The principle of majority rule is a fundamental hallmark of democracy. Yet, in the American democratic system, leaders consistently win their offices with less than 50% of the vote, a dynamic created by races with more than two candidates. This multi-candidate system makes for a richer, more inclusive democracy, but often leaves voters feeling like they cannot vote their true conscience, afraid that their vote for a third candidate is wasted, or even counterproductive. Voters who support a third party, or who wish to vote for a less popular candidate that they truly believe in, are often shamed for contributing to the election of an unpopular dominant party candidate. With rank choice voting, there would be more incentive to participate in the democratic process, more voters would feel that their voices were heard, negative campaigning would be reduced, and elected officials would always have true majority support.
Maine has recently led the nation as the first state in the nation to adopt rank choice voting on the state ballot, and it is time for the rest of the country to follow. We urge you to sign the Fair Vote Petition to support Rank Choice voting in American elections.
Under the rank choice voting system, when ballots are first counted, only first-choice votes are considered. If there is no obvious majority-winner, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and second choice votes from those ballots are tallied and added to each of the other candidates until one candidate reaches a majority. With rank choice voting in place, there is no vote splitting, which gives individual voters a louder voice. When voters can support the candidate in whom they truly believe, without worrying about helping to elect a candidate they dislike, they are more likely to go to the polls and vote their true conscience, not simply cast a vote for the “lesser of two evils.”
Third party candidates are often very popular and bring a fresh voice to the table, especially in a two-party dominated system such as ours. While the answer is not to silence their voices, they rarely come even close to capturing enough votes to win, yet they earn enough votes to make a difference in the contest between main party candidates. In the last 50 years, the closest a third-party candidate has come to winning a national election was George Wallace, in the 1968 presidential race against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Wallace won five states; a record for a third party candidate, but not enough to have even a longshot win. The American political system is in need of a solution that allows these third party voices to be heard, without splitting the vote, changing the course of election, or creating a non-majority win.
Paul LePage, the current governor of Maine, is a prime example of how vote splitting caused by third party candidates can lead to the election of an unfavorable candidate, and why rank choice voting is the solution to prevent similar situations from happening on a national level. Eliot Cutler, a popular third party candidate in the 2010 and 2014 Maine gubernatorial elections, split the vote twice, causing an unqualified Paul LePage to win the governorship in both elections, each time with significantly less than 50% of the vote. In the 2010 election, LePage received only 38% of the votes, with independent Eliot Cutler capturing a close second with 37%, and Democrat Libby Mitchell taking 19% (with other third party candidates making up the last 6%). Polls showed a clear Democratic split between Mitchell and Cutler, who collectively received 56% of the vote. Had rank choice voting been in place during the 2010 election, many of Mitchell’s votes would likely have gone to Cutler, causing a clear majority win over LePage’s meer 38%. By the 2014 election, LePage’s popularity rating had not grown, with polls showing a sub-50% approval rating from constituents. Again, the vote was split between Cutler and Democratic nominee Mike Michaud, and LePage kept his gubernatorial seat, despite the low satisfaction rating and receiving less than 50% of the vote. In fact, in the last 40 years, none of Maine’s governors have been elected to their first term by a majority of voters. In nine of the last 11 Maine gubernatorial races, the elected officials won with less than 50% of the vote, and, in five of those races, the winning candidates were elected by less than 40% of voters. Rank choice voting is the clear solution that prevents election results like this, while giving all voters and candidates a voice.
This system again could have made a huge difference in the recent presidential race, with both top candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump showing far higher unfavorable ratings than favorable ones prior to the election: Clinton at a 41.8% favorable and 54.4% unfavorable rating, and Trump at a 37.9% favorable and 58% unfavorable rating, according to RealClearPolitics. Instead of being able to vote their true conscience, many voters were faced with either voting for a candidate they found unfavorable, or feeling as though they were throwing away their vote, or worse, contributing to the election of their least favorite candidate. According to a survey done by Forbes Magazine, voters who made a conscious decision to stay home on election day did so because they did not want to contribute to this “lesser of two evils” election. Had they had another option, perhaps the results would have been different.
Ranked choice voting would also reduce negative campaigning, a much welcomed change for many after such a negative election season. Because candidates under the ranked choice system need to secure second choice votes in addition to their normal voter base, they are less likely to make negative personal attacks on other candidates, as voters are unlikely to rank a second choice candidate who has attacked their first choice. This both reduces the incentives for negative campaigning and contributes to fostering cooperation and positivity within the public towards the democratic process. Ranked choice voting urges candidates to focus less on negative personal attacks and more on key issues and policies at hand. This reduction in negative campaigning has been demonstrated on a small scale through the 2011 ranked choice mayoral election in Portland, Maine. A survey of early voters conducted by FairVote revealed that 41% of respondents saw less negative campaigning than usual. Additionally, a 2014 study done at the Western Washington University and the University of Iowa showed that cities who used rank choice voting found the campaign process to be less negative than cities who used the regular voting system.
As a more positive attitude towards the democratic process increases with rank choice voting, so will voter participation. Since candidates must reach out and appeal to more than their normal voter base, they must engage more constituents, thus naturally bringing more voters into the process and, hopefully, leading to higher voter turnout. Portland Mayor Mike Brennan, on the Portland decision to adopt ranked choice voting in the 2011 mayoral race, said, “[i]n other campaigns, if somebody had a lawn sign of your opponent on the lawn, you walked by. In this case, you stopped and still talked to them.” This leads to more informed voters and increases civility between parties. During the same 2011 race in Portland, which was an off-year election, the city saw a voter turnout exceed 40%, which was much higher than the 25% percent predicted by the Portland City Clerk’s Office. Other cities that have adopted ranked choice voting in California and Minnesota have reported higher than average voter participation in ranked choice elections, as well.
One concern, in states where some jurisdictions hand-count ballots, is that vote counting will become confusing and less transparent, thus potentially harming faith in the election system. To this, we say that democracy, as a whole, is hard. As we seek to refine and improve our democratic process, we are obliged to carefully examine needed changes in light of these challenges, but cannot allow them to stop us from progressing forward. As we better understand the democratic process, it is critical that we make the needed changes to assure more fair and representative elections, even if that means a difficult change to the system. Vote counters must be trained and will, no doubt, adjust, so the impact of this change will be short-lived and the faith of the electorate will, in the end, be strengthened. Voters’ faith in elections is most strongly impacted by the results they get. If they feel that the results are more fair, their faith in the system will be upheld.
Critics of the US elections view the polarization of politicians, parties and leaders as occurring in a vacuum, but these institutions reflect the citizenry. US citizens are increasingly polarized in their views, but asking them to expand their views to become informed about second and third choice candidates could demand they see other sides of the same story, thus reducing polarization of issues, candidates and, ultimately, voters.
While some may argue that ranked choice voting is a huge change for the country to undertake at a national level, it is a change that is necessary to respond to the evolving modern political environment. As a nation, we need change; so we must start small. Local change becomes state change becomes national change. Little by little, we can establish fair voting so all American voices are heard.