The 2018 election season is sure to offer plenty of political drama – and plenty of anxiety for people concerned about our democracy. Alongside well-established issues like gerrymandering, money in elections, and voter access, 2018 will highlight a weakness in our system that hasn’t received much attention: the problem of crowded races decided by simple plurality voting (voting in which the candidate with the most votes wins, whether or not he/she has the majority).
The problem with simple plurality is that in races with many candidates dividing the vote, the odds are high of someone winning with significantly less than 50 percent support — a winner who may be way out of step with the views of the majority. This issue will come to the fore in 2018 because of the huge number of candidates, mostly on the Democrat side, who are making these elections among the most crowded in U.S. history. This year’s primaries for governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate will include 131 races with five or more candidates, and 88 with six or more, the most in both categories of any recent election year. For the Democratic Party, the surge in candidates is a sign of strength, an upwelling of grassroots opposition, that ironically could hurt the Party’s chances of winning back the House.
The good news is that the 2018 elections will likely feature the solution to this crowded election problem, the system called ranked choice voting (RCV), which is expected to be in use in the primaries in Maine, the first statewide implementation of RCV in U.S. history.
To understand the crowded election problem, recall Donald Trump’s primary victory in 2016, where Trump won the early contests with mid-30s percent of the vote, and where 60 percent of votes overall (1) went to one of the other ten candidates. The issue is the lack of clarity about what such a victory means. Was Trump supported at some level of preference by the majority of Republicans? Would most who voted for other candidates have ranked Trump second? Polls can shed light on those questions but the uncertainty remains.
Ranked choice voting addresses these issues by allowing voters to choose more than one candidate and to rank those votes in order of preference. Ranked choice ballots list candidates on a grid, with columns for first, second, and third choices, etc. Counting proceeds in rounds (the system is also called “instant runoff voting”) in which the least supported is removed at each round, and the next preferences of the eliminated candidate’s voters are factored in during the subsequent round, until one candidate emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote (2). By taking into account voters’ second and third choices, ranked choice ensures, in nearly all cases (3), that the winner is voted for by the majority and is the most preferred candidate.
The impact of ranked choice on results is suggested by the last election with a similar scale of candidates, the “Tea Party election” of 2010, which saw three dozen primaries won with less than 35 percent of the vote. The absence of ranked choice this year will mean roughly 30 “wrong winners” in primary elections (4). Some of those wrong winners will go on to lose in the general, in some cases costing their party seats. For the Democratic Party, the crowding is most intense in the battleground districts they need to take back the House. Party leaders may be wrestling with the question of whether to intervene and reduce competition in some races, an issue complicated by accusations of DNC bias in the 2016 Clinton/Sanders race.
Wrong winners of primaries in strongly Blue or Red states will likely make it through the general election and go on to public office, where there’s a good chance they’ll support more ideological extreme positions, as the case of Freedom Caucus members illustrates. The party primaries Freedom Caucus members won the years of their first elections averaged 6 candidates and a winning share of the vote of 40 percent (5). Particularly for the House, primaries already over-represent the wings of political opinion at the expense of the center because of low turnout and partisan districting. Simple plurality in crowded district compounds that problem.
Ranked choice by contrast shifts election results to the center of each party’s primary electorate and to more representative nominees. It can also shift campaigns away from the negative. Because candidates need to heed the preferences of a larger electorate beyond their core supporters, ranked choice reduces the returns to negative campaigning and promotes more collaborative approaches and people.
Ranked choice also facilitates competition from independent and third party candidates because it significantly reduces the risk that voting for such candidates could inadvertently help an ideological opponent. (An example of this “spoiler effect” would be Ralph Nader’s candidacy helping George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000). This potential to open up competition beyond the two parties is the reason Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter and his coauthor Katherine Gehl strongly endorsed ranked choice in their recent study on the U.S. political system.
