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  • Writer's pictureJackson Cohrs

The Case For Ranked Choice Voting

The current state of American politics is, in a word, weird. While seasoned political scientists can point out unprecedented events and little-known statistics to really drive that point home, it doesn’t take someone with an advanced understanding of the intricacies of our democracy to see that electoral campaigns have changed significantly from just two short decades ago. Back in 2004, something as simple as the infamous “Dean Scream” was enough to doom a presidential campaign. (Murray). Today, a presidential candidate can run for office while facing 94 felony charges and the very-real possibility of serving time behind bars and “he would still get the same amount of votes”(Traylor). Regardless of one’s own personal political convictions, there’s no denying that the very-real possibility of someone winning the office of presidency from jail would’ve been unfathomable a few election cycles ago. So what happened? It's easy to point fingers to a multitude of issues: recession, mis and disinformation, supreme court cases such as citizens united, or an overall increase in nationalism. But the truth is, all of these things are contributing factors to the real root cause: a rise in polarization. 


The current levels of political polarization in America are increasing at an alarming rate. And it is specifically US polarization, as “the United States is polarizing much more rapidly than other Western democracies” (Kleinfield). There are examples everywhere of this polarization, whether it be states like Florida becoming less and less of a swing state, or protests increasingly turning violent, or families refusing to talk to each other because of political differences. While these are all great illustrations of how the electorate has drifted to both extremes, there’s perhaps no better place to see this than in the United States Congress. The legislative body of the United States is the perfect place to view this ideological dysfunction; after all, it contains representatives from 50 different states and all sides of the political spectrum, all of whom are supposed to be working together to pass legislation. While a certain amount of disagreement is healthy and expected in such a diverse collection of individuals, Congress has slowly become full of more and more extreme politicians, and the level of polarization has left the chamber almost completely powerless. And this isn’t hyperbole; back in October, Republican Speaker Kevin Mccarthy was ousted from his position in a historic vote, marking the first time a Speaker had been removed since the Civil War. While the average person would assume his removal was due to some scandal or act of corruption, the real reason is much more mundane yet much more surprising. Kevin Mccarthy was removed as Speaker because he worked with Democrats to pass a bill to avoid a government shutdown. (Warburton). This alone serves as evidence that polarization in the USA has reached dangerously high levels. If Representatives are willing to backstab and remove a member of their own party, from a position of power, simply for the cardinal sin of working with the other side on crucial legislation, it’s next to impossible for any meaningful change to pass the house. Despite consistent calls from all parts of the political spectrum for unity and bipartisanship, this historic removal makes clear these calls are all a part of the greater political circus. Bipartisanship is dead, and polarization is holding the gun. While Trump really is just a symptom and not the cause of the problem, he is a perfect example of how polarization has grabbed ahold of the country in recent years. Republican politicians have to cater to his base or risk the end of their career, which leads to situations where simply doing the job of governing can lead to the loss of that job. One of the most fundamental roles of the United States Congress is keeping the government funded. However, Trump knows a government shutdown would reflect poorly on Joe Biden and his administration, and therefore attacked any Republican congressmen who supported legislation to keep the government afloat. That is not how a functioning democracy operates. Political disagreements will always exist, that's a simple fact of life. But political differences didn’t used to be enough to cause government shutdowns. The problem is that now the parties have become so divided that it's often more about beating the other side than doing what is best for the country. And the voting patterns of congress shows this. Congress has reached a point where “more than half of all congressional votes have featured a majority of one party opposing a majority of the other party.”, while in the 70s that number was 39%. (Jones). Considering the sheer number of basic procedural votes Congress has, the number only grows larger for actual “important” bills. Politicians and voters alike will hope for the death of Supreme Court Justices during their party’s presidential term so their side “gets” the new justice, despite the SC being a supposedly impartial body. How did we get to this point? Why are parties so focused on obstructing one another that they’ll risk losing the majority just to avoid giving the other side a “win”? Why has governing become increasingly about playing political games and less about helping the country? The answer to all these questions lies, surprisingly, in the voting system the country uses.


