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In a ranked-choice election system, every vote counts

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Elections serve as the bedrock of our democracy, but we are deeply frustrated by them. They aren’t working.

I’m angry, frustrated and more than a little worried about the possible outcome of the U.S. presidential election. And I’m not alone. Distressing new data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center confirmed what many of us already know in deep down in our bones: 

  • A majority of Americans describe themselves as “frustrated” with this year’s presidential campaign.
  • More than half say they are “disgusted.”  
  • 43 percent say they are “flat-out scared.”
Photo by Brady Willette
H. Allen Blair

Maybe the most disheartening thing, at least to me, is just how many of us are tempted to vote for a candidate that we consider to be “the lesser of the evils.” According to the Pew’s poll, about a third of both Trump and Clinton supporters describe their candidate so tepidly.

Of course, many of our fellow citizens simply may not vote at all. These potential abstainers are younger (and sometimes older) folks who self-identify as independents or just can’t identify with any of the choices on the board.

It’s time to stop ignoring the elephant in the polling booth. (Sorry, I can’t help the pun.) Elections serve as the bedrock of our democracy, but we are deeply frustrated by them. They aren’t working.

Elections function only to the extent that we trust them to actually represent our choices. We can probably stomach our candidate losing if we really believe that the results of an election reflect the sincerest wishes of the people as a whole. More and more, however, citizens – me included – are losing faith.

As desperate as our national electoral situation seems, there are very simple and immediate ways of improving things. One of the simplest and swiftest would be to replace our current “first-past-the-post” national voting system, which does not require candidates to have the backing of most voters to win, with ranked-choice voting (“RCV”) or instant runoff voting ,as it is sometimes called. We use RCV here in Minneapolis and St. Paul with great success, as do other cities and countries around the world.

The current national system – “first-past-the-post” — is ill equipped to handle more than two serious candidates. A winner can be elected with far less than a majority, while other candidates split the vote. Basically, in our current system, candidates have no incentive to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters to win. Instead, they pander to their base and attack their opponents, trying to drive voters away from them. Any third-party candidates just become ruinous “spoilers” who help the person the spoiler’s supporters prefer the least.

That’s precisely why Bernie Sanders reluctantly dropped his bid as a potential third-party candidate after losing the Democratic nomination. He knew that if he stayed in the race he would funnel votes away from Clinton, which ultimately would benefit Trump, his least favorite presidential candidate. For the same reason, Michael Bloomberg decided not to mount an independent campaign for president.

Even without these big names in the race, Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and Green Party’s Jill Stein may throw the election to Trump.

Under ranked-choice voting, a vote doesn’t get wasted and third party candidates have a meaningful role to play in politics. RCV gives voters more choice, helps ensure that that choice gets “counted,” and reduces or even eliminates the problems of “spoiler” candidates.

Ranked-choice voting is simple: Voters choose their most preferred candidate, but also have the option of ranking additional candidates. If a candidate receives a majority of votes – more than 50 percent of the votes – they win. Period. In this sense, RCV vindicates our intuition about majority choice.

But if no candidate wins a majority of the votes, then the least popular candidate gets eliminated and her or his ballots are divided among the remaining candidates based on voters’ second choices. If there’s still no majority, the process repeats until one of the candidates emerges with a majority of votes. 

No voting system is perfect, but ranked-choice voting solves many of the problems that are plaguing our national election process. In a nutshell, RCV provides at least these benefits in comparison with our current system:

  • Elected leaders who more accurately reflect the majority will.
  • More meaningful choices for voters thanks to an increase in third-party candidates no longer worried about playing the “spoiler.”
  • More civil, intelligent campaigns based on ideas and solutions because candidates cannot afford to alienate voters who may choose them as their second choice.
  • Greater civic participation by voters who know their votes actually count.

As frustrating and alienating as elections have become, we can’t simply throw our hands up in the air and opt out of the system. We need elected officials who really represent our collective interests, who focus on meaningful solutions to the real challenges that we face, and who spend their time in a campaign providing us with information about those solutions rather than on strategic posturing to win. We need a system that respects and counts every citizen’s votes; especially younger voters are fast losing faith in a democracy where their votes don’t reflect their beliefs or interests.

