Ranked Choice Voting Could Be The Solution to America's Electoral Problems
September 13th, the day Mary Peltola was sworn in as the U.S. Representative for Alaska’s at-large Congressional district, marked a number of milestones. Peltola became the first Alaska native, the first woman, and the first Democrat since 1972 to represent Alaska in the House. At a time when Republicans had a five-point advantage in generic ballot polling, and Joe Biden had a mere 38 percent approval rating, the cards were stacked against Peltola. The midterms are generally a referendum on the sitting President; the President’s party has gained seats in the midterm only three times in the past century. Furthermore, Peltola ran in a state that Donald Trump carried by 10 points in 2020, against Sarah Palin, who has been described as the “closest approximation” to Trump. She also defeated Nicholas Begich III, a moderate conservative whose family has had a political presence in Alaska for over a century. Peltola’s special election victory wasn’t a fluke either, as she defeated Palin and Begich again in November. Critical to Peltola’s reversal of the tides of Alaska’s political climate was ranked-choice voting. A simple change to the ballot – allowing voters to rank candidates rather than selecting one – incentivizes bipartisanship, moderate candidates, and positive campaigning over extremism, polarization, and mudslinging.
Replacing plurality and two-round voting systems with ranked-choice voting (RCV) would address key problems in America’s democracy and political atmosphere. Our current voting systems are riddled with flaws: from the national to city level, elections are often won with less than a majority, and results are often unrepresentative of the electorate. In Maine, for instance, over eighty percent of gubernatorial races were won without a majority of votes before the state implemented ranked-choice voting. Candidates with less money, third-party candidates, and challengers to incumbents are suppressed by the current voting system, which often forces citizens to vote based on political strategy or fear of “wasting” their vote. This has created a fundamental lack of diversity, both in demographics and in perspectives, in our political institutions. The “most diverse” Congress in history is still 77 percent white and 73 percent male, with all but two of the 538 Representatives and Senators coming from the Democratic or Republican Party. Moreover, the unrepresentative results of today’s elections have discouraged participation in our democratic processes, causing America to trail most developed countries in voter turnout.
Arguably one of the most pervasive problems in American elections is negative campaigning. From “Tricky Dick” Nixon to “Crooked Hillary”, political candidates have always found success in degrading their opponents rather than elevating themselves. Negative framing has proven to be “stickier” than positive framing; psychology tells us that our brains are hardwired to remember negative information better. The recent rise of negative campaigning is almost entirely attributed to the simultaneous rise of political polarization and partisanship. Yet, the voting system itself is a cause of much of the incivility and hostility that plagues elections. When voters are forced to choose between two candidates, negative campaigning is almost a necessity; it becomes far easier to convince voters why they shouldn’t vote for the other candidate, rather than why they should vote for you. With ranked-choice voting, though, the dynamics shift. Candidates need to secure second- and third-place rankings, leading them to reach across the aisle to appeal to their opponents’ target bases. In Alaska, for instance, Peltola attributed her victory to being the “most positive” and talking about “issues and ideas” over “personal attacks”, which helped her secure second-place rankings from Begich voters and beat Sarah Palin in the instant runoff. Thus, a nationwide shift towards ranked-choice voting would disincentivize negative campaigning, creating ripple effects that would stem the tide of extreme partisan polarization in America’s political climate.
However, despite the many theoretical advantages of ranked-choice voting over current voting systems, politics often trumps policy. Since Peltola’s victory, Republicans have scapegoated ranked-choice voting as a Democratic gimmick to unconstitutionally “steal” elections. This strategy is fundamentally flawed, both for the long-term prosperity of the Republican Party (and American politics), as well as for the GOP’s short-term political strategy. Ranked-choice voting has been framed as a left versus right issue, meaning a bipartisan push for ranked-choice voting legislation currently requires a political sacrifice on the part of Republicans. After numerous failures in RCV elections, Republicans have disparaged alternative voting methods as a Democratic gimmick to steal elections in Republican areas. Palin herself claimed that Republicans “don’t want ranked-choice voting” as it enforces the “Biden and Pelosi agenda.” After Peltola’s victory, Senator Tom Cotton described RCV as a “scam to rig elections,” noting that Republicans received 60% of total votes but failed to secure the House seat. Yet, this result is not an electoral flaw, but rather a result of true democratic representation. In the special election, Begich received the lowest number of first-place rankings, meaning ballots that ranked Begich first were redistributed to Peltola and Palin. Of those who voted for Begich first in the special election, 49.6% either ranked Peltola second or did not input a second-place ranking. Despite the GOP’s message of “ranking the red,” nearly thirty percent of Begich voters would rather see a Democrat in office than a far-right figure like Palin. What didn’t help Begich or Palin is their campaigns’ hostility towards each other. Both candidates seemed to forget Ronald Reagan’s ‘11th Commandment’: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Palin continually criticized Begich (or, as she referred to him, “Negative Nick”) for putting personal victory over party, while Begich accused Palin of being “too famous” and caring more about the spotlight than representing the people of Alaska. This feuding left other GOP leaders picking up the pieces, as local Alaskan politicians exhorted Republican voters to look past inter-party bickering and ensure a Republican victory by ranking both candidates. Towards the end of the election cycle, both Palin and Begich shifted away from negative campaigning, but it was ultimately too little too late.