Ranked choice is used in a half-dozen countries around the world and in 12 cities around the country, and evaluations show that voters prefer it to simple plurality and that it does in fact makes campaigns less negative. Questions have been raised about whether the additional complexity of ranked choice would reduce turnout, but results to date do not bear that out. The main knock is probably that RCV ballots makes vote auditing more difficult.
In Maine ranked choice has occasioned an intense battle between resistant incumbents in the state legislature and a coalition of civic groups and former elected officials (from both parties) who led a successful referendum campaign for RCV in 2016. Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond has called this battle in Maine, “the ground zero of election reform in the United States.” The legislature effectively repealed RCV this fall, but with the completion of a “People’s Veto” petition, expected in February, RCV will be re-established for use during the primaries in June. Maine has several crowded primaries ahead, and if ranked choice moves forward, none of those elections will be won with just 30 percent of the vote, and there will be no spoiler effect scenario to keep citizens from voting their true preferences.
It would be good for our country if other states followed Maine’s lead. States where RCV would have the most impact are those that, like Maine, have particularly strong independent/third party candidates and voting blocks, and states with a high frequency of crowded primaries (leaders in recent years in that category include Nevada, Indiana, Maryland, Tennessee and Arizona).
The simple plurality system is currently the norm in this country not because it’s in the Constitution (which leaves these issues to the states) or endorsed by the Founders; it’s simply all that the available technology could manage when we started voting back in the 1600s. We have the technology now for a better system, and given the crisis of legitimacy confronting our democracy, we ought to use it. Polls place us 91st among 112 countries in terms of citizen confidence in our elections, and less than 15 percent of us approve of the job Congress is doing. While there are many sources of this disillusionment, an election system that is biased toward the extremes is certainly part of the problem.
The road forward for more state-level ranked choice won’t be easy, with significant resistance to be expected from election administrators and incumbent state legislators, but the risk of not making this upgrade is more unrepresentative winners, more extreme voices in government, and more disillusionment with our democracy.
Kevin Johnson is a founder of Election Reformers Network, a donor cooperative created by international democracy workers now supporting reform initiatives in the US. The group selected ranked choice voting in Maine as its first project, and provided a grant to the RCV Maine affiliate, the Chamberlain Project Foundation.
1 In primaries with more than one candidate
2 Primary runoffs are used in some states to ensure a majority winner, but this system requires an additional round of voting, at considerable cost to campaigns and states, and is prone to a significant drop off in turnout. For more information see http://www.fairvote.org/ranked_choice_voting_outperforms_runoffs_in_upholding_majority_rule
3 Exceptions to the general rule occur if a large percentage of voters only mark their first preference
4 Author’s estimate, based on the percentage of primary runoffs that reversed the finishing order (34%) and data from recent elections on likelihood of no majority winner for race sizes
5 Does not include Freedom Caucus members in states with primary runoffs
6 Not including states that have primary runoffs
7 Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, December 15-18, 2017
|Appendix: The Most Crowded Democratic House Primaries (6)|
|District||Incumbent||Competitiveness Assessements (7)||Democratic Candidates|
|Illinois 6th||Peter Roskam (R)||Tossup to Likely R||11|
|Washington 8th||David Reichert (R)
|Tossup to Tilt D||11|
|Virginia 10th||Barbara Comstock (R)||Tossup||10|
|Florida 27th||Llena Ros-Lehtinen (R) (Not running)||Leans D||10|
|Iowa 3rd||David Young (R)||Leans R to Likely R||10|
|California 10th||Jeff Denham (R)||Tossup to Leans R||9|
|Georgia 6th||Karen Handel (R)||Leans R to Likely R||9|
|Montana First||Greg Gianforte (R)||Leans R to Likely R||9|
|Arizona 2nd||Martha McSally (R)||Tossup||8|
|California 25th||Steve Knight (R)||Tossup to Leans R||8|
|New York 19th||John Faso (R)||Tossup to Tilts R||8|