Joe Biden Can't Bring Voters Together, But There's One Reform That Can
There are a number of nonpartisan reforms being proposed to address the myriad of deep systemic problems that ensure US elections primarily serve the private, gain-seeking interests of the Republican and Democratic Parties, instead of voters.
There is no cure-all, no silver bullet. Change is going to require a comprehensive approach. However, one solution that easily has the most momentum behind it across the country is ranked choice voting.
Ranked choice voting, or the ability to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference instead of simply choosing one, has been adopted and/or implemented in 21 cities and 2 states, representing a total voting age population of over 9.2 million people.
It also is coming off another historic year in 2020:
- 5 of the cities that have adopted ranked choice voting did so at the ballot box in 2020;
- 4 Democratic Parties used ranked choice voting in their presidential primaries;
- 2 cities implemented its use for the first time;
- It was used for the first time in a presidential general election in Maine, which already made history as the first state to adopt its use at the state level in 2016; and
- Alaska became the second state to adopt is use at the state level at the ballot box under a comprehensive amendment that also included the nation’s first nonpartisan top-four primary
- It used by both major parties in Utah to decide state convention elections.
Support for ranked choice voting spans the political spectrum, and includes media personalities like Ben Shapiro and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang; it includes former GOP presidential candidate Bill Weld and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Ranked choice voting has also been endorsed by Nobel prize winners, notable scholars, authors, and thought leaders, as well as by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and The Economist.
Advocates assert that ranked choice voting not only offers a fairer voting method that enhances accountability and representation for more voters, but it can deliver on something that some candidates promise on the campaign trail but fail to deliver once in office: Positive change that brings people together instead of tearing them apart.
With that in mind, let’s take a deep dive into what ranked choice voting truly offers when it comes to fairness and civility in elections.
US Elections: A System that Fosters Hate, Division, and Disenfranchised Voters
US politics is in a downward spiral. The political narrative is more hyper-polarized than at any other point in modern American history. The parties are more divided, and as a result the electoral landscape is more divided.
The state of hyper-polarization and division is at the forefront of the American psyche, particularly after the riots and violence at the US Capitol on January 6 and the commencement of an impeachment trial of a former president.
Gallup found that between December 2020 and January 2021 the percentage of Americans who thought the government, its leaders, and their behavior was the biggest challenge facing the US jumped 9 points from 20% to 29% -- surpassing the coronavirus for the first time since June.
Further, the polling agency reports that the percentage of people who said political division was the number one challenge facing the country hit 12%, which may not seem like a lot, but is the highest recorded in the survey’s 7-decade history and jumped 5 points from December.
Rasmussen also found that 56% of Americans believe the US has become more divided since the 2020 election. And, despite President Joe Biden’s promises to unify the country, the same poll showed that 54% of respondents said they were either “not very” ot “not at all” confident he will be able to do it.
Voters are right to be skeptical. US politicians understand that the current electoral system in the US incentivizes a proverbial call to arms against the other side. It’s a zero-sum battle, after all, where their side has to win and the other side has to lose at any cost.
As a result, “unity” and “compromise” fall by the wayside while the partisan narrative escalates as the stakes raised in each election cycle are without limit.
Each side has to constantly raise (or in this case lower) the bar on the “other side” to inflame the passions and anger of their supporters while convincing voters outside of their base of support that they have to pick a team, red or blue, lest their least desired option wins and the country as they know it is doomed.
Partisanship reigns supreme in US elections. In fact, the nonpartisan reform group FairVote found in its 2020 “Monopoly in Politics” report that partisanship has become a greater advantage to winning elections than incumbency -- a reality that has startling consequences.
“An increase in the predictability of partisanship at the expense of incumbency advantage, even for incumbents who maintained moderate voting records, means something troubling: the identity of candidates and their campaigns are mattering less and less,” FairVote’s report states.
Read that again: “The identity of candidates and their campaigns are mattering less and less.”
Consider, for a moment, what that means. It means it doesn’t really matter who the person running for office is as long as they hit the right ideological notes to bring out the right segment of voters in an election, particularly primary elections. This idea may bring to mind some politicians elected in recent years.
