The U.S. probably will never be a European-style, multiparty parliamentary democracy. It’s not inconceivable, however, that someday it could switch to a system that might have prevented the aberrations of this harrowing election year — ranked-choice voting.
Here’s how it works. Imagine a presidential race with four candidates — let’s call them Hillary, Donald, Gary and Jill. Voters get a ballot on which they rank the candidates in order of preference. On the initial count, only the first preference matters. Let’s say Hillary wins 45 percent of the vote, Donald gets 40 percent, Gary, 10 percent, and Jill, 5 percent. Jill is eliminated as the worst performer, and her votes are distributed among the second choices of her supporters. After the recount, Hillary has 47 percent, Donald gets 41 percent and Gary, 12 percent. Gary is eliminated, and his votes go to the second choices of his backers. Either Hillary or Donald necessarily receives more than 50 percent of the vote and wins.
There are important reasons why this system could be better than the existing one. Today, any third-party candidate is a potential spoiler. One of the reasons Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News and Bloomberg View) decided against running for president this year was that he did not want to hand the victory to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz by taking away votes from Clinton, and the danger was real. Ranked-choice voting — or instant runoff voting, as it is also called because it allows the leading candidate to get more than 50 percent of the vote without a runoff — would have eliminated that worry. Those who voted for Bloomberg would have specified their second choice, and if he lost, their votes would have counted for the major party candidates of their preference as if he hadn’t run at all. But he would have had a chance to stand against them.
“The current system puts a lot of pressure on voters and allows politicians to take more people for granted,” says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nongovernmental organization that advocates ranked-choice voting. “Under ranked choice, the major party candidates wouldn’t be saying, ‘Don’t vote for a third-party candidate because she’s a spoiler.’ They’ll be saying, ‘Vote for me because I’m the best candidate.’”
Many U.S. voters this year say the major-party candidates do not represent them. Ranked choice would have alleviated their anxiety, allowing them to make a different first choice without wasting their votes.
Ranked choice also could make for more substantive campaigns — the kind one sees in some European countries with multiparty systems: The election would no longer be a gladiatorial battle between two candidates but more of a contest of agendas. “It’s more difficult to speak over each other in a three-way or four-way debate,” Richie says.
That’s arguable, of course, as this year’s Republican primaries have shown: Trump turned the debates into mud-slinging matches, even though many candidates were on stage. Yet ranked choice could have yielded a different result. Trump’s victories in the early primaries, with pluralities rather than majorities, wouldn’t have been possible. Votes cast for Jeb Bush, John Kasich and the other less-flamboyant candidates wouldn’t have gone to Trump, because he wouldn’t be the second choice of voters who support these traditional Republicans. That would have boosted the chances of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Ranked-choice voting is the system Ireland uses to elect its president and London uses to elect its mayor (with a quirk: a voter is only allowed a first and a second choice). It is also the preferred voting system of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal Party has vowed to push through election reform so the next national vote is not held under a first-past-the-post system. Trudeau became party leader in an instant runoff election.
And ranked choice isn’t altogether foreign to American electoral practice. I saw an unacknowledged variety of it at work in what is probably the most democratic grassroots voting process in the U.S. — the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic Party convenes voters in a room where supporters of each candidate stand in their own corner. If one of the candidates gets less than 15 percent support, the candidacy is declared not viable, and the remaining contenders’ teams have to compete for the support of the “orphaned” voters. That’s the equivalent of eliminating the worst performer in a ranked-choice vote.
According to FairVote, 11 U.S. cities, including Minneapolis and San Francisco, use instant runoff to elect mayors and other city officials. This year, an initiative to introduce ranked choice for all elections except the presidential ones is on the ballot in Maine. If it passes, future U.S. representatives and senators in that state will be elected by ranked balloting. There is no particular reason why presidential elections should be excluded: Changing the system would not require amending the Constitution. It would be enough to alter state statutes.
Most Americans, Richie says, believe that the current system was dictated by the founding fathers. In fact, it has changed drastically since their time, not least because of technological advances.
Richie says that in some U.S. jurisdictions where politicians get fired up about instant runoff, election officials often dismiss the idea, saying the changes would be costly and logistically difficult. That’s not necessarily true: It’s mainly a matter of getting the major election system companies on board. Just two — Election Systems & Software and Dominion Voting Systems — dominate the U.S. market.
Essentially, nothing but conservatism stands between the U.S. and a voting system that would have made it far more difficult for Trump to dominate the current campaign so thoroughly — and far less necessary for Clinton to concentrate most of her energy on attacking Trump rather than on pushing her substantive programs. It would also have given a fair chance to other strong candidates: Rubio, Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or even someone who doesn’t belong to one of the major parties.
Obviously, instant runoff is not a panacea. Unlike a parliamentary multiparty system, it leaves a lot of voters unrepresented in the end. In Canada, Trudeau is criticized for his advocacy of ranked choice: His opponents say it would benefit the Liberals the most, and they’re not necessarily wrong. Richie says ranked choice probably wouldn’t destroy the dominance of America’s two major parties. In fact, it may well favor the strongest of established parties, unless there’s an unusually powerful challenge.
Yet I hope the Maine initiative is approved and that ranked choice will gradually make its way into the U.S. mainstream. It has the potential to show the world that American politics is not all flash and that U.S. democracy is not turning into a reality show after all.