Somewhere along the 2016 campaign trail, the laundry list of presidential hopefuls during the primaries resembled less a competent group of thoughtful candidates with a desire to discuss important national issues than a throng of small children seeing who could out-do the other in a self-absorbed contest for the best playground bully.
In particular, President Trump’s candidacy announcement began a one-and-a-half-year mud-slinging campaign, started among his fellow Republicans, but soon affecting the general election as well, and consequently, the political climate across the entire nation.
In part, the toxic environment borne as a result of Trump’s presence on the trail reflected an understanding that victory would be achieved if a candidate had the largest niche following, even if they were extremely unpopular among the broader electorate as a whole. Trump could freely attack his rivals, persistently and directly, not just during debates but also on social media, without apprehension about alienating any of their prospective voters. He could, and did, identify and carve out a unique swath of the American public that was just a wide enough audience to make him the first choice of more voters that any other candidate. As long as he won the allegiance of that target group, it did not matter if his provocative and divisive message generated antipathy among the rest of the electorate.
This is because Trump, and any other candidate seeking to make inroads through manufactured and trivial claims, had only to receive a plurality (the most) of votes to win, rather than a majority (over 50 percent).
Under plurality voting, a candidate has little incentive to promote a message that appeals beyond a subsection of American voters. It is that critique, among others, that has motivated many concerned activists to propose ranked-choice voting for elections at the local, state, or even federal level. Ranked-choice voting is an instant-runoff voting method where voters rank their top three candidates in order of preference. When election results are recorded, a candidate must attract more than half of the votes cast to win. If they do not, the contender with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the votes of those citizens that voted for him or her are transferred to whichever candidate was listed as the next highest ranked choice for each voter. Herein lies the principal benefit of ranked-choice voting: the election process undergoes successive rounds of elimination until one candidate receives a majority of the votes cast. Plurality voting is discarded.
Perhaps the election results in 2016 could have been different if there had been an alternative method of evaluating each candidate. Trump’s inflammatory remarks alienated large groups of voters who he would have needed in order to reach a majority under ranked-choice voting. Under plurality voting, though, his barrage of insults and vitriol turned out to be irrelevant because by the time the general election came around, Republican voters fell in line to support the Republican nominee even if they privately found him distasteful. Candidates are products of the rulebook that regulate them.
Beyond its ability to help ameliorate political toxicity during campaigning, ranked choice voting can actually empower the voter as well. Most elections include not just a Republican and Democrat for office, but also third-party candidates who often highlight important issues beyond the political mainstream. Yet, voters are consistently faced with the desire to make their vote “count.” They feel that if they support a third-party candidate with seemingly little chance of winning, they will have wasted their vote. Ranked-choice voting affords them the opportunity to pursue their true interests without the burden of political strategizing, of weighing the pros and cons of voting for their preferred choice versus having their voice heard and influencing the eventual outcome of the election. If their first choice is eliminated, their second choice still receives their vote.
By liberating voters in this way, third-party candidates are legitimized. Republicans and Democrats will be forced to acknowledge them and their influence. Most importantly, the quality of dominant-party candidates can rise with more rigorous competition.
Two related 2013 and 2014 studies conducted by Professors Caroline J. Tolbert (University of Iowa) and Todd Donovan (Western Washington University) showed positive results when ranked-choice voting was implemented in different cities across the United States. The 2013 study found that voters in 10 cities where elections relied on ranked-choice voting were more satisfied with the conduct of their local campaigns than voters in cities that use plurality voting. They believed that the election process was comparatively less negative and less focused on candidate criticism. A majority of voters in ranked-choice voting cities surveyed in the 2014 study reported that they supported the use of ranked-choice voting. Further, in the same study, a majority of voters in cities with plurality voting felt it necessary to adopt ranked-choice voting measures in local elections.
Ranked-choice voting has attracted the attention of many organizers across several different states. Grassroots protestors have spearheaded an electoral reform movement, with groups like Voter Choice CT and Voter Choice Massachusetts leading the way. During the 2018 midterms, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, became the first member of Congress to be elected through ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting is an example of a simple, yet potent way to reorganize our political structure at every level. It can promote democracy and civil discourse in both national and local elections. At Wesleyan, we can support measures to bring ranked-choice voting to Connecticut. In addition, there have been recent efforts to transition WSA elections to ranked-choice voting to make further strides along a difficult path to a fairer electoral process.
Ben Stagoff-Belfort is the Vice President of Every Vote Counts Wesleyan, a member of the Class of 2021, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Every Vote Counts National Chapter does not endorse this op-ed. If you are interested in getting involved in bringing ranked-choice voting to Wesleyan or Connecticut, connect with the Every Vote Counts chapter at Wesleyan to learn more.