We can do better.
Something is terribly wrong when as few as 10% to 25% of voters determine who wins elected office in much of the country. Nonetheless, that’s essentially how many of our elected officials are selected through our primary elections in America. It’s almost like a rigged election.
Our primary elections are decided by the relatively small number of primary voters who determine the alternatives we’ll have in our November general elections. The winners of these primary elections have generally prevailed with a mere plurality of votes cast by the relatively few voters who vote in primaries to begin with. In 2020, a super-charged presidential election year, only about 25% of eligible voters participated in the nation’s primary elections.
So, in a primary race of three or four candidates for office, someone will often win with a mere plurality of the relatively small number of total votes cast. And because so many of our voting districts are solidly red or blue, the Republican or Democrat who wins these low-vote primary contests effectively wins the prize in the November general elections. So, our low-turn-out, two-party primary elections, which most voters ignore, often determine the whole enchilada for the rest of America.
It’s time to consider a better voting paradigm in America, and fortunately, serious alternatives for improving the way we vote are receiving considerable attention. Final Five, or Final Three, instant runoff elections, sometimes called Rank Choice elections, are getting much well-deserved attention. That’s a good thing.
In the recently completed mid-term elections last November, we saw an increase in the so-called Final Five and Final Three rank-choice elections.
At least 14 states are now considering legislation that would elevate these more equitable voting alternatives; some for federal elections, some for statewide elections, and some for local elections.
Last November, voters in a number of jurisdictions voted to establish general election systems designed to produce winners through a ranking and elimination process instead of relying on nominees from just our two main parties. According to Pew Research, 62 jurisdictions, including Alaska and Maine, have now adopted voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in statewide runoff races.
How It Works:
In a top-five preliminary election, for instance, all voters, regardless of party, are allowed to vote, and all qualifying candidates, regardless of party, are on the ballot. The top five vote-getters then advance to the general election.
Then, if any candidate wins a majority of votes in the first round of the general election, he or she is declared the winner, and the election is over. An instant runoff is conducted if no candidate wins the majority of votes in the first round. In the instant runoff, votes can be tabulated very quickly by computer, or they can be manually counted.
The candidate who receives the fewest votes in the first round of the instant runoff is eliminated. Those voters whose first choice has been eliminated in the first round have their second-choice advance to first place in the next round of balloting in the instant runoff. The process is repeated until a candidate secures a majority in a subsequent round of voting.
An essential aspect of this new voting paradigm is that it encourages candidates to be less extreme, in contrast to our current primary-voting campaigns, which encourage candidates to be more extreme to appeal to the more radical fringe voters who historically turn out in primary elections. Advocates of these voting alternatives have demonstrated that candidates do not play to either party’s fringe and, instead, appeal to the broadest swath of voters.
So far, lawmakers in 14 states have introduced 27 bills that propose various iterations of these voting measures. That’s a good thing.
Some bills would allow variations of this new voting paradigm for statewide and federal elections and some only for local elections. One thing appears certain; rank-choice or final five or final three voting has caught the attention of many public officials and various better-government groups, and interest is growing. That’s a good thing, too.
In Virginia, for example, four lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, have introduced bills modeled after these various voting measures in other states. Two bills would, starting next year, allow variations of rank-choice voting in presidential primaries. Another would allow rank-choice elections in all primary elections, and one would enable rank-choice voting in all local elections.
Both Democrats and Republicans have advanced to high office through rank-choice or final-five voting systems. Glen Youngkin, Governor of Virginia, and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are examples of Republicans advancing to high office through this new but equitable voting paradigm. Likewise, in the same election in Alaska, Democrat Mary Peltola was elected to Congress.
Rallying the base by throwing red meat to fringe voters doesn’t work well, where ranked choices determine voting outcomes. The extremes tend to be marginalized, while there is a premium for campaigns that appeal to a broad spectrum of voters rather than voters who cluster at the extremes.
In Connecticut, a bill was introduced to establish a ranking voting system for all state and federal elections. A bill has also been introduced in Connecticut to allow rank-choice voting in all local and municipal elections.
Oklahoma, Montana, and Wyoming have introduced bills allowing rank-choice voting. Maryland and Massachusetts have introduced bills allowing specific towns and cities to use rank-choice voting in their elections. Beginning in 2024, Portland, Oregon, will allow rank-choice voting for city officials.
My current Podcast, which will be released later this week, will feature my discussion with Katherine Gehl, Founder of the Institute for Political Innovation and co-author of “The Politics Industry,” published by Harvard Business Review Press. We will discuss the emergence of final-five instant runoff voting as an innovative alternative to how most elections are conducted in the United States. I think Katherine Gehl is on to something. You may think so too.
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