Ranked-Choice Voting Can Open the Door to Third Parties and Reinvigorate Democracy. The U.S. Should Implement it.

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During the 2018 midterm elections, Maine’s second congressional district became the first district nationwide to implement ranked-choice voting in federal elections. This type of voting is used in countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Ireland, but the U.S. has been reluctant to use it over its traditional first-past-the-post system.

Ranked-choice voting—also known as instant-runoff voting—allows voters to rank candidates in an election on their ballots; if no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choice votes of their supporters are distributed to the appropriate candidates. This process is repeated until one candidate reaches a majority. A simple way of thinking about ranked-choice voting is as a series of separate elections during which one candidate is eliminated each time, except that all of the separate elections are condensed into one. Ranked-choice voting is more democratic than first-past-the-post voting, a plurality system in which the candidate with the most votes wins the election. First-past-the-post promotes a two-party system and encourages voters to vote for the candidate they dislike the least rather than for the candidate they want, which may be a marginal third-party candidate. Ranked-choice voting requires candidates to appeal to a larger part of the population and allows voters to support marginal third-party candidates without worrying that their vote won’t matter. However, ranked-choice voting can be logistically complicated—especially when it comes to recounts, as it so happened in the Maine election.

Maine’s switch in voting systems was largely a response to Republican Governor Paul LePage, who was elected twice without a majority of the vote (he won with 37.6% percent of the vote in 2010 and 48.2 percent in 2014). Ranked-choice voting was supposed to ensure that the candidate elected would better reflect the will of the entire constituency. Though it has yet to be approved for use in the gubernatorial race, it was used in the congressional midterm elections of 2018. In the first round of the election for House of Representatives, Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin received approximately 2,000 more votes than Democrat Jared Golden, and they each had about 46 percent of the vote. Yet as the rounds of the election continued, Golden pulled ahead, eventually reaching a majority with 3,500 more votes than Poliquin. Poliquin had protested that the election’s results were unconstitutional and argued that he should have won the election by having more votes in the first round. Poliquin even challenged the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting in federal court and called for a recount. Yet after the lawsuit was struck down on December 13, Poliquin ended his request for a recount—saving the state from what would have been a labor-intensive recount process that could have gone past January 3, the first day of session.

Though Poliquin and his Republican colleagues attempted to cast doubt on the ranked-choice voting system, the court ruling and recount withdrawal represent the potential that the novel system of voting has to spread around the nation. Seven states currently use ranked-choice voting in municipal elections, and Maine has set an example that may persuade others to follow suit.

If ranked-choice voting does get adopted, it has the chance to drastically change the political landscape of America for the better. Not only would ranked-choice voting benefit third-party candidates and give them a more proportional share of the vote, but it would also solve the problem of people strategically voting against their own conscience for the purpose of a protest vote or supporting the candidate they deem the “lesser of two evils.” Another outcome of implementing ranked-choice voting would be a restructuring of the balance of power between Republican and Democratic candidates. While our current voting system gives advantages to candidates with the support of a few key states (and not the entirety of the nation), candidates under a ranked-choice system would have to appeal to the broader electorate. This could prove to be the downfall of the divisive politics of candidates like Donald Trump. Politicians appealing to a wider set of issues and moderates would be more likely to be ranked the second and third choice on many independent candidates’ ballots, giving them leverage over incendiary candidates. However, the flip-side to this is that ranked-choice voting could promote radical populist candidates, though these candidates don’t make up a significant portion of current third parties.

If ranked-choice voting is used in the 2020 presidential election, it could push a moderate, centrist, broadly appealing Democrat into office. In Congressional and other local elections, ranked-choice voting could propel grassroots politicians into power and strike at institutional candidates in the same way that they did in Maine’s second Congressional District this year. But if ranked-choice elections were to further exist, they would slowly chip away at the two-party system and open up elections to include candidates at different gray areas on the political spectrum—ranging from radical liberals to moderates to radical conservatives. Candidates appealing to the broadest electorate would increasingly be populist, and this could potentially give strength to extremist parties that would otherwise be absent in a two-party system.

Nevertheless, the opportunities ranked-choice voting represents—a more democratically elected government with greater weight in the voices of marginalized parties—far outway its potential costs. In the long run, were the U.S. to transition to national ranked-choice voting, the impacts would extend beyond mere political party restructurings and open up civil discourse, promote a diverse range of policies and opinions, and expand upon and solidify the republican ideals of the U.S.