Looking at how Congress has become more of a political circus with emphasis placed on hurting parties and not helping the country, an optimist would assume this is what the country wants. After all, even if it seems a little silly, Representatives are supposed to represent the people, and if the people want constant gridlock and petty fighting then Congress is representing them perfectly. Indeed, looking at events like January 6th, one might assume that the country really has just reached this crazy level of disagreement, and people would rather suffer than give someone they disagree with a win. The truth of the matter is, however, that a majority of the country is not as polarized as the actions of Congress would lead an observer to believe. Despite Congress “remain[ing] very ideologically polarized”, within the general public “remains overlap and policy agreement on many issues”(Kleinfield). Put simply, America is not nearly as divided as the media and Congress would have you believe. And you don’t even need to look at these studies to see that that is the case; despite constant noise from all around the country about how divided and different we are, when an individual really takes the time to sit down and talk with someone on the complete opposite end of the political spectrum, they often find themselves agreeing much more than one would assume. Do people have political disagreements? Of course. Are these disagreements as debilitating as the actions of Congress would lead one to believe? Not really. Take Ukraine aid for example. Despite 60% of Americans supporting increased aid for Ukraine, including 45% of Republicans, the passage of a Ukraine aid bill was delayed for months in the House of Representatives, as Speaker Mike Johnson feared losing his job if he passed the aid despite Trump and a few far-right Representatives objections. (Groves). But if American citizen’s viewpoints don’t significantly differ on ideological grounds, then why is the country so polarized? While a variety of different factors are at play here, including traditional and social media, one of the most overlooked, yet impactful factors is the very voting system the United States uses. The United States current voting system of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) encourages a two-party system and negative attack ads, which inevitably causes the “game-ifcation” and polarization of politics. Switching to Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) would significantly reduce the level of polarization the United States faces by decreasing the phenomenon FPTP encourages. 


First-Past-The-Post voting may seem like the most common-sense way to vote to the average person. After all, it just makes sense; vote for which candidate you want, whichever candidate gets the most votes wins the election. This is an oversimplification of course, as the United States has an electoral college for the presidential election, and in many jurisdictions you need a majority, not a plurality, of votes to win an election. However, at its core, the US voting system is a winner-take-all system, whoever wins the most votes wins the election. And this is how it should work, right? That’s how elections have been run around the world for hundreds if not thousands of years. In fact, if you asked a bunch of random Americans what voting system the country uses, it’s likely a majority wouldn’t be able to properly identify FPTP, or even realize that other voting systems exist. In reality, there are quite a few different ways to vote. SMDP, TRS, IRV, PLV, MMP, STV, CV, and LV are all initialisms representing a different way votes can be cast and tabulated in a democracy. (“Types of Voting Systems”). All of these voting systems, and the dozens not mentioned, are intended to represent the voters in the fairest way possible, with varying degrees of success. But why do so many alternatives exist when FPTP seems the most common sense? The truth is, FPTP, despite its simplicity, has a variety of problems. Most notably of these problems, is the spoiler effect. Essentially, the spoiler effect is when voters won’t actually vote for their first-choice candidate out of fear of their preferred candidate losing to a candidate they like the least. Instead, they’ll cast a vote for a candidate they don’t like as much but they believe has a better chance of winning. In the United States, the spoiler effect can be viewed when a voter more aligned with the Green Party on politics votes for the Democratic candidate because they don’t want the Republican candidate to win. The spoiler effect is just one of many criticisms proponents of alternative voting systems level at FPTP, and different voting systems aim to correct different criticisms. A lot of voting systems and FPTP criticisms get really technical and hard for a layman to understand, but the spoiler effect is both easy to understand and has a large-impact on polarization in this country. While other voting systems exist and could possibly have a similarly positive effect, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), also called Single Transferable Vote (STV), is both simplistic enough for the average voter to understand, and effective enough to really change the country. 


