RCV FTW!

Ranked-choice voting gives Democrat Jared Golden the win in Maine’s 2nd congressional district.

Candidates for Maine’s 2nd | Top row: Jared Golden (D), Bruce Poliquin (R). Bottom row: Tiffany Bond (I), Will Hoar (I), a Bengal tiger (?). There’s also a wallaby and a red squirrel. It’ll make sense soon enough. | Modified still frame from CGP Grey video

Imagine a world in which you didn’t have to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” A world in which you could vote your conscience without the risk of putting your most despised candidate in power. A world with the potential for viable third parties and independent politicians. A world in which you feel like your vote matters.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, such a world does in fact exist—and it’s called Maine.

Yesterday, the race to represent Maine’s 2nd congressional district, the second-most rural district in the country, finally wrapped up over a week after election night. The result: Democrat Jared Golden unseated incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin, despite having come out of Tuesday night behind in the vote count.

How is this possible? No, there weren’t many late-arriving mail-in ballots like in California. Nor was there something wrong with the voting machines. And no, Golden didn’t cheat (Democrats were too busy creating fraudulent ballots in Florida’s Senate race after all).

He just happened to be running in the first federal election in America’s history to use something called ranked-choice voting.

The current problem with our voting system

The voting system in the United States is deeply flawed. Nearly every election throughout the country—whether it be for president, Senator, state representative, or dogcatcher—uses a method of voting called “first past the post” or FPTP, also known as “winner take all.” With FPTP, each person gets one vote and whichever candidate receives the most votes wins, no matter how many other candidates are running and regardless of whether they actually earn a majority of the votes.

There are myriad problems with this, but perhaps the worst and most familiar of all is what’s known as the spoiler effect—when a third-party or independent candidate draws enough votes away from an ideologically similar mainstream candidate to spoil their chance of winning, thereby handing the election to an ideologically dissimilar opponent. Think Ralph Nader in 2000 or Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in 2016. The spoiler effect often leads to an outcome in which the winner of an election is a candidate a majority of voters don’t like.

To avoid the spoiler effect, most people will vote strategically, i.e., not for their preferred candidate, but for the one that has the best chance of beating the candidate they dislike most. By impeding any third parties from ever gaining traction, this inevitably devolves into the two-party system we all love to hate.

I could continue expounding on the many shortcomings of FPTP elections, but I’ll let the inimitable C. G. P. Grey do the heavy lifting for me:

The solution: Ranked-choice voting

Fortunately, there are plenty of other voting systems out there, and pretty much all of them avoid at least some of the pitfalls of FPTP. And in this year’s midterm elections, we got to see one of them in action on a national stage for the first time in American history.

By the time all the ballots had been counted, incumbent House Republican Bruce Poliquin was ahead of his Democratic challenger Jared Golden in the race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District 46.2 percent to 45.6 percent. In any other Congressional race in the country, Poliquin’s scant 2,000-vote lead would have given him the win. Luckily for Golden, Mainers approved a new electoral system in a 2016 referendum: ranked-choice voting or RCV.

Also known as instant runoff or alternative voting, RCV allows voters to rank their choices from first to last on their ballots in order of preference. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote after the first count, the votes for the candidate in last place get transferred to each of their voter’s respective next choice. This process continues until someone gets to 50 percent.

C. G. P. Grey again with the assist:

As Grey notes in the video, the primary benefit of RCV (or alternative voting, as he calls it) is that it avoids the spoiler effect and helps elect candidates that a larger number of voters can agree upon.

With no spoiler effect, RCV allows people to vote their conscience without having to worry about helping the greater of two evils win. This, in turn, creates more space for viable third parties and independent politicians. Though it doesn’t guarantee any third-party victories, RCV enables more people to cast their first vote in favor of someone without a D or an R next to their name (although I guess Mainers were already used to that with independent Angus King representing them in the Senate).

Over time, an upstart party could potentially gain enough momentum to have a palpable impact on the political landscape (you know, other than being a spoiler). At the very least, RCV would incentivize mainstream candidates to appeal to voters outside their base and run more positive campaigns.

