising to ensure they are perceived as separate from all other candidates.

Because of vote splitting, FPTP rewards candidates that pull strange stunts (example) to set themselves apart from others. This becomes especially important in large primaries (sound familiar?). And if you’re worried that an election system that encourages clowning and polarizing rhetoric could lead to a government of clowns and mud-slingers, well I’ll let you consider the evidence for that…

FPTP encourages Strategic Voting

Strategic votes are votes that don’t reflect the will of the voter, but are cast to influence the election in a way the voter considers beneficial. For instance, if a voter most prefers a minor candidate with a slim chance of winning, they may instead vote for a major candidate who actually has hope.

This is most common in the context of third-parties. Voters fear wasting their vote on third-party candidates, because if they do vote for a third-party candidate, their vote will be wasted. In this way, FPTP silences third party and minority voices, thereby preserving the dynastic two-party system and violating major principles of democracy.

FPTP encourages Spoilers

Spoilers are a form of vote splitting, and usually occur when a minor candidate enters a race to siphon off votes from major candidates. Presidential FPTP elections generally result in extremely tight popular vote margins of just a few percentage points, so a spoiler that accrues even a small amount of votes could sway an election 180 degrees. The spoiler effect means that a single person can have a massively outsized impact on an election result. Imagine you are a Democratic candidate in a tight presidential race when suddenly a popular Green Party candidate enters the race. Voters that previously were in your voting base may now be tempted to vote for the Green candidate. This single person could draw a few percentage points away from you, which in a FPTP election will make the difference between a victory and a loss.

“Okay,” you say, “It’s easy to burn a house down, but much harder to build one up. If you’re going to tell me our democracy is not really a democracy, then you’d better have a solution.”

Yeah, I do. Don’t worry.

Range Voting ballot System

The Range Vote, or RV, is the simplest, most intuitive method for electing a candidate. You’ve probably used a version when reviewing products on shopping sites with star reviews. The embedded video gives a good description, but I will explain it in writing as well.

RV is based on a simple premise. When evaluating an elected official’s performance, we measure their approval rating, so naturally we should also elect them on their approval rating.

Each voter is permitted to vote for as many candidates as they wish, and may allocate up to three votes to any and all candidate they choose (though this number can vary, and some methods even recommend a number out of 100).

An example of range voting ballot is shown below.

Because voters can vote for all candidates they want, they no longer need to worry about wasting votes on less popular candidates, meaning they will actually be able to vote their true preferences. This gives third parties a true seat at the table because their ideas can finally be given a fair chance on the ballot. Vote splitting and spoiling become less likely, because if a voter supports two candidates equally, they can vote for both candidates. The introduction of a new candidate to the race doesn’t influence the number of votes another candidate gets.

RV also means a candidate is no longer campaigning against other candidates, rather, they will be evaluated based on their own policies and character. Because candidates won’t be incentivized to artificially separate themselves from the rest of the pack through insult hurling or campaign stunts, RV will create a more civil campaign atmosphere.

Additionally, RV is known for producing victors whose ideas are moderate, generally agreed upon, and compromising. This is because a candidate from one party may realistically gain some support from voters in other parties. Voters don’t have to show the same uncompromising loyalty to their own parties, and may actually be willing to hear the ideas of other parties.

RV is far better than FPTP, and I propose we switch to this system for all presidential elections.

Next: We need to discuss fixing the Electoral College. Continue reading this story here.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Medium and is being republished in its entirety over two parts with permission from the author.

Photo Credit: Blend Images / shutterstock.com