What is Ranked Choice Voting? This voting system is perhaps the next most “common sense” voting system following FPTP. Under RCV, rather than selecting one candidate to receive their vote, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. One candidate receives a one for first choice, another receives a two for second choice, and so on and so forth. Votes then go into an “instant runoff”. A runoff election occurs when no candidate receives a majority of votes, so a second round of voting is held with only the two best-performing candidates on the ballot. While these elections are a good way to gauge the preferences of voters, they are both costly and time-consuming. In Ranked Choice Voting, a runoff is calculated as part of the voting process, meaning elections take the same amount of time and resources. When an election is run using RCV, all the first choice votes for each candidate are counted. Then, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated. All ballots with the eliminated candidate as their first choice are then evaluated, and their vote is added to the total of their second-choice candidate. The candidate with the least votes is eliminated again, and the process is repeated, possibly going down to a voters third or fourth choice, until one candidate comes out with a majority of the votes, and thus the winner of the elections. When voters rank the candidates on their ballot, they’re essentially showing how they would vote if a runoff is held, without needing to hold multiple elections, hence the “instant runoff”. RCV isn’t just a theoretical voting system either. It’s currently in use by “11 million voters in the United States and hundreds of millions of voters around the world”(Johnson). It’s important to note that under RCV everyone still gets one vote, the vote simply may transfer to a different candidate as it would have had a runoff election been held, hence the alternative name, Single Transferable Vote. If the United States switched to using this voting system, which countries like Ireland already use, the viability of third party candidates would greatly improve, and the number of attack ads would decrease, two changes that are essential to lowering polarization in the country. 


The United States is undoubtedly a two-party system. There hasn’t been a president who hasn’t been a Democrat or Republican since Millard Filmore in 1853, and Congress displays a similar partisan tilt, with all of the house and all but 3 members of the senate being members of either the Democratic or Republican party. But why is it like this? After all, nothing in the constitution prescribes a two-party system, or even mentions parties at all, and George Washington notably warned against political parties in his farewell address. So how did we get here? As it turns out, FPTP encourages a two-party system. Imagine an election with 3 candidates, orange, green, and yellow. Orange has the support of 30% of the population, green has the support of 33% and yellow has the remaining 37%. In the first election, everyone votes for who they support. As most jurisdictions in the United States don’t have runoff elections, the candidate with the plurality will win, leading to yellow taking office. However, orange supporters overwhelmingly dislike yellow. So next election, despite preferring orange, they vote for green just to keep yellow from winning again. While this is an extreme oversimplification, it does illustrate how under FPTP, a two party system is inevitable. Two parties will always end up with more support than the remaining parties, and supporters of these third parties will inevitably have to choose one of the two main parties to support to keep the one they support the least from winning. This is the spoiler effect described earlier. Under FPTP, voters are eventually forced to engage in this type of “strategic voting” in which they don’t vote for who they support the most. (CGP Grey). This isn’t all hypothetical either. In the 2000 election, Al Gore narrowly lost the election to George Bush, after losing important close swing states. However if Nader, a third-party candidate, hadn’t been on the ballot that year Al Gore would’ve “carried Florida and all those other close states easily” (Pomper). Spoiler candidates play a very real role in our electoral system, with Bernie Sanders supporters pulling support away from Clinton in the 2016 election. Or for the 2024 election, Republican Donors are funding Robert Kennedy Jr’s presidential campaign, in the hopes that he pulls votes away from Biden. (Gibson). It’s easy to see why this is an issue and harmful to democracy. Voters should be able to vote for who they want the most, not the “lesser of two evils”. And candidates should be funded because people believe in what they’re running on, not because they can potentially hurt the other side. Unfortunately, due to its very nature, FPTP actively encourages these situations. RCV, however, would greatly improve the viability of third parties. But why do we need third parties? An important thing to remember is that governing requires action to be taken on a large variety of situation and subject matters. Everything from social justice to healthcare to taxes to foreign aid to war needs legislating, and opinions on one of these issues doesn’t necessarily translate to an opinion on a different issue. There’s so many different issues that aren’t really inherently related that need legislating that it's impossible for one of two parties to accurately represent everyone’s viewpoint. People can share an opinion with one party on social issues but a different party on economic issues, or vice versa. With the sheer scope of the US government no one party could possibly align perfectly with any individual American’s view, let alone every American’s view. This isn’t just conjecture either, studies have found that “In 2016, a cohort of White swing voters who favor economic redistribution but also exhibit greater racial hostility moved into the Republican Party.” (Kleinfeld). Republicans are largely a conservative party, both economically and socially. Yet a large number of voters support the Republican party solely for their racial policy, despite disagreeing with their economic policy. These voters would be much better represented by an economically liberal, yet socially conservative party, but no viable party that meets these criteria exists. As long as FPTP is the voting system of the United States, a party like this can never gain viability. Anyone in favor of such a party will risk helping Democrats, who they may disagree with more than Republicans, winning an election by voting third party, so they will vote for Republicans instead, thus making the formation of a new party next to impossible. One of the biggest flaws of FPTP is how it makes it impossible for accurate representation of voters, as they are forced to vote for the “least worst” option, rather than who they really want to.


