How can we build a better ballot and make voting a more satisfying experience?
This is a question that progressive activists and organizations have been asking for a long time, but with heightened interest following the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, the 2010 victory of militant Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage in Maine, and Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral College win.
Each of those elections demonstrated the weakness of the plurality voting system we have traditionally used here in the United States, which is sometimes called first past the post (FPTP for short, an allusion to racing) or winner take all. This system requires voters to mark a ballot for just one candidate.
The candidate who receives the most votes for each position being voted on then becomes the winner — even if they haven’t received majority support.
In a first past the post election where there are more than two candidates competing for votes, it is possible for two good candidates to siphon votes from each other, allowing a bad third candidate to swoop in and emerge victorious.
This is called the spoiler effect, and, as mentioned, this egregious defect has reared its ugly head in numerous high profile elections in the past few years.
In part to address the spoiler effect, many election reform advocates are calling for the adoption of an a different voting system known as ranked choice.
Technically speaking, there are multiple ways to implement ranked choice voting, so that term can refer to more than one alternative voting system. However, most discussions of ranked choice voting equate that term with instant runoff voting, or IRV, so IRV is the implementation that we will proceed to discuss in this post.
As implied by the name, all ranked choice systems afford voters an opportunity to rank the candidates who appear on the ballot in a given order.
With IRV, if no candidate receives a majority, then the top vote getting candidates each instantly advance while candidates receiving the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes redistributed in order to determine a winner.
Proponents of IRV, like the national organization FairVote, claim that this system “helps elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters” and “helps to more fairly represent the full spectrum of voters.”
But what instant runoff marketing materials won’t tell you is that IRV happens to have a major glitch of its own: it’s actually possible, a fraction of the time, for a candidate to lose an election by becoming more popular.
The easiest way to explain this defect is to show it to you.
Below is a simulation created by Nicky Case which shows an imaginary candidate going from being on the verge of winning to instead losing… by becoming more popular with voters. In the simulation, candidate Tracy Triangle is initially winning as voters shift towards Tracy and away from fellow candidate Steven Square.
But as the video shows, as voters continue to move closer to Tracy, there comes a point where Tracy ends up in a runoff with Henry Hexagon… and loses.
“How often does this actually happen in real life?” Case asks rhetorically, providing the following answer: “There’s a couple confirmed examples, and mathematicians estimate this glitch would happen about 14.5% of the time. But sadly, we can’t know for sure, because governments usually don’t release enough info about the ballots to reconstruct an IRV election & double-check the results.”
“So, not only is Instant Runoff’s glitch as undemocratic as First Past The Post’s glitch, it’s possibly worse – because while FPTP’s counting method is simple and transparent, Instant Runoff is anything but. And a lack of transparency is an even deadlier sin nowadays, when our trust in government is already so low.”
In Washington, the Legislature is considering a pair of bills that would explicitly authorize local governments to adopt instant runoff voting.
One of these is Mia Gregerson’s HB 1722. There is a Senate companion, SB 5708, sponsored by Guy Palumbo. HB 1722 was heard today in the House State Government Committee and is scheduled for executive session on February 22nd.
It may not reach Governor Inslee’s desk, but it is certainly sparking interest.
There is a risk of voter confusion with these bills. If this legislation were to be implemented, then we’d likely soon see a very complicated ballot with plurality voting being used in some races and instant runoff being used in other races.
That’s because these bills do not mandate a transition to instant runoff voting; they only make it an option for cities, counties, and other local governments.
NPI wholeheartedly agrees that we should work on abandoning winner take all as our voting system. But if we’re going to say goodbye to first past the post, then the alternative we adopt should be better than what we have now.
If we adopt ranked choice voting with instant runoff, we should do clear-eyed, recognizing what the downsides are. We’d have to live with the glitch described above, but we can certainly insist on requiring ample resources for voter education to deal with the potential for confusion in jurisdictions that adopt RCV.
It’s also important to know that instant runoff and ranked choice voting are not the only alternative voting systems out there. There are alternatives available to us that don’t involve ranking candidates at all. Like approval voting.
With approval voting, you check the box (or fill in the oval) for every candidate that you approve of. So, if you like, say, three of the Democratic candidates currently running for President of the United States, then you could vote for those three. Here’s a hypothetical ballot which consists simply of the declared candidates for President so far for 2020 on the Democratic side:
- Cory Booker
- Elizabeth Warren
- Kamala Harris
- Kristen Gillibrand
- Julian Castro
- Tulsi Gabbard
- Bernie Sanders
- Amy Klobuchar
- Pete Buttigieg
- John Delaney
Wow. Ten contenders for the Democratic nomination already! And the field is expected to get even bigger. Wouldn’t it be nice if Democratic voters had the option to express their support for more than one candidate? There can only be one nominee, but plenty of Democratic voters are likely to be fond of more than one of the candidates, especially with so many good options to choose from.
“Wait, picking more than one candidate? Doesn’t that violate the one-vote-per-person rule?” Nicky Case asks in reference to approval voting, writing in response: “Well, your vote was never a single check mark, your vote was always the whole ballot. And on this ballot, you get to honestly express all the candidates you approve of, not just your favorite or strategic second-favorite.”
If our goal is to improve the voter experience to bolster participation and safeguard the future of our democracy, then we should design a ballot that encourages people to vote honestly. And it’s essential for people interested in voting justice to know that we aren’t limited to experimenting with IRV and RCV (which Pierce County already tried and rejected and which is being used by several locales around the country). We also have approval voting and star voting open to us… and if we’re going to pass a local options bill for alternative voting methods, we could allow those to be used in addition to RCV.