BAKER: In support of ranked choice voting

Every state should adopt ranked choice voting for their elections to eliminate “spoiler” candidates and encourage fairer elections

op-VotingBooth-CourtesyWikimediaCommons

RCV does not tilt an election to one side or another, it only ensures that candidates have broad support when they win.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The 2018 congressional midterm elections produced a variety of headlines ranging from Democrats retaking the U.S. House of Representatives, to Republicans expanding their majority in the Senate — one article was aptly titled “Geography is Destiny.” However, one headline that flew under the radar was the successful implementation of Ranked Choice Voting in Maine. Ranked-choice voting, or instant runoff-voting, allows citizens to rank candidates by preference on their ballot. If one candidate does not secure 50 percent of the vote on the first tally then the nominee with the lowest amount of initial support is eliminated from contention. After a candidate is eliminated, their votes are reapportioned based off of the citizens’ second choice on the ballot. This process is continued until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote. 

RCV ensures that the candidate with the broadest base of support is elected, which is not always the case — Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump failed to secure 50 percent of the popular vote when they were elected president in 1992, 1996 and 2016. RCV ensures that all winners receive the majority of support from their constituents, giving them a true mandate to govern. RCV must be implemented nationwide, as it would allow for the better representation of voters.

In American democracy, the winner of an election is presumed to have the greatest support, as determined by who receives the most votes, yet capturing “the most votes” is not the same as having a majority. In 2010, Paul LePage won Maine's gubernatorial election with 37 percent of the vote — 37 percent is far from a mandate to govern. When candidates fail to reach 50 percent, it is often the result of at least one “spoiler” candidate, a candidate who has no hope of winning yet decides to run in spite of their inevitable loss — Jill Stein, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. These spoiler candidates will almost certainly lose, yet they syphon support from the major party candidate that is most similar. If an individual casts a “protest vote” they are helping to elect the worst of the two viable options, because the candidate they agree with most will not receive their vote. 

This year in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Bruce Poliquin (R) initially led Jared Golden (D) 46.2 percent to 45.6 percent on the first tally of the votes. When RCV was applied, Golden won 50.5 percent to Poliquin’s 49.5 percent. The reason being that there were two liberal independents also vying for the congressional seat, when they were eliminated their votes went to Golden by a factor of two to one. Jared Golden had the broadest base of support in this race, yet he would have lost because of two independents. Furthermore, the district would have been represented by a man that of whom the majority of voters did not approve.

This is not just an issue for Democrats though — “spoiler” candidates have cost both Republicans and Democrats multiple elections. RCV would ensure that voters are not throwing away their vote when they cast it for an independent, and it would ensure that the candidate elected would actually have the support of 50 percent or more of their constituents. For that reason, RCV should be enacted nationwide, providing better representation and the ability for citizens to vote their first choice without fear of harming their second choice.

Not surprisingly, support for RCV appears split down party lines. A study found that around 82 percent of individuals that voted for Hillary Clinton in Maine support RCV, and 83 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump oppose it. This may be the result of recent history in Maine; the current Gov. Paul LePage (R) is extremely polarizing, and if RCV were implemented, he most likely would have lost his first race and potentially his subsequent reelection in 2014. Republicans may be wary of RCV because they fear it will harm their preferred candidate — after all the new system did help flip the Maine 2nd Congressional District from red to blue. 

However, the implementation of RCV would not inherently disadvantage one political party. Fair Vote, an organization that advocates for RCV, estimates that there are 10 recent Senate elections where the margin between the Democrat (who won) and the Republican (who lost) was far less than the number of votes cast for the libertarian candidate — with RCV, Republicans most likely would have won those 10 elections. RCV does not tilt an election to one side or another, it only ensures that candidates have broad support when they win. In some instances Democrats will benefit, in others Republicans will.

RCV is not only used in Maine — cities across the country use the system to conduct local elections. Six states currently use RCV to count overseas military votes, due to the difficulty of reprinting and sending runoff ballots overseas. Furthermore, the University’s Student Council uses a form of RCV when electing officers. 10 cities in total outside of Maine already use RCV in some capacity, extending it to federal and statewide elections would require political will, but is possible.

The state courts will most likely be the biggest obstacle to implementation, once RCV is approved by state legislatures. Although the federal courts have largely let the states run their own elections without interference, such as different election set ups in Washington, California and Louisiana, the state courts have the proper jurisdiction to rule and potentially block RCV. When Maine initially decided to use RCV the state supreme court ruled the change unconstitutional; the original legislation was written so that RCV be used for all races in Maine, statewide and local, yet the state constitution requires that statewide candidates be elected by plurality not majority. This simple phrase meant that RCV could not apply to certain races, as the legislation had originally intended, however the legislature did change the bill and only allowed RCV to be utilized in primaries and U.S. House races. This underscores the main issue with implementing RCV— many states have confusingly written election laws and state constitutions that could unintentionally prevent the use of RCV. In some cases it may be necessary to pass a state constitutional amendment in order for RCV to be used in all elections. 

Some officials may worry about the logistics or political impact of RCV. However, Maine demonstrated that it is possible to implement RCV efficiently and effectively, and data has shown that the partisan impact is mixed. Ranked Choice Voting will not tilt an election, but it will ensure the broad support of the electorate to whomever wins in the end, and minimize effect of spoiler candidates on outcomes. 

Matthew Baker is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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