Yet, voters are told and expected to pick a side. People are told they cannot vote their conscience, which in some cases may be to vote for a third party or independent candidate, because the consequences of the least desired outcome would be dire. They have to vote against the “other side.”
This is a system that fosters division, which begets anger and hate. It is impossible for anyone to bring about the healing change Americans desire as long as the way we conduct elections goes unchanged. The only way to mend the divide and give voters a fairer, more accountable, more representative process is to transform how voters elect public officials.
Ranked Choice Voting: Simple, Fair, and Easy
There is no single solution to the myriad of problems that plague a US political process that prevents electrons from being truly “of, by, and for” the people. There are problems that run deeper than voters realize, which require different types of systemic solutions.
However, several reform advocates and groups are getting behind an alternative voting method that has a documented history of bringing more civility to elections, while fostering an election environment in which voters feel more confident in their vote and the process at-large: ranked choice voting.
The current voting system in much of the country requires voters to choose one, and only one candidate. But remember, choose the wrong candidate and all the things you may fear and dread from the least desired option will come true. Thus, many voters adopt a “lesser of two evils” mindset.
“We have to do this strategic voting,” said FairVote Senior Research Analyst Deb Otis, in a podcast interview. “Do I vote for the candidate that I really like best or do I vote for a candidate who is a frontrunner and has a real chance at winning.”
“Choosing one candidate in a crowded field can be very difficult, and we all have to be very strategic and do the math about how to make our vote the most powerful.”
As we see in elections, this leads to vote splitting, which in a crowded primary field and even in a general election with more than two candidates can result in plurality winners, meaning more voters didn’t vote for the elected candidate.
It is also not uncommon for independent or third party candidates to take the blame when a major party candidate doesn’t win, because the argument goes that if that candidate wasn’t in the race to begin with, the losing major party candidate would have won.
This speaks to the overwhelming sense of entitlement the major parties have over the election process. There is no way of knowing how a close election decided by only a few percentage points would have turned out if there weren’t more than two candidates in the race.
The “spoiler augment,” however, prevails in convincing voters that they have to sacrifice their right to a meaningful say in the process to ensure the “greater evil” or least desired outcome doesn’t win. The system was designed to enforce the major parties entitlement over elections at the expense of a fair and accurate process.
Does that sound like a truly representative system? Otis explained why “ranking is much more intuitive” and greatly reduces strategic voting and the “lesser of two evils” mindset.
“We all rank things in our everyday life, right?” She said. “We all know what our second choice is if the store is out of our first choice in cereal or whatever. We can do that on the ballot as well.”
And for voters, it’s that simple. They rank candidates in the order they prefer them (first choice, second choice, third choice, etc.). This gives voters greater confidence to select their preferred candidate as their first choice, without being forced to play the partisan game of “pick my side or doom.”
Ranked choice voting also means that a candidate needs more than a mere plurality of the vote to win.
“Ranked choice voting promotes majority winners, meaning in order for a candidate to be supported by a majority of their voters,” she said.
“That means at least half of voters, and that should be the lowest bar for our elected officials to serve in office, right?”
Put simply, once polls close, the first preference choices are tabulated. If no candidate gets a majority (50%+1), the last place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are applied to the tabulation. The process continues (each round eliminating the last place candidate and applying their voters’ next choice to the tabulation) until a candidate has a majority.
Ranked choice voting essentially shows how voters would cast their ballot in the event of a runoff without the expense of another election that is all but guaranteed to have lower turnout. In other words, a majority winner is decided when the most voters participate.
And, voters do not have to think so much about strategy, or as Otis put it, a voter’s best strategy is “to list their honest preferences.”
“Ranked choice voting is good for voters,” she said, “whether you support a major party -- you don't have to worry about spoiler candidates from minor parties siphoning votes away from your candidate.”
“It’s great for supporters of independents or third party candidates who now voters are free to vote for those candidates without fear they are wasting their vote. It is good for election officials who can take office with the confidence that they have the support of their constituents. This is something we can all come together on, regardless of our party.”
