Empirical Econocrat’s Guide to Fixing American Democracy: Part 2

In the United States, most districts vote along lines of “first-past-the-post” elections. You cast your ballot for a single individual, and the person with the most votes at the end wins. First past the post is pretty simple, and that may be why it’s so popular. However,  it also has some shortcomings:

  • It’s very easy to game (i.e. “tactically vote”)
  • It tends to reward a two party system
  • It rewards mudslinging
  • The winner is often hated by a very large minority

Neither of these creates a government that is particularly representative of its people, especially compared with a few alternatives.

One alternative – Ranked Choice Voting – is particularly palitable.

Ranked Choice Voting

In ranked choice voting, instead of seeing a selection of Presidential Candidates on a ballot and choosing just one, you instead see the same candidates and rank them from first to last in order of how much you like them.

To see how it’s different from first past the post, let’s see…

An Example

Let’s say you’re a bleeding heart liberal in a first past the post election. You really like Jill Stein, but you’re worried Trump might win. So you fall in line behind Hillary, voting for the “lesser of two evils” in your mind. This is what’s called tactical voting, and it ends up under-representing true support for Jill Stein and over representing true support for Hillary Clinton.

Now let’s see the same voter in a ranked choice election. This time around, you rank Jill Stein above Hillary Clinton – your true preference. But you rank both above Donald Trump. You no longer have to choose the lesser of two evils.

Let’s say in the first tally, Stein finishes last of the three. Now all those who voted for Stein first have their votes switch to their second preference, Clinton, who ends up winning. This time, your true preference is properly reflected – this means that Stein (while still losing in this scenario) will do much better in the first round than she would have in first past the post.

Another Example

Now let’s say you are Jill Stein. In a first past the post election, you may or may not be most served by simply explaining why you’re the best candidate. Often, you’re best served by explaining why the “other guy” is a bad candidate. So you end up attacking Hillary Clinton more than supporting yourself, hoping to convince her voters to switch to your side.

Some might. What’s more likely is you’ll just discourage Clinton voters from going to the polls rather than voting for you, which isn’t all that great. But worse, you’ll alienate a lot of Clinton voters – a lot that might have ranked you as their second choice if Clinton did worst in the first round.

Again, let’s switch to ranked choice voting. Now is it in your interest to attack Clinton? No, because voters losing interest in her doesn’t directly help you. Voter’s can now be interested in multiple candidates. In fact, there’s now an incentive for candidates to be polite to one another – hoping to be that candidate’s supporter’s second choice. Coalitions may even form, with Stein endorsing Hillary as her preferred second choice over Trump, and Hillary asking her own supporters to pick Stein as a second choice.

What are the chances of this being rolled out?

Higher than you’d think. Elections are controlled by the states and even then, many are controlled at the local level. That allows less mainstream ideas like ranked choice voting a chance to get implemented in various municipalities. Maine has it on the ballot, and San Fransisco has been using it for city elections for over a decade now.

Many of the effects that the examples above predict, namely:

  • More voters choosing their actual preferences
  • More party diversity
  • Friendlier elections

have been seen in San Fransisco. Finally, since the winner had to appeal to a larger set of the electorate and moreover, the election stayed friendly, and moreover, the winner was chosen as everyone’s most favorite remaining candidate…. it becomes more likely that the winner is in fact everyone’s most favorite remaining candidate.

In many cases, these rules are passed by referenda, which can be challenging to put together. But it does show a way to get something through that the dominant two-party system may not like – moreover, given that elections are controlled at the state and local levels, often state and local parties get along better than the national ones do, meaning they may get behind ranked choice voting. While Republicans tend to be conservative, and Democrats tend to be liberal, in New York City, both tend to be liberal. And in Lubbock Texas, both tend to be conservative.

These places may see benefits from ranked choice voting.

While part 1 of this guide talked about ending gerrymandering as a way to make the two dominant parties more competitive, ranked choice voting itself makes it far easier for third parties to compete. This, in turn, means there’s more equitable representation in government and more politicians elected that are interested in compromise.

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