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Analysis
New chapter for US democratic system

New chapter for US democratic system

Benefits of ranked choice voting for a polarised electorate

by Samuel Fossum in Baltimore

Mon 24 Oct 2016

At the beginning of this year’s US primary season many were impressed by the competitive Republican field. The first debate’s packed stage was an ideological showcase for the party’s future. Months later, many watched in disbelief as Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination.

Under the current system, which simply requires a candidate to obtain a plurality, the political diversity on show in the Republican primary did not strengthen US democracy. Instead it gave rise to Trump, a candidate who appears to be emotionally flawed and consolidated his base through tactics that debased America's political discourse.

On 8 November, voters in Maine will have the option to introduce a different system to American politics: ranked choice voting. RCV has the potential to foster a more flexible national discourse and alleviate extremism.

Far from a novel concept, RCV is used in 24 cities across the US, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. Also known as ‘instant run-off voting’, it is used in Ireland and Australia, and in London’s mayoral elections.

If the Republican primary had been held under RCV, each voter would have ranked the candidates in order of preference. Had no candidate achieved a majority after the initial vote, as was the case for almost every Trump victory, the candidate with the least number of votes would be eliminated. Those who voted for him or her would then be reappropriated based on their second preference. This process would repeat until a candidate had enough second or third choice votes to claim a majority.

Proponents of RCV argue that the system would mitigate the ‘spoiler effect’ and allow the electorate to vote conscientiously without helping their least preferable candidate win. They argue that this change would facilitate greater electoral discourse and co-operation, reduce the money spent on negative campaign advertising, and save money by eliminating the need for run-off elections.

As seen during the Republican primary, a competitive field favours the candidate with marginal but strong factional support. Trump’s visceral brand of populism overcame moderate Republican ideals espoused by candidates such as Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush. If an election becomes competitive between more than two candidates, it favours tribal factionalism.

But with RCV, candidates are incentivised to campaign on more inclusive and representative platforms that appeal to more than one part of the electorate. Widespread political competition should empower voters, not force them to vote strategically to prevent an ideologically ‘worse’ candidate from winning.

RCV would not need a constitutional amendment, but could be implemented at the state and local level, or through a law passed by Congress. If passed in Maine, it will apply to all federal and state elections, from the governor to the president.

Some argue that RCV may create more problems than it resolves. Switching to RCV could increase the cost of administering elections, lead to costly court challenges, and increase the risks of technological tampering with election software. It is more difficult to implement securely because the votes are not a simple summation.

The Maine Office of Fiscal and Program Review estimates that, if the new system is adopted, it will cost $910,000 in the first year, three to four times the amount Maine currently spends on elections. Much of this will go towards reconfiguring electoral infrastructure. But RCV advocates claim that the state will save money in the long run since costly run-offs will no longer be necessary.

Cynics claim that the new system could depress voter turnout as it requires more thought than a head-to-head race. On the other hand, it could incentivise voters to become more informed about the other candidates, since they have to rank candidates in order of preference.

As an extraordinary election campaign draws to a close, it is time for change in America’s democratic system. RCV provides just such an opportunity.

Sam Fossum is US Institutional Coordinator at OMFIF. This forms part of OMFIF’s series of commentaries on the US presidential election on 8 November.

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