The Case for Nationwide Ranked Choice Voting
Calvin Pan, 08/09/2020
Seeing the names inked at the top of a ballot and immediately groaning in disgust. Driving directly home on the first Monday in November, not caring enough to stop at the local polling station along the way. Sitting in the living room on election nights idly staring down the news with apathy, indifferent as to whether the name emblazoned across your screen has a (D) or (R) next to it because it simply doesn’t matter. All those experiences, and more, will sound familiar to the millions of Americans who, due to a broken electoral system, have tuned themselves out of the political arena and politics altogether.
The realities described above result from a condition known as voter apathy. Voter apathy is the indifference of citizens within a democracy towards political happenings, i.e. people in a democracy not caring about politics. It can express itself in many forms, the most impactful of which are the ones described in the introduction of this article: people not paying attention to the news, becoming disillusioned with the idea that their government truly works for them, and ultimately not caring to vote.
Widespread voter apathy often leads the people to participate in politics less willingly, which means that voter turnout (the amount of people that vote) at elections is often much smaller. Lower democratic participation often leads to the institutions of government being unrepresentative of the people’s true wants and needs: when less people vote, less people have a say in government. Decreased democratic participation also leads to the skewing of a democracy towards comparatively powerful and advantaged groups with vested interests in politics. Normally, those with more wealth and power are likely to pay more attention to politics than less influential groups due to politics being a way through which the powerful can retain their power. This causes lower voter participation across the board, but often has a particularly marked effect on those less influential groups. Those less powerful groups, often racial/ethnic/gender/sexual/religious minorities, are typically the most affected by increased voter apathy, and many times gradually lose their voice in politics as a result of increasing apathy. Due to the negative effects increased voter apathy has on political participation and the negative effects a decrease in that has on the representativeness of a government and the representation of minorities in politics, increased voter apathy is definitively a negative phenomenon that should be prevented at all costs.
With an upcoming US general election in November that is set to have one of the lowest voter turnouts in American history due to the combination of a yet-uncontained pandemic and two historically unpopular candidates, it’s important right now to consider the roots of the widespread voter apathy that currently plagues America and the various means through which it can be solved.
A large part of the discontent that many voters feel in the United States towards their political system is that they don’t feel like their vote matters. The current American voting system, used in federal elections and in most states’ primary elections, is set up to automatically award victory to whichever candidate receives a majority of votes. This voting system discounts any votes that aren’t for the winning candidate: even if an opposing candidate loses the election by only one vote, only the winning candidate gets a seat and any sort of political representation at the end of the day. Therefore, people living in regions politically dominated by parties that oppose their political views have no incentive to vote under the American system: if you know that your candidate’s going to lose the election, then why bother voting in the first place if it makes no difference? This view that voting won’t change anything causes many people to not show up to the voting booth on election days, which causes them to pay less attention to politics in general, leading to voter apathy.
The other key reason why many voters are apathetic towards voting in the United States is the structure of government nationwide. In the United States, there are two dominant political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, whose core views are both relatively close to the political center and who often seem “identical” to many voters. Both parties are also large, coalition-based parties: the Democrats have members ranging ideologically from democratic socialists to social conservatives, while the Republicans hold everyone from Tea Party conservatives to hawkish neo-conservative economic liberals. As a result of both of those factors, American citizens often find themselves having to choose between voting for two candidates that they don’t necessarily agree with at the polls in a race to the bottom, as both parties put forward largely unpopular candidates unrepresentative of the wants of the public as a whole. The need for a candidate to win a majority in an election to gain a seat also prevents any third party from having a chance of breaking up this dynamic, as the unreasonably high bar set for those third-party candidates prevents anyone from voting for them due to them being viewed as infeasible.
Judging from the above descriptions, it may seem like the current voter apathy omnipresent in the American political system is largely linked to the inefficiencies of our current voting system. So, it naturally then follows that the best solution to solving this voter apathy is through making changes to the voting system. In my opinion, a reform that would be able to easily tackle and solve the root causes of the current apathy of our political system would be the implementation of ranked-choice voting, or RCV, nationwide for elections.
What is ranked-choice voting? Ranked-choice voting, also known as RCV, is a system of voting in which voters rank as many candidates as they wish in the order of their preference instead of voting for one candidate as in many traditional voting systems. If no candidate achieves a majority of first preference votes, a system of automatic runoffs is then held. The candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated and their voters automatically get moved to the candidates they indicated as their second preference, and if there still is no candidate with a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest first and second preference votes gets eliminated and their voters get redistributed. This process repeats itself until one candidate has the majority of votes.
This system may seem overly convoluted to readers at first in comparison to the simple majority-wins voting system we have in the United States today, but it definitely has its advantages nonetheless.
In our current political system, like aforementioned, voters are often discouraged from voting for smaller and less viable candidates and parties due to the fear of “wasting a vote”. This fear comes from the reality that those smaller candidates don’t often have a realistic chance to attain the highest number of votes/clear a majority threshold, which means that any vote for them won’t have a real effect and could’ve in the voter’s eyes been better spent on being part of the deciding difference between two larger candidates. Ranked Choice Voting removes voters’ fears of wasting their votes on smaller candidates in that they can safely rank the third party candidate they agree with the most first while knowing that their vote still counts and can make a difference should the smaller candidate be eliminated. This has the effect of allowing for a greater degree of political representation and more representation from third parties and independent candidates in legislative bodies, due to an increased number of people voting for them. The big-tent Democratic and Republican parties that dominate American politics today also don’t have an incentive to remain as one group, as their various subdivisions and wings will now have a chance at attaining power independently without the constraints of a large party hierarchy.
Through breaking up the big-tent parties that dominate US politics (as well as in many democracies around the world nowadays), RCV significantly reduces political apathy by boosting voter desire to vote. Voters, due to now not having to choose between two monotonous candidates that don’t represent their political opinions and knowing that their vote does indeed count, are therefore more likely to participate in voting.
American politics, due to being defined by a faulty voting system that encourages an unrepresentative two-party system and makes voters feel like their vote doesn’t matter, leads to a high degree of voter apathy and therefore low political representation. Ranked Choice Voting offers a (relatively simple) solution that addresses most of the issues caused by our current voting system, and therefore increases citizen participation in politics dramatically. As aforementioned, this increased participation in politics is crucial towards the health of a democracy, as only when a large proportion of the population is engaged can the government be truly representative and responsive to the needs of the people. Therefore, the implementation of a Ranked Choice Voting system nationwide in the United States would be an extremely beneficial move for the health of our democracy as a whole and therefore is a crucial electoral reform that must be considered in tandem with other proposals for reform.
For more information on Ranked Choice Voting, please head to https://www.fairvote.org/