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Guest columnist David Daley: With ranked choice voting, democracy wins

  • A resident leaves a church after voting in the general election in Cumming, Iowa, Nov. 8, 2016. AP PHOTO/Charlie Neibergall



Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fifty-two votes. That’s all that separates Lori Trahan and Daniel Koh after last Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ third congressional district. A recount is certain, as are earnest opinion pieces about the importance of every vote in an era of increasingly tight elections.

True as that may be, everyone’s focused on the wrong number. The narrow margin is less important than the fact that the winner — whether Trahan or Koh — will have been elected with just 21.6 percent of the vote. This race is better seen as a textbook example of how ranked choice voting would improve our elections.

This is not a knock on Trahan or Koh, who are both well-qualified and highly capable candidates. But the district also deserves a member of Congress who can claim the support of a majority of voters — and not a weak plurality of a party primary. Even if you combined Trahan and Koh’s vote total, it wouldn’t approach 50 percent.

Ranked choice voting — also known as instant runoff voting — assures a winner with genuine majority backing. It’s easy to use, and if enacted by Massachusetts, as it has been for party primaries and other elections in nearby Maine, Democrats would already know their candidate for the fall campaign, and it would be the candidate with the widest support.

Deep blue Massachusetts has not elected a Republican to Congress since 1994, a streak that seems unlikely to end this fall. That means the 728,000 people of this district will be represented by someone who received fewer than 19,000 votes — and someone backed by just over one in five members of his or her own party.

By contrast, RCV mimics a runoff election. Voters rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate has a majority after the first round, he or she wins. But, if no one breaks that threshold, as was the case in this primary, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. His or her votes are then instantly reallocated to the voters’ second choice. This process — standard on most modern voting software — continues until someone crosses 50 percent. 

RCV is especially effective for a crowded primary like this one. An open seat naturally attracted many candidates. Ten candidates vied to succeed the retiring Niki Tsongas. Voters deserve all those choices. Multiple candidates, after all, provide a fuller debate and a more robust conversation.

However, voters also deserve to cast a more effective ballot when faced with so many options — and when they cannot, a host of problems ensue. The most extreme candidate, beloved by the activist base but not by the entire party, can claim the nomination while the majority’s vote gets scattered. Voters who might be opposed to that candidate have to guess which of the others will be the strongest opponent — not easy in a primary that might generate a single poll, let alone an accurate one.

RCV helps solve those problems. It’s proven, and we keep seeing it work, in democracies around the world and right here at home. In addition to Maine, which officially adopted RCV this spring for all federal offices and many primary elections, it’s used in a number of large cities, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Santa Fe and Portland, Me. In San Francisco this year, RCV was credited for raising the tone of the election and ensuring that every candidate addressed all the voters — rather than running hard to their base — as they sought second-choice ballots. Columnists from all political persuasions have hailed RCV as the reform most likely to make our elections more representative and our politics less extreme.

What’s more, we use ranked choice voting every day. Any time we peruse a dinner menu, we’re ranking our choices before settling on a favorite. We experience its fairness any time we order a pizza with friends and select toppings — we cross off the options that are least appealing, and decide together on the ones we like the most.

Massachusetts is hardly the only state where this has been a problem. The Republican nominee for governor of Connecticut won last month with barely 30 percent of the vote. In West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, Carol Miller outran a seven-candidate field — but won with a staggeringly low 23.8 percent. Meanwhile, in Indiana’s Republican Senate primary, two GOP House members together captured more than 60 percent of the vote — but lost to businessman Mike Braun, who had voted in Democratic primaries through 2012.

This is no way to elect representatives in a democracy. Members of Congress serve just two-year terms and are supposed to be, in the words of John Adams, “in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” That’s hard to achieve when the victor earns support from just 21 percent of the district’s Democrats.

With ranked choice voting, democracy wins. Everyone gets to run, no one plays the spoiler, all voices get heard — and voters need not compute an elaborate “electability” formula. Most importantly, the winner is someone a majority of a given party’s voters can actually support. If we want to genuinely fix our politics, this is the place to start.

David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and a senior fellow at FairVote.