Reforms to the American voting system are becoming increasingly popular. Liam Glen writes on both the benefits of ranked-choice voting and the limits of its ability to fix politics.
Representative Jamie Raskin has introduced the Ranked Choice Voting Act to Congress. It seeks to radically alter how US Senators and Representatives are elected to their posts.
If it passes, members of Congress will no longer be chosen by the first-past-the-post system wherein the candidate with the most votes automatically wins, even if they do not get an absolute majority. Instead, it would operate under the system of instant runoff voting (IRV).
Rather than selecting a single candidate, voters would be able to rank all of them from first to last in preference. Once the ballots have been cast, the candidate with the least first-preference vote is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the voters’ second choices. The process goes on until one candidate has a majority.
While complicated, this system has its strengths. Most notably, it eliminates the spoiler effect posed by minor candidates. Voters no longer need to worry about voting their conscience versus voting for the candidate that has a chance of winning. They can simply put their favorite candidate first, then select their second and third choices.
Many are optimistic about this system; Raskin is confident that it would “make America’s elections fairer, more positive, more efficient, and more representative.” However, it also has its share of strong detractors.
The Logical Way of Running Elections
The strongest rebuke of Raskin’s proposal comes from conservative pundit Tara Ross. She primarily argues on the basis of state sovereignty over elections. This is another issue altogether, though it is telling that the most recent example that she can give in favor of this is from 1912.
However, she also makes the odd claim that IRV “works against coalition building and can encourage the rise of extremist third-party candidates.”
In fact, the nature of IRV means that candidates must appeal to a broad electorate. In addition, local elections that use ranked-choice voting are seen as more civil as candidates do not just seek to be voters’ first choice, but also the second and third, so negative campaigning is not such a good strategy.
There are occasional controversies, such as the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont that led to the repeal of IRV in the city. Bob Kiss, of the left-wing Vermont Progressive Party, beat Republican Kurt Wright even though the latter received more first-place votes. But however one interprets the results there is no denying that Burlington is a liberal city, and most voters preferred Kiss to Wright.
In general, IRV works against fringe factions. The Australian House of Representatives uses IRV, but is still dominated by the big two Liberal and Labor Parties.
When the question came up in Britain, the neo-fascist British National Party opposed IRV. They believe that they have a better chance under first-past-the-post, where candidates can win with a small base of support if the vote is split enough.
The Limits of Simple Fixes
IRV makes sense. It fixes the real and potential problems with the current system and creates an outcome that reflects what the voters want.
Many supporters, however, have turned to grandiose claims that it end partisan gridlock or break the two-party system.
For the reasons mentioned above, IRV is unlikely to help candidates outside of the main parties. It is a system that benefits those who have a wide base of support, and there are structural factors besides voting systems stop American third parties from attaining that.
Meanwhile, there is a reason to think that IRV could encourage civil debate and reduce rampant partisanship, but the degree of this is questionable. Ranked-choice voting is used in various circumstances throughout the world, most notably in Ireland and Australia’s parliaments. Few places that use it are significantly better off than their neighbors.
Raskin’s proposal is unlikely to pass through Congress, but IRV is becoming increasingly popular on a state- and local-level. All things considered, this is for the best.
It may not be a perfect system – in fact, a perfect voting system is mathematically impossible – but reforms are necessary. American elections are too often limited when only two candidates are viable – leading to incidences such as the 2017 Alabama Senate race that nearly got ultraconservative alleged sex offender Roy Moore elected.
IRV will not solve all of the problems in politics, but that does not mean that it is not worth pursuing. Sometimes small fixes are good enough.