Real Clear Politics
Hillary Clinton campaigned earlier this week in Florida with former Vice President Al Gore. The Clinton camp is hoping that showcasing the apostle of climate change will help Hillary persuade millennials to think cosmically on Nov. 8. It wants disaffected voters, particularly young, progressive-minded Americans, to resist their inclination to vote for a third party or independent candidate.
Specifically, Clinton wants to remind people that Ralph Nader’s campaign in Florida robbed Gore of his chance to be president. Clinton’s implied argument is that if you vote for someone with no chance of winning, you will risk electing the person you like the least. She is effectively saying that a vote for an independent in a close race is a wasted vote that has the potential to spoil the election.
There is strong logic to that argument, and Florida was the right place to make it. In 2000, Nader’s vote total in Florida of 97,488 was far more than the 537-vote difference between Gore and George W. Bush. While some of these voters might have sat out the election, presumably a majority of them would have cast their ballots for Gore if their choices had been limited to only the two major party candidates.
Herein lies a central problem with our system of government that is dominated by the two major parties: In many cases, we feel forced into voting for someone whom we consider the lesser of two evils. Often voters disregard their real preferences because they want their vote to matter. I’ve described this as having to choose between shingles and the flu. Millions of Americans dutifully do their patriotic duty every couple of years, swallow the virus they deem to be the least distasteful, and then go home lamenting the limited choices that we have. With two presidential candidates struggling with the highest negative ratings in the history of presidential polling, this has never been more clear to Americans.
What if it weren’t this way? What if Americans could vote for the candidate they most love instead of voting against the candidate they most fear? For voters in Maine, this is no longer a hypothetical question. On Election Day, they will have the chance to enact “ranked choice” voting, a method of voting allowing them to rank candidates for political office in order of preference, first choice through last choice. When the votes are totaled, if no candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold based on first place votes, the last-placed candidate’s votes are re-allocated to their second choice. This process continues with the bottom vote getter being dropped until one candidate crosses 50 percent and is elected by a majority.
So how does this eliminate the lesser-of-two-evils dilemma? Let’s take the example on display this week—the Florida 2000 presidential vote. There were 10 candidates on the ballot. No one received more than 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot. Bush and Gore each received 48.8 percent of the vote. Nader received 1.6 percent, while all other candidates totaled 0.65 percent. Assuming every one of the voters who didn’t put Bush, Gore, or Nader as their first choice had listed Bush as their second choice, his vote total would have gone up to roughly 49.5 percent—still shy of the number needed to win. If all of Nader’s supporters had listed Gore as their second choice, he would have won the Florida vote with 50.5 percent.
In a ranked-choice election, the only way to waste your vote is to actually vote against a candidate. As long as the candidate you like least doesn’t reach the 50 percent threshold, they won’t win. So only positive votes matter. In the Florida example, a million additional voters could have listed Ralph Nader as their first choice instead of Gore. As long as they listed Gore as their second choice, Gore would have won Florida—and, with it, the presidency.
Ranked-choice voting effectively allows voters to vote their actual preferences instead of having to vote strategically. This would have a meaningful impact on elections and governing. It would empower independent and third party candidates by eliminating the “wasted vote” argument. If you’re a Libertarian who votes Republican because you dislike the Democrats, you can list the Libertarian as your first choice and the Republican as your second. If you’re a Green who votes Democratic because you dislike the Republicans, you can list the Green as your first choice and the Democrat as your second.
A ranked-choice system would force major party candidates to broaden their appeal to compete for second-choice votes. Candidates could only get elected by appealing to a majority of voters. Negative campaigning would likely decline as candidates would need to present positive images of themselves, not simply knock down another candidate, particularly with newly empowered independent candidates on the ballot. Crowded primary races could no longer be won by simply getting the votes of a quarter of the voters and alienating every other voter.
Importantly, it would also allow voters to send a very direct message to elected officials about their policy preferences. As an example, if the Green Party candidate received 20 percent of the first-choice votes in an election, it would be a strong signal to the winning candidate to take environmental issues seriously.
If there’s one thing this election has taught us, it’s that the rules matter. Ranked-choice voting is one rule change that the voters can make to give themselves more choice and a bigger voice in our government – and eliminate the need to pick the lesser of two evils once and for all. Maine has a chance to lead the nation to a better political environment.