For my part, I believe that ranked-choice voting offers a simple and immediate path to fixing many of our election troubles. I encourage you to learn all that you can about it and, if you are persuaded as I have been that it could work, join me in demanding that our state and national representatives lead the way in making it a reality.

H. Allen Blair is Robins Kaplan Distinguished Professor of Law and Senior Fellow in the Dispute Resolution Institute, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, St. Paul.

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Comments (5)

Counting

My votes aren't counted? When I cast them in the machine it does seem to go up one vote. At what later point is it thrown out?

I am often frustrated by election results. For some strange reason, the candidate I allegedly voted for doesn't always win. I have always assumed it was because some other guy got more votes. But now I learn that at least part of the reason is that my vote, through some mysterious process, wasn't counted. That does raise the level of my frustration.

Extremely dishonest article

Blair repeats the often-repeated lie of ranked choice advocates that it will result in a majority winner. In the last Minneapolis mayor election, Betsy Hodges was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minneapolis_mayoral_election,_2013

The only way you can claim it ensures majority winners is by discarding exhausted ballots. That means in Minneapolis, if you didn't vote for Betsy Hodges or Mark Andrew, your vote didn't count. So much for "every vote counts."

People are figuring out what an undemocratic fraud ranked choice voting really is. That's why Duluth voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

IRV is an improvement, but still has deep flaws

Instant Runoff/Ranked Choice Voting is a notable improvement over single-candidate (plurality) voting, but still has major shortcomings. It causes dead ballots (where a ballot has 0 influence), scenarios where voting for your preferred candidate first actually hurts their chances, and when everyone in an IRV system votes strategically (vs. simply honestly ranking candidates), it effectively degenerates into single-candidate voting.

It turns out there are still better methods that are simpler, less influenced by strategic voting, and that lead to greater voter satisfaction. The simplest alternative is actually nearly identical to how voting for multiple candidates positions currently works: simply vote for all the candidates you want to win, also called Approval Voting (more info: https://electology.org/score-voting). Despite voting for multiple candidates, every individual still has the same influence on the election: everyone effectively vote for or against each candidate.

But what if, instead of merely voting for or against each candidate, you could indicate how strongly you approve or disapprove of each candidate, say, by ranking each candidate on a scale of 0 to 9? That's called Score Voting (https://electology.org/score-voting) and it's the gold-standard in terms of determining actual voter support for each candidate. Tabulating results is simple: just add it all up. Voters all have equal influence on each candidate being elected. For single-person offices, the one with the highest score wins. For multi-person elections, it's simply the appropriate number of highest scoring candidates.

IRV is better than voting for one candidate, but Score Voting does an even better job of assessing the will of the electorate, is far more simple, doesn't spoil ballots, and is nearly immune to strategic voting. If I were to Score Vote on voting systems:

Plurality: 2
IRV: 4
Approval: 7
Score: 9

IRV Has A Seriously Flawed Assumptions

IRV has a seriously flawed assumptions. It's that: (1) ALL of the candidates are pretty much alike and that (2) it's possible to make a rational choice among them based on public information.

Not convinced.

I am far from convinced of the need for IRV. The fact that the Minneapolis mayoral contest drew 35 candidates, all of whom went on to the election, seems to me to render a fully informed vote impossible in the real world. Candidates don't have the resources to reach all voters and media lack the resources to effectively cover all candidates. So, what do I, as a voter, do?

It seems to me that major party candidates will continue to play the game as they have for decades, staking out a left/right/centrist position as they see fit and doing what they can to attract sufficient votes on the margin to prevail in the election, knowing that even being someone's third choice can win the day.

IRV also seems to me to be based on a number of unwarranted assumptions. Are more votes inherently better? We need only look to the current presidential campaign and the Minnesota Supreme Court race to see that this is not the case. There are candidates in each race who clearly are not suited for the offices they seek and yet a surge in voters attracted by their populist/partisan messages make these races uncomfortably close. Are more candidates inherently better? No, I don't believe so, for the same reasons. The sad fact is that there are more demagogues than qualified people willing to run for office. Are we prepared to move toward an almost parliamentary system, in which unsteady alliances between small factions dictate public policy? Our major parties already accommodate these factions (to a greater or lesser degree). The Balkanization of elections does not bode well for the state or nation, from where I sit.