This article asks you to imagine a place where elections are so different from what we experience in the US today that it’s almost unthinkable. Imagine election campaigns where candidates try not just to distinguish themselves, but also go out of their way to identify areas of agreement and points of commonality with opponents, and where negative campaigning is treated like poison.
An approach that predates the discovery of electricity
Yet this isn’t some imaginary paradise. This is how upgraded elections work all over the world, because most countries have long since given up on our voting method — a method invented before the steam engine, the discovery of electricity, the advent of modern medicine, and social science.
Upgraded elections empower voters by giving them a good way to discourage the kind of dirty, negative campaigning that is so damaging and that helps make governance after the election so hard.
Best of all, this upgrade is simple, time-tested, and well-proven with a long and successful history of use in the US, shown again and again to solve the negative campaigning problem.
The time has come for Ranked Choice Voting
What is it? It’s simple: Instead of limiting voters to casting only a single vote for their preferred candidate, voters rank as many candidates as they choose by order of preference, 1 for the first choice, 2 for the second choice, and so on.
Hence the name, Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV for short.
With Ranked Choice Voting, you never have to think about whether your vote for your favorite candidate might wind up helping elect a candidate you believe is terrible. Now, when there are more than two candidates in a race, our vote can backfire on us by helping to elect the candidate we like the least. This happens because of the potential for vote splitting, where the majority of voters inadvertently help elect their least preferred candidate by splitting their votes over several opponents — leaving the disliked candidate with the most votes.
Unintended consequences of the present system
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you’ve probably seen elections where a candidate won despite being opposed by the majority of voters, because their votes were split among several other candidates.
The fact that this can and does happen regularly creates a terrible dynamic among people who are actually allies. They generally agree on most things – they just happen to differ on which candidate best reflects their position. Thus their votes are spread across different candidates and wind up helping elect the candidate with whom they disagree on nearly everything.
If, when there are more than two candidates, you were able to rank your choices, this outcome would be avoided. You would list your favorite as your first choice and rank as many of the other candidates as you like.
No more voting for the lesser of two evils
Other than that, voting in ranked choice elections works just like voting today. Whoever gets the most votes wins. If no candidate gets a majority in the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped. Those who selected the dropped candidate as a first choice then have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. This “instant run-off” process continues until one candidate has more than half of the votes.
You vote will count even if your first choice is dropped
Ranked choice voting means you can always vote the way you want to, ranking the candidates in the order you personally prefer. You don’t have to worry that you might be splitting the vote to the benefit of your least favorite. If your top choice is eliminated, your vote will count in an instant runoff round for the person you listed second. If both your first and second choices are dropped, when the ballots are counted in an instant runoff round, your third choice will be added to that candidate’s total. You can relax about who anyone else is voting for, and simply rank your choices according to your own opinions, free of any worry about helping cause the election of the winner you liked least because you voted for the candidate you wanted most.
Other positive benefits of RCV
In other words, goodbye to “lesser evil” arguments and all the toxins that they inject into our politics, where a divided majority can and often is defeated by a united minority. The end of the lesser of evils dilemma is a great reason to support Ranked Choice Voting. But the benefits go further, because RCV replaces the zero-sum nature of our current elections with a different kind of dynamic, where candidates have every reason to form candidate coalitions and slates, even though they are all running for the same seat.
Candidates form these positive, issue-oriented coalitions in ranked choice voting elections because the ranking gives voters a way to reward more than one candidate. Thus, candidates compete to be the second or third choice of voters who plan to put someone else as their first choice. Rankings have proven in real-world elections to make a huge difference in how candidates think and talk about each other. Candidates know that they can’t denigrate someone’s favorite candidate and then ask to be listed as the second or third choice of that voter.
No voting system is perfect but Ranked Choice Voting is far superior to our current system. Growing numbers of people from Maine to California are learning from the example of Australia, where RCV has been used for over 100 years.
Note: FairVote Washington is a non-partisan 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit dedicated to promoting awareness of and interest in ranked choice voting here in Washington. To find out more or get involved, go to www.FairVoteWA.org, or find us on your favorite social media channels.
John Gear in 1999 organized and led a campaign in which voters in Vancouver, Washington passed a revision to the city charter to give themselves the option of using ranked choice voting to elect of city officials. He recently moved from Oregon to Olympia.