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Pick Your Poison

As American politics becomes increasingly polarized, the two-party system has become an obstacle to healthy government. Extremism often appeals more to party bases than moderation, especially for local and congressional primaries. In the face of this challenge, reformers—unable to overhaul the two-party system—have called for open primaries, elections in which voters without party affiliations can participate to decide which candidates will run in the general election. By diluting the electorate through the inclusion of independent voters—which some predicted would mitigate the influence of hardline partisans—reformers hoped to reduce the sway of parties and the need for ideological purity from primary candidates. Unfortunately, these efforts have had little effect thus far. According to a widely circulated study in the American Journal of Political Science, whether or not a primary is open has little to no impact on the political leanings of the candidates involved.

In the face of these issues, ranked-choice voting (RCV) offers a way forward. Simply put, RCV asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. The votes of those who rank the least popular candidates highly are reassigned to their next-best choices until one candidate amasses a majority. RCV purports to solve a few crucial problems in American electoral politics. First, it reduces the incentives for negative campaigning, as candidates try not to simply gin up their base but also gain second- or third-place votes. Second, RCV reduces the likelihood of vote-splitting; candidates who earn the votes of a minority of the population, with two or more ideologically similar candidates splitting majority, are much less likely to win. In addition, RCV promises higher turnout in a country where voter participation is notoriously lackluster. RCV is a needed change for American congressional elections.

In June of this year, Maine became the first state to implement RCV for both its gubernatorial election and one congressional House race. The election and re-election of Republican Governor Paul LePage, with less than 40 and 50 percent of the vote, respectively, prompted reformers to push for the change toward RCV. Elsewhere around the country, RCV has also been tested in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Oakland, among other cities.

As the RCV movement has gained momentum, it has also met some resistance, mostly from Republicans. RCV addresses structural inequalities that tend to favor conservative candidates, as evidenced by the case of Governor LePage. But it also faces criticism on the grounds of logistical complexity, cost, and voter confusion. Voters in Burlington, Vermont were some of the first to opt for the system in 2005, but chose to repeal it a mere five years later after a victorious candidate was embroiled in scandal. In St. Paul, Minnesota, Republican lawmakers have made repeated efforts to repeal RCV since its implementation in 2011. Even in Maine, where voters approved the system by a nine-point margin, the state’s Republican party maintained its opposition, with some of its candidates declining to confirm whether they would accept the results. Having found support in predominantly progressive areas, RCV has become a partisan flashpoint.

Yet the main criticisms of RCV have not held water in its pilot cases. Logistical complexity turned out to be a non-factor in Maine, where RCV was first implemented statewide. Although there was an eight-day window between election day and the results announcement, this was consistent with the timeline laid out by Maine’s Secretary of State. This timeline accounted for some idiosyncrasies in Maine’s electoral regulations, such as its prohibition on the electronic transfer of voter data.

As for cost, some states would need to make significant investments to upgrade existing infrastructure, including the purchase of new voting machines. Rhode Island, for example, has balked at a RCV proposal that would come with a $4 million bill. This consideration, however, is short-sighted. St. Paul, Minnesota alone estimated savings of $125 thousand as a result of not having to hold a primary in 2011 (its first year using RCV), with this figure expected to rise in subsequent years. In just three election cycles in Alameda County, California, RCV has helped avoid 17 runoffs—which incur high costs and suffer from low turnout. All of this suggests that the system is likely to yield continued savings over time.

Voter confusion, which supposedly leads to depressed voter turnout, is perhaps the most serious criticism of RCV, since the system is heralded as a way to boost electoral participation. A comprehensive study from 2016 of existing RCV data found that though the practice did little to boost participation compared to general elections in a plurality system, turnout was significantly higher in RCV compared to primary and runoff elections. Crucially, the study found no increase in metrics commonly used to measure voter confusion. In 2017, anecdotal evidence began to suggest a more positive trend regarding voter participation, possibly suggesting that turnout will rise as voters become familiar with RCV. Minneapolis reported 43 percent turnout for local elections in an off year, up from 33 percent in 2013. St. Paul reported its highest turnout over the past 20 years; Cambridge, Massachusetts and Takoma Park, Maryland have also reported increases.

Furthermore, RCV eliminates “wasted” votes, since a first-place vote to a candidate who gets eliminated is assumed by the voter’s second-choice candidate, and so on. RCV also reduces the need for strategic voting, wherein citizens choose the candidate they believe is most capable of winning a general election, as opposed to the candidate most closely aligning with their views. By requiring 50 percent of the vote to win or else by awarding the election to the most popular of the last two candidates standing once the rest have been eliminated, RCV also renders situations such as Maine’s encounter with Governor LePage impossible. Thus, RCV ensures the most popular candidate wins the election and can even be considered more democratic than the current system as it broadens the electorate along the way.

Perhaps the greatest promise of RCV lies in its potential to reduce negative campaigning and improve campaign civility. Theoretically, by requiring candidates to compete for second- and third-place ranks, the system discourages vicious attacks and incentivizes coalition-building among candidates. Studies conducted in RCV cities have linked the system to voters perceiving campaigns as less negative and reporting higher satisfaction with elections as a whole. In a time of intense partisanship in which an us-versus-them mentality pervades political discourse, RCV offers a chance to restore civility and a sense of community to America’s body politic. Common ground does exist between the two parties. Yet it’s impossible to work together to effect change when, among political partisans, majorities in both parties see the other side’s policies as direct threats to the future of the country. By moving campaign rhetoric away from combative attacks and toward inclusive appeals, those perceptions could begin to change, allowing for more bipartisan action down the road.

Despite the fact that 42 percent of Americans identify as independents, partisan voters hold enormous sway in choosing our politicians. Because of the way the current primary system functions, we are left with a distorted sense of which policies US citizens really want. RCV would more meaningfully enfranchise the unaffiliated 42 percent, make politicians less beholden to partisan bases, mollify the anger with which opposing voters view each other, and facilitate progress on issues held back by partisan politics. Ultimately, RCV would disempower political parties as the absolute gatekeepers to elected office in America, and reduce the role of extreme ideology in the political process. RCV has a long and difficult road toward becoming ubiquitous in American politics, but the sooner it reaches that status, the better off the country will be.

About the Author

Nicholas Lindseth '21 is the Senior Managing Web Editor of the Brown Political Review. Nicholas can be reached at