Ranked-Choice Voting: The Next Step Towards Fixing Our Democracy?

Miscellaneous 33

As the presidential election approaches, those reading this article may expect to see a familiar phrase: “This is not an ordinary election.”

However, this election is very much like those before it. Americans are, once again, preparing to decide between candidates who they are not particularly enthusiastic about. Worst of all, Americans will, once again, likely not see change as foundationally weak promises are blocked by party leaders.

Although the Framers sought to preserve a government insulated from possibly oppressive pressures by the majority, the United States’ overwhelming historical trend has been towards greater enfranchisement and depth of choice (i.e., ensuring that one not only can vote, but one's vote will also represent their beliefs). From Jacksonians pursuing white male egalitarianism to Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocating for the inclusion of women in the democratic process to Martin Luther King, Jr. marching for African Americans’ civil rights, every generation has recognized that our democracy is incomplete.

Just as those excluded based on wealth, sex, and race recognized then, many recognize now that a new system is warranted and that it may be time to look at alternative solutions to our modern way of voting; one option is ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting is a system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference. If a candidate has the majority of votes, they win. Otherwise, the candidate with the least amount of options is eliminated, and their ballots are retallied using the second choice selections. This process continues until a candidate obtains a majority.

Calls for ranked-choice voting systems reached their crescendos in light of the perceived injustices of the 2000 and 2016 elections. In those elections, third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Jill Stein split the vote and allowed candidates from a more massive party to win. A candidate intensely disliked by a majority of the electorate in a plurality system could win if enough third party options are dividing his/her primary opponent’s vote.

In ranked-choice voting systems, this phenomenon––the “spoiler effect”––is not only eliminated but is eliminated in a manner that aids the election of third-party candidates who might represent a larger portion of the electorate. That is, voters can cast their ballot for anyone knowing that, if the person ends up losing, their votes are not wasted.

In some instances, voters operating under a ranked-choice voting system are more likely to turn out to the polls. Harvard University, a ranked-choice voting school, had a 54.8% turnout in their 2019 student council election. Yale University, a plurality voting school, lagged behind their Ivy League counterpart with a 22% turnout. Furthermore, when Maine implemented ranked-choice voting for their midterm elections, their turnout increased by nearly 11 points. High voter participation, in turn, creates a bustling political marketplace of ideas.

Ranked-choice voting changes the nature of campaigning. Candidates are incentivized to emphasize the similarities they have with each other, rather than ideological and personal differences. Betsy Hodges, who ran in a ranked-choice Minneapolis mayoral race, recounts that the campaign was “remarkably positive.”

She averred, “there was relatively little elbowing and attacking … because, of course, every candidate wanted to be the second choice of their opponents’ supporters.”

Opponents argue that ranked-choice voting is too complicated for the average voter. Although condescending on its face, there is some merit.

When the Junior State of America switched to ranked-choice voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many delegates cast their ballots as if they were voting in a plurality system. Merlana, a first-year delegate, reported that “the explanation of ranked-choice voting was unclear to me … [and] might have been confusing to other new members of JSA as well.”

Mottershead was, in fact, not alone. At least 135 student voters (roughly 14% of the electorate) from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey (collectively, the “Mid-Atlantic State”) failed to cast their vote in either the second or third rounds of their ranked-choice gubernatorial election; 17 votes decided the election. The results seen in the Mid-Atlantic States were not a trend across the country, however. In Arizona, for example, the JSA student governor was elected with only 4% of the electorate failing to cast their vote in the second round. It is nonetheless evident that states must provide voter education if this system is adopted.

After years of dissatisfaction, both sides of the political spectrum can safely agree that it is time to reform our superannuated voting system. Our society has progressed past systems that allow candidates to declare victory despite not being accepted by (and likely even rejected by) a majority of the electorate. It is time that we continue our country’s trend of democratization and make our voting system progress past it by adopting ranked-choice voting.

JSA Voices is a forum in which JSA students can express their concerns about local, state, and federal policies. JSA Voices is proud to provide students from across the political spectrum an outlet for expressing their views on issues that matter to them. The views expressed here are the views of the students and not those of the Junior State of America.


October 22, 2020