American voters are used to the “first past the post” system, where the candidate who gets the most votes in any given race wins — even if they don’t win the majority of votes. But this method, used by the United Kingdom and many of its former colonies, has a serious weakness: Getting the most votes doesn’t mean you have the most support.
This isn’t rocket science. In a four-person race, a candidate can win with just over a quarter of the vote, even if the other three-quarters of voters can’t stand them. In even more crowded fields, such as the current Democratic presidential primary, candidates can win with even lower shares of the vote.
There’s a voting method that solves this problem. This clearly superior system is already in use around the world, and has been introduced in some US cities too. It’s time the whole country starts voting the right way.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to list their candidates in order of preference — “preferential voting” as it’s called in another former British colony, Australia. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters have the option to rank them. A candidate who collects over 50% of the first-choice votes wins. If nobody has over 50% — a pretty common situation when multiple candidates are on the ballot — then people’s second-choice votes start coming into play.
Why is this better? Consider how a presidential primary works in the current system. We’re constantly gaming out our vote, trying to figure out who can win a general election, or who’s got the best shot in Iowa, as opposed to voting for whom we want because we like what they stand for. How many more times do we have to read thinkpieces about whether a woman or a person of color is electable? With ranked-choice voting, you can vote with your heart and your head — without worrying about sabotaging either.
Dozen of cities already use ranked-choice voting, including San Francisco, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with countries like Ireland, New Zealand, and Malta. This week, New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly to institute ranked-choice voting in municipal elections starting in 2021, becoming the largest jurisdiction in the nation to do so. The entire state of Maine is using it for federal races, and political parties in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming plan to use it in the 2020 Democratic primaries.
It should be the law of the land.
Our current system doesn’t just force us to vote for the lesser of two evils. It creates winners who don’t reflect the will of the majority. Think about the 2000 election: Close to 3 million Americans voted for Ralph Nader — enough, in an extremely close race, to help to elect George W. Bush. It’s safe to assume that most Nader voters would’ve wanted Al Gore over Bush; if we’d had ranked-choice voting, their second-choice votes would’ve likely put Gore over the top, eliminating the so-called spoiler effect.
There’s even been talk of replacing the electoral college with ranked-choice voting so that future presidents can’t win without the popular vote.
Studies show that ranked-choice voting can help reduce the negative campaigning that drives down voter turnout and erodes confidence in the political process. When your election chances improve by being more voters’ second or even third choice, there’s more of an incentive to campaign on your ideas, rather than insults. And that’s good for gender and racial equity too, since women and candidates of color in politics experience disproportionate attacks.
Ranked-choice voting can also eliminate costly runoffs, meaning voters don’t have to return to the ballot box more than once. This is a win-win for low-income voters — particularly those of color who live paycheck to paycheck and literally cannot afford to skip another hour of work to make it to the polls twice. Their first choice will be counted, and if needed so will their second, third, or fourth — without returning to the polls. That’s democracy in action.
At the time of writing, 18 people are currently running in the Democratic primary for president. Wouldn’t it be great if we could rank our preferences, rather than watch them knock each other out for a fraction of the vote?
Susan Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause New York. Maya Wiley is the former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; she was previously a civil rights attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
This post has been updated to note that 18 Democratic candidates were running for president at the time of writing.