To see how this could make a difference, imagine that you voted for president in Michigan in 2016 where Hillary Clinton lost by just over 10,000 votes. Let’s say you ranked Jill Stein first on your ballot, Gary Johnson second, and Clinton third. If Stein came in last place after all the first-choice votes were counted, and no other candidate reached 50 percent, your vote would then be transferred to Johnson. If Johnson came in last after the second-choice votes were counted, your vote would be transferred to Clinton. If she gets to 50 percent after the third count, then she would ultimately be declared the winner in Michigan. If she won Michigan, the same would probably be true of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and the election as a whole, and she would be president and we wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place and everything would be totally fine and France would still be our friend and we wouldn’t be ripping itty bitty children away from their parents at the border and kicking transgender people out of the military and I wouldn’t be having a panic attack every few days and…

Sorry, don’t know what came over me. What were we talking about again?

Oh, right. Ranked-choice voting!

RCV is used to great effect all around the world, in countries ranging from Ireland to India to Australia. The system has even been implemented in the U.S. in cities such as San Francisco and Minneapolis. (If you have an hour to kill, Radiolab has a great episode about RCV and all the different places it’s used.)

maine_congressional_districts_113th_congress-tif
Maine’s 1st district in green, 2nd district in blue.

But the race for Maine’s 2nd was the first time RCV was used in a state-wide election for a national office in the U.S. (There were several other state-wide races in Maine, but all of the winning candidates received over 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, so there was no need to move on to second-ranked choices.) On the initial vote, neither Poliquin nor Golden reached 50 percent while the two independent candidates in the race—Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar—collectively received around 8 percent of the vote. In the second round, Bond and Hoar’s votes were divvied up according to their voters’ second choices, which ultimately gave Golden the lead. In the end, Golden beat Poliquin 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent, or by about 3,000 votes. The system works—ranked-choice voting for the win!

Golden’s victory puts Democrats on pace to gain 39 House seats this election, according to FiveThirtyEight’s real-time forecast, adding to what was already the largest gain the party has had in the lower chamber since 1974 in the immediate aftermath of Watergate. (Several House races in California have yet to be called, but Democrats lead in most of them.) Poliquin’s loss also makes Senator Susan Collins of Maine the last Republican in New England serving in Congress.

Poliquin wants to challenge RCV in court

Don’t count your chickens just yet. Old habits die hard, especially when those habits win you elections.

Before the race went to its second count, Poliquin sued to have it stopped, claiming that ranked-choice voting violates both the Maine and U.S. constitutions. Though a U.S. District Court judge denied his request, the incumbent Republican isn’t giving up just yet.

“It is now officially clear I won the constitutional ‘one-person, one-vote’ first choice election on Election Day that has been used in Maine for more than one hundred years. We will proceed with our constitutional concerns about the rank vote algorithm,” Poliquin said in a statement.

So far, Poliquin has refused to concede to Golden after the runoff results and is continuing his push to bring the case to court.

A sign of things to come?

Regardless of how Poliquin’s legal challenge shakes out, this could be a watershed moment in U.S. politics. If nothing else, Maine’s experiment with ranked-choice voting serves as a proof of concept and sets an example for other states to follow.

In so many ways, America’s electoral system has become antiquated as our democracy-wielding counterparts around the world outpace us with innovations like ranked-choice voting, mandatory voting, and not having an Electoral College. Though our elections undoubtedly have bigger problems, issues such as voter apathy, the spoiler effect, and a two-party duopoly can all potentially be overcome through ranked-choice voting.

To be sure, there are other options out there that are superior to both FPTP and RCV. Systems such as single transferable vote and mixed-member proportional representation, for example, solve problems that the other two do not address, including gerrymandering and disproportionate representation. But those systems are far more complex and more dissimilar from our current system such that they’d be much harder to implement.

But with ranked-choice voting, at least we would finally be living in a world in which people could vote their conscience without fear of spoiling the election for the “lesser of two evils.” This is a world in which more people would feel like their vote counts. A world with more political diversity. A world in which you could have voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and when he lost, your vote would have transferred to Al Gore and he would have…

Oh, never mind.

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