How Ranked-Choice Voting Can (Partially) Fix Democracy

This piece is part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, published in the July/August 2021 issue of the magazine.

Imagine an election with three candidates. Let’s call them Alex, Barry, and Claire. Alex and Barry have staked their campaigns on universal strawberry ice cream, but Claire wants to lead a rum raisin regime. When the results come in, Alex gets 30 percent of the vote, Barry gets 34 percent of the vote, and Claire gets 36 percent of the vote. In most U.S. elections, Claire would be declared the winner, despite the vast majority of voters disagreeing with her ice cream proposal. Does this seem like representative democracy to you?

A lot of people don’t think so, which is why something called ranked-choice voting (RCV) has been gaining momentum. Cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis have been using it for years. New York is using it for municipal primaries, including mayor, for the first time this year. Last November, Maine became the first state to use it for state and federal elections, and Alaska approved an initiative to do the same. “We have a pretty broken politics nationally, and there’s a lot of interest in things we could do to fix it,” says Rob Richie, CEO of the voting-reform organization FairVote. “[RCV] has come to be seen as a positive, pro-voter thing we can do.”

Here’s how it typically works: Instead of voters picking only one candidate, they will, as the name implies, rank (usually up to five) candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, they’re the winner. Done deal. But if no candidate surpasses the 50-percent threshold, an automatic recount is triggered, in which the last-place candidate is eliminated, with all of their votes reallocated to whichever candidates those voters ranked second. The votes are then counted again. This process continues until one candidate surpasses 50 percent and wins.

The impact can be significant. If the Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had been able to make Al Gore their second choice in 2000, the Bush era may never have happened. We may have avoided Trump, too, if Jill Stein voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were able to give Hillary Clinton a second-place nod in 2016. Those are just the big ones. There’s no telling how many state- and city-wide primaries RCV could have swung to better reflect the interests of the people.

The idea even appeals to some Republicans. The Utah Legislature in March approved GOP-sponsored legislation to expand it, and the party has already used it for primaries in states like Indiana and Virginia. The party as a whole, which generally prefers to keep broken things broken, isn’t entirely on board (Republicans in Massachusetts successfully lobbied against a recent ballot initiative to institute RCV), but it’s attracted the bipartisan support it has for one simple reason: It just makes sense. RCV encourages more candidates to run, presents voters with a wider range of ideas, and allows people to feel comfortable voting for who they want to vote for, not who they feel they need to vote for in order to keep someone else out of office. 

Educating voters about how it works can be a challenge, but as Richie puts it, the system itself is a “common sense” and long overdue way to reform how America elects its representatives. The strawberry-loving public should never have to live in a rum raisin world.

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