By the time you read this, you will know which film won Best Picture of the year from the Academy of Motion Pictures. Personally, I have my fingers crossed for Black Panther. But while I don’t yet know the winner (I’m typing this with 14 inches of February snow on the ground), I know how the 7,902 voting members of the Academy chose it! They used ranked choice voting, a system currently used in cities and counties throughout the U.S., along with the entire state of Maine. Collectively, over 4 million U.S. voters currently use ranked choice voting to choose some of their elected representatives.
The ranked choice system is surprisingly simple. Voters are given a ballot with a slate of candidates. They indicate on their ballot who is their first choice, their second choice, third, etc. When the votes for everyone’s first place choice are tallied, whichever candidate receives 50% of the vote plus one (a majority) is declared the winner. A majority, you say? That’s pretty unlikely if there are more than two candidates isn’t it? Not really. Let’s look at an example.
How ranked choice voting works
In the case of the Academy of Motion Pictures, there are eight nominees for 2019.
For the sake of this example, let’s limit it to just five: BlackkKlansman,
A Star is Born, Roma, Black Panther, and Bohemian Rhapsody.
I fill out my ballot: Black Panther is my first choice, Roma is my second choice, BlackkKlansman my third, A Star is Born my fourth, and Bohemian Rhapsody my fifth.
The votes are counted! Alas, as you expected, no nominee has received more than 50% of the vote in the first round of counting. In our ranked choice voting example, the film with the least number of votes is eliminated from the competition. Let’s say that was Black Panther. Drat! The votes are recounted, but this time, those of us who voted for Black Panther as our first choice will now instead have their second choice counted. In my case, my vote would now go for Roma.
We Americans continue to hold elections where only a plurality, i.e. the most votes but not necessarily a majority, determines the winner.
The votes are counted again. Again, none have over 50%. This time Bohemian Rhapsody has the least, so it too is eliminated. (Another one bites the dust!) The votes are tallied again; anyone who had chosen Bohemian Rhapsody as their first choice on their ballot will now have their second choice counted as their vote.
Finally, in this imaginary next count, somebody DOES emerge as the clear winner! I’m not going to embarrass myself and invent an answer, especially since you already know. The point is that the Academy of Motion Pictures has been using this method since 2009, San Francisco since 2004, Minneapolis-St. Paul since 2011, and the state of Maine since 2018. The Utah State Legislature, in a recent and popular bi-partisan effort, voted to allow extensive experimentation with ranked choice voting throughout the state. These are only a few of the examples in play. A full and fascinating list can be seen at FairVote.org.
Ranked choice voting offers voters more choice
With ranked choice voting, voters can always vote their conscience and not have to worry about voting “strategically” in order to avoid what’s known as “vote splitting.” That occurs when two candidates with similar appeal may together garner a majority of votes, but they both lose to a third candidate who doesn’t have to split the vote with anyone else. So-called spoiler elections are also eliminated, in which a weak third-party candidate siphons off just enough votes to throw the election to the lesser of two other candidates. Ranked choice voting allows people to vote with their hearts and minds without worry about vote splitting or spoilers.
Ranked choice voting also lowers the vitriol in campaigns. If you and I are running against each other, I’m not going to gratuitously slam you because while voters may choose you for their first choice, I want them to choose me as their second choice. Reports clearly indicate that ranked choice voting makes negative campaigning less effective, and greatly increases the importance of what is often referred to as “retail politics”. This means more canvassing and more town-hall meetings, but fewer attack ads on TV.
Majority vs. plurality
One of the most important things about our democratic form of government is that we believe in majority rule. Few Americans would argue with that. But then we have to wonder why, when other possibilities exist, we Americans continue to hold elections where only a plurality, i.e. the most votes but not necessarily a majority, determines the winner. The winner in a ranked choice election will always have a majority of the votes cast. The fact is, better elections are possible. So what’s stopping us?
A growing network of activists around Washington State, under the banner of FairVote Washington (fairvotewa.org), is currently trying to pave the way for the use of ranked choice voting. Right now the group is lobbying State legislators on behalf of what’s known as the Local Options Bill (HB 1722; SB 5708), the passage of which would make it easier for cities, counties and other jurisdictions around the state to debate and experiment with ranked choice voting.
As voting activists, we’re seeking creative ways to deepen our own understandings and also to educate others. We invite you to come and join us in this hopeful, doable, and non-partisan quest when we next meet at 7 pm on Tuesday, March 5th at the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Church, 2315 Division Street NW. For more information call (360) 280-7389.
And may the best candidate—(and film )—win!
Becky Liebman, retired librarian, is a member of FairVote Washington.