A kinder, gentler voting system offers relief from campaign hostility

    An election judge holds up a general election ballot featuring new ranked choice voting

    An election judge holds up a general election ballot featuring new ranked choice voting

    As more and more Americans seem to be disgusted with the two major political parties, there’s a growing call for a viable third party. Ranked Choice Voting may help with that. 

    Have you ever heard a candidate respectfully asking to be voters’ second choice? That’s exactly what Oakland, California city council member Rebecca Kaplan did in her 2014 Mayoral campaign kickoff.

    “If anybody out there is a supporter of one of the other candidates, my message to them is not that they’re wrong,” Kaplan told a crowd of reporters. “I will respectfully ask that they vote for me as their second choice for mayor.”

    Kaplan wasn’t the only one. Libby Schaff, one of Kaplan’s opponents, encouraged voters to “learn about all the candidates because they get to cast three votes in this election.”

    “I certainly hope that I am people’s first choice. If I’m not, I hope that I’m their second or third choice,” Schaff continued.

    Schaff ended up winning in 2014, even though less than 30 percent of voters listed her as their first choice. But lots of people did end up picking her second, or third.

    Confused? If your city doesn’t used Ranked Choice Voting—which in some places is called Instant Runoff Voting—it’s understandable.

    As more and more Americans seem to be disgusted with the two major political parties, there’s a growing call for a viable third party, but, especially when it comes to the Presidential ticket, many people are scared that supporting a smaller party will actually help their least favorite major party candidate win. This is a problem many liberal Democrats faced in the 2000 election, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nadar threatened Al Gore’s run against George W. Bush. But Ranked Choice Voting could end up not only giving voters more options but making the entire electoral process more civil as well.

    Lets try and break down how it works.

    If there are several candidates running for a particular office, voters can rank their preferences first preferred, no.1, next candidate no. 2, 3, etc. If one candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, they win. Election over, just like normal.

    But if no one gets a majority, the person with the fewest first place votes is mathematically eliminated, and the votes of everyone who voted for that person first are then reassigned to their second choice candidates. As the count continues, each person who is eliminated has their supporters’ 2nd, or 3rd place votes reassigned to someone who’s still in the running, until someone reaches 50 percent—a majority. And they are declared the winner.

    Western Washington University political science professor Todd Donovan wanted to see if there was measurable evidence that this method of voting made the election process more civil.

    It seemed to Donovan that “if you’re running for office, then you might not be as prone to attack the other candidates because you want their supporters to at least put you second or third.”

    So he conducted a study comparing how people experienced elections in cities that did and did not use Ranked Choice Voting.

    “We surveyed voters, and we found that in the cities using Ranked Choice Voting, people had more positive views of the campaign, and so they perceived less negativity in the rhetoric of the candidates compared to similar voters who experienced a mayoral election using winner-take-all methods,” said Donovan.

    The study found similar results for candidates they surveyed in those cities, which included Minneapolis; Cambridge, Massachussetts; and San Francisco.

    “They were perceived to be less likely to have been attacked by their opponent, compared to people who are running in winner-take-all systems,” Donovan adds.

    Even more extreme than an absence of attacks, former Oakland mayor Jean Quan was even endorsed by a party that wasn’t her own—the Green party—as their second choice.

    “I think it allows you to go more deeply into policy issues rather than personality issues,” explains Quan. “Why did the Green Party endorse me? Well, because I was good on the environment, and I was very progressive, and we had more in common than we had in opposition.”

    And in turn, Quan endorsed her own competitors by telling her supporters specifically who she thought should be their second and third picks.

    “What Ranked Choice Voting did was it allowed coalitions to build, and so I think we were fairly friendly to each other, compared to maybe other campaigns,” says Quan.

    In the United States, so far it’s only used on the municiple level, though the state of Maine has it on the ballot this November. If voters approve Question 5, RCV will be used for Congressional elections, and potentially Governor and the State Legislature.

    But could this method work on a national level? Professor Donovan says a similar voting system has been used in the small island nation of Fiji to try and heal from an ethnic conflict. The results haven’t been great, though, so it might depend on whether we’re more or less divided than the Fijians.

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