Choosing How We Vote

Thanks to Sarah Palin’s recent defeat in her run for Alaska’s single congressional seat in a special election, ranked choice voting (RCV) is in the news. Unfortunately, because many Republicans are dissatisfied with the result, some on the right are attacking RCV as a concept. Senator Tom Cotton, for example, reacted to the result by calling RCV “a scam.” His complaint is understandable, but also mistaken. We should not overstate what RCV can accomplish, but it may lessen many persistent problems in U.S. politics.  

To recap: Palin won a plurality of the vote, but not a majority. Between Palin and the other Republican on the ballot, a strong majority of Alaska voters selected a Republican for their first choice. However, in Alaska’s new RCV system, voters provide their most preferred candidate, but they also have the option of naming their second, third, and fourth choice, though they were not required to do so. After the second-place Republican (Nick Begich) was eliminated, his votes were then distributed to his voters’ second-choice candidate. It turned out that a substantial minority of Begich voters preferred the Democrat (Mary Peltola) over Palin, and between the voters that listed her as the first choice, and the Begich voters that listed her as the second choice, Peltola was the ultimate victor by a narrow margin.

This result has led to outrage from some Republicans, who can accurately complain that it seems wrong that about sixty percent of Alaska voters listed a Republican as their first choice, yet a Democrat managed to secure the victory. Some are making unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud, and regardless of the merits of this complaint, this result will likely make Republicans warier of RCV in the future.

RCV is still relatively uncommon in the United States. It is now the policy in Alaska and Maine. Different varieties of RCV have also been implemented in municipalities across the country. With huge percentages of Americans expressing dissatisfaction with the two major parties, and a general sense that partisan politics in the U.S. is increasingly malicious and unproductive, it is worth contemplating major changes to our electoral system. Whether RCV is the solution, it is a reasonable proposal worth serious consideration.

The Role of Parties

For better and for worse, partisanship is here to stay. The Founding Fathers were right to fear political parties, but they do serve an important purpose. Ideally, political parties should act as a valuable heuristic, signaling to voters a candidate’s policy priorities. In a truly non-partisan electoral system, voters wanting to feel informed would need to engage in an unreasonable amount of research to determine where each candidate on a lengthy ballot stood on every issue that they care about. Few people would do this. Party identification provides a helpful cognitive shortcut.

Although we are almost certainly stuck with political parties, our two-party system was not inevitable. The U.S. may furthermore no longer be well suited for a system with only two viable parties. This is an extraordinarily diverse country, with all kinds of interests and identities seeking representation in the national government. Huge percentages of Republicans and Democrats have very negative attitudes toward their respective parties, for various reasons—some think their party has gotten too radical, some think it is not nearly radical enough.

The Democratic Party includes self-declared socialists as well as economic moderates. The Republican Party in the electorate includes enthusiastic Trumpian populists and those pining for the days when they were led by genteel, elitist public servants like George H.W. Bush. The diversity within each party makes internal coherence difficult to achieve on either side. Perhaps we would be better served if we had a multiplicity of parties, each with a very clear and consistent ideology and perhaps a narrower constituency. Large majorities of Americans say they would like more choices than the two they are presented with.

Unfortunately, although dissatisfaction with the major parties is widespread, the electoral systems used by most of the country preclude a multiparty system. For most elections, we have plurality-rule, winner-take-all, single-member districts. This tends to result in a two-party system. To understand why, see Duverger’s Law. Under our current rules, the only way for a third party to achieve meaningful, long-term success is to permanently eclipse one of the existing parties. This has happened only once (when the Republicans buried the Whig Party in 1860).

One benefit of RCV is that it resolves the problem of third-party votes seeming “wasted.” Under an RCV system, if you genuinely feel closest to the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Constitution Party, or some as-yet-non-existent populist MAGA party, you could list that party as your first choice. If that party comes in third or fourth place, your vote will go to your second choice, rather than simply becoming irrelevant. I expect most elections under an RCV system will still be won by a Republican or a Democrat, but perhaps not. If nothing else, making voters feel more comfortable offering their support to a third party can increase our feelings of efficacy, and avoid the sense of helplessness that comes from feeling forced to choose between two very flawed candidates. Put another way, under RCV, voters would no longer have to choose between voting their true preference and strategically voting for the candidate most likely to defeat the person they fear or dislike the most.

