American democracy is in shambles. From the government shutdown and the debt ceiling fight in Washington to low voter turnout in many parts of the country to unprecedented levels of distrust and disgust with political representatives, American democracy is on a precipice. Either we make some fundamental changes in the direction American democracy is headed, or we seem destined to continue the process of decline, dysfunction and gridlock.
After more than 20 years of participating in and studying the American electoral system, it is my contention that the only way we can adequately change the direction of American democracy is fundamentally to change the way in which we elect our representatives. The first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system that we currently employ in most elections is failing to create a vibrant representative democracy. Instead, we need to employ the ranked-choice voting (RCV) system used in Minneapolis, St. Paul and San Francisco on a much wider basis.
Using RCV is controversial in some arenas. Critics charge that the system is too confusing, too cumbersome and even unfair. While RCV is certainly more complex that the current system, the costs of the winner-takes-all system are much too high to ignore this important electoral innovation. The costs include limited voter voice and highly polarized elected officials who only appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate. If we are to depolarize our political system, we need to dramatically increase voter voice in elections.
Voting is two actions
Voting requires two related but fundamentally distinct actions. The first part of voting is what we might call its “transactional” element. A voter enters the poll and engages in a transaction with the election judge. In Minnesota, the transaction involves finding your name on a list — if you are registered — or providing documentation in order to register to vote. The result of that transaction is the voter gets a ballot.
The second part of voting involves an act of “conscience.” In the voting booth, a voter makes decisions that reflect his/her most deeply held beliefs. The voter interacts with no one, consults with no one (unless there are technical problems with filling out the ballot) and makes his/her decisions about which candidate to support and whether or not to support a particular ballot measure.
It is the act of conscience that is most important in an election, and we broadly use an antiquated system that allows voters to express only one choice per election for each office.
Giving voters more voice
RCV, by contrast, gives voters the opportunity to express multiple views about each election while they are in the voting booth. In Minneapolis, for example, voters will be able to express their first, second, and third choices, instead of only expressing their first choice. This dramatically increases voters’ voice in the election process. In traditional elections, if the voter’s first choice is not competitive, the voter’s voice is eliminated. With RCV, the voter gets a second chance (and then a third chance) to express his/her most deeply held beliefs about who would best represent his or her views.
Voters who have more voice are more likely to express their views. As we know from decades worth of voter surveys, the most common reason voters give for not voting is that they think their vote won’t matter, their voice won’t be heard. Adopting RCV, as we’ve done in Minneapolis and St. Paul, provides voters with a substantial increase in the strength and frequency of their voice.
Making candidates pay attention
Moreover, when voters have more than one preference to express, candidates must work to appeal to a much broader pool of voters. In a traditional winner-takes-all system, if a voter chooses a candidate’s opponent, the voter is largely dismissed. RCV upends this calculus. Instead of dismissing non-supporters, candidates must work hard to win “second-choice” and “third-choice” supporters. As a result, the winning candidate will have successfully appealed to a broader coalition of voters.
And the advantages don’t stop there. Candidates who win with a broader coalition of voters must then govern with a broader coalition of ideas. Unlike our traditional winner-takes-all system, which rewards candidates who govern only for their base — see Ted Cruz, as the most prominent national example — RCV produces winners who must govern for a much more diverse group of constituents. This leads to governance that is far more inclusive and far more respectful of the diversity of views in our electorate.
What to watch for on Nov. 5
When voters go to the polls on Nov. 5, many will be watching for the results of the Minneapolis mayoral election — a wide-open and competitive election. In a traditional election, there would be a “winner” after the first count — whichever candidate received the most votes, no matter how small their winning percentage. RCV works differently. The best metaphor to think about is a running race. Just as the Twin Cities Marathon had a “leader” after the first mile, so too will the mayoral election have a “leader” after the first count. And just as you wouldn’t think of the leader after mile one as a “winner,” we shouldn’t think of the candidate who is leading after the first ballot as having “won” the first ballot.
Instead, as voter preferences are re-entered into the pool when their first choice candidates are dropped, we will see a clearer and clearer picture regarding the leader.
Finally, on the last count, all voter preferences will be entered and we will have a winner with over 50 percent of the vote. At that point, our citizens will have spoken with a much louder expression of preferences, and the new mayor of Minneapolis will have a much broader coalition of supporters. And the real winner will be our democracy.
Matthew F. Filner is a political science professor and chair of the Social Science Department at Metropolitan State University. His views do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.
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