Opponents to ranked choice voting reform often turn to an argument that RCV is too complex for voters to understand, and when they approve it at the ballot box, they didn’t really know what they were doing.
“People who make that argument are hugely underestimating their friends and neighbors,” said Otis.
“The data from places already using ranked choice voting shows that overwhelmingly voters like it, voters report they understood it, and voters are not making ballot errors. Voters know how to do this. So, those arguments really don’t hold up.”
It is worth noting that the “it’s too complex” argument is -- just like the benefits of ranked choice voting -- not limited to a single party. Republican leaders have made this argument in Maine, including in lawsuits challenging the system, as have some Democratic leaders in New York City.
Candidates Engage With Their Communities Differently under Ranked Choice Voting
Now, in most elections, independent and third party candidates are not likely to win. They don’t have the support infrastructure that major party candidates have and as a result they often lack the means to boost their name recognition and appeal.
Voters have also long been conditioned to think there are only two viable options in elections, which is not easy to overcome. Ranked choice voting doesn’t necessarily change this, nor would any alternative voting method on its own.
However, ranked choice voting eliminates the spoiler excuse used by the major parties and their candidates because it’s on the candidates to build a broad coalition of support to reach a majority. This means voters who prefer a third party or independent candidate become more important to major party candidates.
“With ranked choice voting, by requiring this majority support, we get candidates engaging differently with voters -- engaging differently with the community,” said Otis. “They know that it is not enough to pander to once niche base. That will not get them the majority they need to win.”
“We see candidates reaching out to a broader [segment] of the electorate in order to build that consensus of support.”
And, as voters outside a candidate’s typical base of support become more important, so do the ideas of the candidates they support. So, while independent and third party candidates may not win, their ideas must be addressed by the major party candidates.
Thus, the marketplace of ideas expands.
It is also easy to see how this fosters a more civil campaign environment. If a candidate has to campaign for a voter’s second choice or their third choice, they are not going to attack that voter’s first choice. They need to build a broad coalition of support in order to win.
It is important to note that the effects ranked choice voting has on campaign civility is not theoretical. It has been studied and is well-documented.
A 2020 study by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney, for example, found evidence that the voting method “improved the civility of debates with candidates substituting negative or neutral words for positive words” in RCV (or instant runoff voting, IRV) mayoral races.
“There is genuine value being created by the recent increase in municipalities using IRV, and also provides evidence of additional benefits for municipalities that are considering changing their electoral system. Perhaps the benefits are enough to alter the cost-benefit calculation for politicians and voters who are weighing up a change to IRV.”
A Eagleton Poll surveyed voters in 2013 and 2014 on the tone of campaigns. It found that voters in cities that used ranked choice voting were more satisfied with the conduct of campaigns and their candidates, and believed there was less criticism and negative campaigning than in cities that didn’t use ranked choice voting.
One 2013 analysis found that an increase in civility could also be seen in press coverage of campaigns in cities that used ranked choice voting. It showed that articles published in RCV cities were 85% more positive than negative, compared to 77% in non-RCV cities.
Check out more polls, academic research, and analysis here.
The documented history of improving voters’ perception of elections under ranked choice voting continues to be a major selling point for campaigns that want to expand the use of the reform to other cities and states across the US, and is most likely a major reason why its popularity is growing nationwide.
However, also critical to the reform’s growth and success is its documented history of giving a voice to the voters and communities that have long felt marginalized and underrepresented by the standard electoral system in the US.
“[Ranked choice voting] can also help communities build power; specifically, underrepresented communities,” said Otis.
“In our current elections we often see candidates of color locked out of winning these elections. Sometimes this can happen because of vote splitting between similar candidates. Ranked choice voting welcomes more of these voices into the conversation, avoids the vote splitting problem, and helps communities consolidate and build power to have their voices heard.”
There is one city, in particular, that sticks out in the conversation of empowering communities of color through ranked choice voting, and it is an often overlooked case for switching to an alternative voting method like RCV. That city is Eastpointe, Michigan.