Republican failure in RCV elections isn’t isolated to Alaska; Maine also uses RCV for all its elections, and the GOP has suffered from it. A particularly sore spot is Maine’s 2nd Congressional district, where Bruce Poliquin has been beaten twice by Democrat Jared Golden. In 2018, Poliquin received more first-place votes but was defeated in the second round.
After multiple RCV failures, Republicans are not entirely unreasonable to blame the system. Critics argue that ranked-choice voting is confusing and often fails to represent the will of the majority. Granted, it is true that the majority of Alaskan voters would have preferred Begich to Peltola in a head-to-head matchup. Yet, Begich received the fewest number of first-place votes. This distinction reveals an important aspect of ranked-choice voting: candidate quality matters. Portraying candidates as the lesser of two evils is no longer feasible, as voters express their opinions on the entire field of candidates through one ballot. The result of Alaska’s House race wasn’t a failure of representation, but rather an elucidation of what representation should truly look like.
Once Republicans accept this axiom – that RCV is just and democratic – RCV presents a valuable opportunity for the Republican Party to recoup its lost traction with independent and moderate voters. Although it involves a temporary sacrifice of political capital, the GOP should collectively embrace ranked-choice voting rather than disparaging it. If accompanied by a strategy shift, ranked-choice voting could be a blessing in disguise for the Republican Party. In particular, ranked-choice voting would encourage the GOP to seek out candidates that appeal to moderate Republicans, swing voters, and above all, independents. In the current state of affairs, Democrats have all the momentum with independent voters. Trump-backed election-denying candidates flopped during the midterms, in large part because Democrats won over independent voters by four points nationally. As Republicans look towards 2024 and beyond, the current playbook of nominating polarizing candidates like Blake Masters and Mehmet Oz, both of whom were soundly defeated in battleground states, is no longer feasible. Especially with the share of independents rapidly increasing in America, Republicans need to find a way to capture their vote. Embracing RCV is the perfect way for Republicans to catalyze this necessary strategy shift.
There is already a strong precedent for the positive effects of RCV on Republican election strategy. In 2021, Virginia elected a Republican, Glenn Youngkin, as Governor for the first time in over two decades. Granted, Biden’s low approval rating and low Democratic turnout played a factor, but we’ve seen Democrats win elections even despite these challenges. It was Youngkin himself – a moderate, establishment Republican who appealed to both old and new guard Republicans – that allowed Republicans to win the governorship. Youngkin was nominated through ranked-choice voting, which both parties in Virginia use for their primaries. By allowing voters to express their preferences better, Republicans nominated a candidate that could capture independents rather than alienate them.
Looking to the future, Republicans can capitalize on movements to expand RCV rather than disavowing them. For instance, Nevadans recently voted to use ranked-choice voting in future general elections. Nevada Republicans are up in arms, but instead, they should be thrilled. Republicans generally have a significant advantage with independents in Nevada, so nominating the right candidates could prove to be a valuable opportunity to flip House and Senate seats in a predominantly Democratic state.
This is not to say that ranked-choice voting benefits Republicans more than Democrats, or vice-versa. A closer analysis of RCV elections reveals that RCV isn’t inherently advantageous to either party, but instead that Democrats have simply been able to better adapt their electoral strategy to win over moderates and independents. If Republicans can do the same, they can level the playing field and transform RCV into a bipartisan policy. If party politics were no longer a limiting factor for states adopting RCV, we could see massive reform in the way elections take place in the United States. Less mudslinging, more representative elections, and higher voter turnout are all on the table – the onus is on the GOP to come to the table on ranked-choice voting.
The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 International license. The original image was published by the WLPN News and can be found here.