RCV has an additional purported benefit: it disincentivizes uncivil political campaigns. Under current rules, there is no benefit to being anyone’s second choice. There is no reason not to offend an opponent’s base of voters. Under RCV, candidates still want to reach out to voters they are confident will never list them as their first choice—earning the second slot on their ranking of preferred candidates may mean the difference between defeat and victory. RCV may simultaneously encourage candidates and parties to cast a wider net when campaigning and discourage the kinds of ugly, scorched-earth tactics that we have become accustomed to.

Who Benefits from RCV?

Not all voters like the idea of RCV. This is especially true of older voters, who have spent decades working with rules they generally find satisfying. Switching to RCV may be a bit like switching out traffic lights for roundabouts—even if they make traffic run more smoothly in the long-run, older drivers resent the change. In making its case against RCV, The Heritage Foundation argued that it introduces confusion into a system that works well enough as it is. This is an understandable concern, but there is no reason to assume that a sustained, well-run campaign to inform voters how RCV works would be unsuccessful. Conservatives should take this as an excuse to reintroduce civics education to a wide swath of the electorate.

There are a few stumbling blocks to achieving major changes to the nation’s electoral rules. First, existing elected officials may not feel that it is in their interest to change the rules of the game. After all, they got where they are under the existing system. Can they be confident that they will perform just as well if it is different? If not, they have good personal reasons to oppose change. For the two existing major parties as institutions, there seems to be little upside to a new system that might strengthen the third parties that would like to displace them.

RCV will not be a panacea for our political challenges. The nastiness of our elections and the ideological incoherence of our two major parties will not be immediately resolved by changes in our voting rules.

The other major question, which we cannot yet answer definitively, is whether one side of the political divide will benefit more than the other from RCV. The Democratic win in Alaska has already convinced many Republicans that such a system is not in their interest. I see little evidence that this is the case. It is true that, between the two candidates, a majority of Alaska voters selected a Republican as their first choice. It is equally true, however, that many Begich voters preferred the Democrat over Palin. We can thus assume that, under the old rules, those voters would have cast the single vote on their ballot for Peltola, who then would have won the election. The problem for the Alaska G.O.P. was not RCV. Their problem was that Palin is a problematic candidate with a lot of baggage. She clearly still has many fans in Alaska, but a significant minority of people who would otherwise support Republicans are ready to be done with her.

Some people have argued that RCV is good precisely because it can help weed out extremist candidates. That may be the case sometimes, but not always. If widespread RCV really does lead to the growth of third parties that can actually win elections, it may result in new radical and uncompromising parties with representation in city councils, Congress, and state legislatures. We see this in Europe, where both radical right and radical left parties are represented in some national parliaments. Perhaps it is better if radicals have to work within the Byzantine structures of the two major parties, acting as just one element of a party representing a diverse group of interests.

The possibility of new successful radical parties, in my view, is a risk worth taking. Even if third parties, including radical parties, do manage to achieve some real success under a new system, the nature of Congress will still require them to enter coalitions. Compromises that leave people on the ideological fringes dissatisfied will continue to be the norm.

Laboratories of Democracy

As more elections have occurred using RCV systems, and the subject has achieved growing interest from political scientists, it has become possible to empirically test some of its proponents’ predictions. Survey data does indicate that RCV would significantly improve the performance of third parties. In campaigns in RCV elections, there appears to be less political mudslinging.

RCV will not be a panacea for our political challenges. The nastiness of our elections and the ideological incoherence of our two major parties will not be immediately resolved by changes in our voting rules. Experiments with RCV nonetheless deserve support. As more places introduce different versions of RCV (including some that combine RCV with multi-seat districts), we will get a sense of whether certain kinds of candidates are systematically disadvantaged. Sometimes RCV rules require voters to rank all candidates on the ballot in order to be counted, but this is not always the case, and there are potential advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Perhaps RCV will introduce new and unforeseen problems into our elections, and RCV will be quickly and understandably jettisoned. Historically, some local governments briefly used RCV and subsequently abandoned the practice, which is perfectly reasonable if people in those communities found that the system failed to meet expectations.

There is a strong conservative argument to be made against unnecessarily rocking the boat and introducing major changes to a system that has served the nation reasonably well for many generations. This may ultimately be the correct view. The long-term consequences of RCV in federal elections are still unclear, however, and we should continue to monitor and study how it influences election results and campaign strategies.

Although we should not exaggerate its potential benefits, RCV could ameliorate some of our unsettling political problems. A benefit of our federal system is that states and localities have a lot of leeway to develop their own electoral rules. We should take greater advantage of this freedom, experimenting with new rules in the hope of finding systems that can achieve widespread bipartisan support, encourage greater civility and outreach across ideological lines, and give third parties a fighting chance at success.