RCV in Eastpointe: A Case Study in Empowering Communities of Color
Many of the cities that have adopted the use of ranked choice voting did so by ballot initiative or through referendum approved by the city council. Eastpointe, Michigan, is different. The voting method was put in place there explicitly to end racial discrimination in elections.
As racial inequality is also a major topic right now at the national level, it is important to understand how nonpartisan reform like ranked choice voting can lead to a more equitable system across different social, economic, and racial demographics.
“The ranked choice voting implemented in Eastpointe was the proportional representation form of ranked choice voting, and it was the first time it had been used as a remedy to a Voting Rights Act challenge,” said Otis.
In January 2017, Eastpointe was sued by the Department of Justice, which alleged that the city’s elections racially discriminated against minority voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The city’s black population has expanded rapidly over the years, growing from 7% to 40% between 2000 and 2017. Yet, not a single black candidate had won a contested race in the city up to that point.
Documentary filmmaker Grace McNally made this the subject of her short film, Eastpointe, which takes a closer look at how winner-take-all, at-large voting systems can constrain minority representation.
The film early on points out that challenging the voting system was not suggesting members of the Eastpointe City Council or its residents were willfully suppressing the black community. However, many of its residents took the DOJ’s actions as an attack on them, and by focusing inward, failed to see just how inequitable the system was.
“It’s not the product of active racism, but it is still something that needs to be fixed,” said Justin Levitt, former deputy attorney general of the United State. “It doesn’t actually fit the concept of how we think of representation to let a thin majority or a thin plurality of voters win every single seat all the time. That leaves a lot of people out.”
“That’s not fair and it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault to fix it.”
Traditionally, this type of violation to the Voting Rights Act would be resolved by the creation of a single-member district. The inherent problem with this, and one that members of the black community had, was that this essentially suggested a segregated district for black voters, where if they wanted a meaningful say in city elections, they had to move to a specific district.
It is important to note that for advocates of change in the area, this was not necessarily about ensuring that there was always a black candidate elected to the city council. What mattered was that a sizable community within the voting population could elect the candidate of their choice.
So, for the first time in US history, the DOJ agreed to use ranked choice voting as a remedy to the Voting Rights Act.
“Districts aren’t the only option. They’re never the only option,” said Levitt. “Eastpointe shows that it is possible to think a little outside the usual box in order to come up with a system that works fairly for everyone.”
“These sort of alternative systems can be very powerful in ways that can allow people to vote throughout the jurisdiction without forcing them to move to a particular part of town that is designated as ‘the place where you get the remedy.’”
What makes the Eastpointe system different from many of the other ranked choice voting systems across the US is it is a proportional system. A candidate needs 33% of the vote for a seat on the city council. If a voters’ first preference doesn’t reach that threshold, their next choice is counted.
“This has now become a viable remedy that other cities can use if they get a Voting Rights challenge or simply if they just notice that they have a majority governing with 100% of the seats even if that majority is only 60% of the people,” said Deb Otis.
Levitt also commented that when a ranked choice voting system is done right, it is a way of sharing power -- “respecting majority rule without shutting out the minority community entirely across the board.”
The turnout for the 2019 municipal elections in Eastpointe, the first to use ranked choice voting, was the highest recorded in 12 years. In the City Council elections, 69% of voters were represented by their first or second choice.
And, one of the winners, incumbent Councilmember Sara Lucido, said she found the electoral process under ranked choice voting to be more positive.
RCV: From a Thought Experiment to a Successful Reform Remedy
“We’re in the middle of this transformation right now in the US where more people are learning about this election reform, and folks used to look at this as sort of a thought experiment, like ‘hey, wouldn’t this be cool,’ but we are moving beyond that. We’re moving from a thought experiment to common practice.” - Deb Otis, Senior Research Analyst at FairVote
Even an odd-numbered year is not a slow time for ranked choice voting reform. For instance, in 2021, 5 cities will use ranked choice voting for the first time, the biggest (both literally and figuratively) is New York City, which started the process of testing the use of RCV for a February special election in late January.
“Getting ranked choice voting approved in New York City basically doubles the number of Americans who are voting with this method,” said Otis.
The ballot initiative to implement ranked choice voting for city primary elections wasn’t approved by a slim majority either. It was approved by a margin of nearly 3-to-1, and it will be used despite a last minute attempt by some members of the Democratic establishment in the city to halt its use by going through the courts.
The lawsuit failed, as has most every other challenge to the alternative voting method to be brought before a judge.
The other four cities to implement ranked choice voting in 2021 are Bloomington and Minnetonka, Minnesota, and Amherst and Easthampton, Massachusetts. And, new campaigns continue to emerge to expand the use of ranked choice voting in other cities and states across the country.
Sara Swann, reporting for the Fulcrum, noted that “more than two dozen states have active campaigns advocating for ranked-choice elections.” More jurisdictions than at any other point in modern history are moving or considering a move toward ranked choice voting.
This is not to say that the reform doesn’t face challenges. Despite a strong grassroots movement to get it passed at the state level in Massachusetts and seemingly insurmountable support from major public figures within the state, for instance, a 2020 ballot initiative fell short of voter approval.
Deb Otis noted that a significant hurdle that advocates of ranked choice voting continue to face is a perception that it is explicitly designed to give an advantage to a single group of people or party.
“As we try to bring ranked choice voting to more cities and states, there are some parts of the country where this is viewed as a politically polarizing reform,” she said. “We are making greater inroads with becoming bipartisan.”
Specifically, she said she is encouraged by the increased interest in traditionally red states and Republican jurisdiction, including cities in Utah, but also the passage of Ballot Measure 2 in Alaska in 2020, which included ranked choice voting for the general election.
It is worth mentioning that two GOP lawmakers in Utah have sponsored a bill to bring ranked choice voting to state and county primary elections after seeing too many candidates win primaries without a majority mandate.
“This is an area where I think folks from all parties can come together,” said Otis. “There are so many things that seem to be tearing us apart politically these days, but ranked choice voting is something that is good for everyone.”
The momentum behind ranked choice voting continues to increase, Just as a handful of cities are implementing its use for the first time in 2021, another handful will use it for the first time in 2022.
Plus, several campaigns are emerging to put ranked choice voting on the 2022 midterm ballot or the 2024 presidential ballot.
Otis said one of the focuses of her organization looking ahead is the presidential primaries. The field of candidates always starts out large for the party not in the White House or in open seat years, so the highest vote-getters in early contests often don’t get near a majority mandate.
Take the 2020 presidential election as an example. Bernie Sanders was the top vote-getter in the Iowa Caucuses with 26.5% of the vote after the final alignment. Sanders also was the top vote-getter in New Hampshire with 26% of the vote. In both cases, this was far from a majority.
And, ranked choice voting’s use in presidential primaries is not just about which candidates can reach a majority mandate. It also means additional opportunities for more candidates to acquire pledged delegates, which means more competitive intra-party elections.
The minimum percentage of the vote required to qualify for delegates in Iowa, for example, is 15%. In a large field where the top-vote getter only gets 26% of the vote, additional runoff rounds means allocation of delegates based on level of support would be more accurate and could include more candidates.
Four Democratic Parties elected to use ranked choice voting in their presidential primaries in 2020. Otis said advocates “clearly need to expand that, and get some Republican Parties using it as well.” She added that FairVote is considering which states might be most open to adopting ranked choice voting in these contests.
Other areas of focus include states that use two-round runoff elections, like voters saw in Georgia for two US Senate races in the 2020 election cycle. Otis explained that these elections end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars, yet many of them are already halfway to ranked choice voting.
“They already want to find a majority winner,” she said. “But, they are asking people to the polls twice, which is costing the state a lot of money, it causes a big drop in turnout, and it is inconvenient for voters.”
Clearly, there is no shortage of avenues to expand the reform, from local municipalities to presidential elections. Advocates are optimistic about the future of ranked choice voting, and they have no reason not to be. It has the strongest level of support of any nonpartisan reform being proposed to provide voters with better, more accountable, more competitive, and more civil elections.
About the Author
Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.