This lesser of two evils problem can be easily solved by nationwide implementation of RCV. If Ranked Choice Voting was used nationwide, people could vote for third party candidates without the fear of helping their last choice win. A prospective Green Voter currently has to either vote for Green and risk helping the Republicans, a party generally worse on environmental regulation, win, or they need to vote for a Democrat and help elect a politician who they don’t feel represents them, but at least will try to protect the environment. If RCV was implemented instead, the same voter could put the Green Party as their first choice, and should the Green Party fail to get a majority, their vote would go to their second choice, in this case the Democrats. By allowing people to vote for who they truly want without fear of helping the opposing party, third parties will have a real fighting chance at getting elected. 


In addition to better representing the voters, an emergence of third parties would reduce polarization by essentially forcing parties to work together. Currently, one party always holds a majority of votes in the House or Senate, as there's only two parties to split seats. However, with third parties being viable, there’s a very real possibility no one party gets a majority of the House. This would require parties to work together to pass any legislation, and the coalition building needed to elect a Speaker would help form alliances between parties. This alliance-building would inherently reduce polarization, as parties would be more used to working together and therefore there would be less division between voters of different parties. In fact, third parties being viable would almost completely eliminate the feeling of party loyalty that currently exists, as voters who feel dissatisfied with one party can more easily switch to one that represents them. This would completely eliminate the current “sports team” effect of politics, in which people treat their preferred party like their favorite sports team, and would rather see the other side lose than their side win. By decreasing the desire of the voters to see losses from the other side, polarization would also effectively drop because parties could focus more on helping America and less on hurting each other. Ranked Choice Voting implementation would help completely overhaul the political landscape, turning it from a focus on party politics and divisions into a focus on national policies and unity.


The “sports team” effect mentioned in the last paragraph is a very real phenomenon, and stems from in part the belief that the other side is the enemy. In an idealistic world, every single politician would be working solely for what they believe is best for the country. While this is undeniably not the case, there is a large majority of politicians who are genuinely fighting for what they think is right. However, there has become a prevalent belief in American Politics that the other side is evil and is purposefully trying to do harm to the country, when the truth is they just disagree on what would actually be the most helpful. This belief that the other side is evil stems, in large part, negative attack ads. In recent years, negative attack ads have been on the rise. A study from 2012 found a meteoric rise in attack ads over the years, and attack ads have only become worse since then. The reason for this is simple; ‘Attack ads are more effective than positive ads” (Greer). If a politician believes they have a better chance of winning by painting their opponent and their politics as evil, rather than painting their own politics as good, of course the logical conclusion is to run attack ads. Even if a politician themselves can recognize that their opponent and them just have fundamental disagreements on what would be best for the country, they’re essentially forced to instead paint them as evil so as to not hurt their election chances. And it makes sense; if FPTP leads to a two party system by basically forcing voters to choose between two candidates, then making one of the two candidates look bad is an easy way to guarantee yourself a vote. Even if someone disagrees with your politics, they’ll vote for you over someone they think is a crazy, evil politician, assuming those are the only two choices. FPTP basically forces politicians to make negative attack ads to have any chance of winning, whereas RCV actually encourages candidates to not make these types of ads. 

In Ranked Choice Voting, candidates aren’t just competing to be the voter’s first choice, they’re also competing to be their second and third choice vote. Therefore, they’re actively discouraged from making negative attack ads. If a voter really supports one candidate, they’ll put that candidate as their first choice. There might be a second candidate they don’t like as much, but they would consider them as the second best option. However, they then see a negative attack ad by their second choice candidate directed at their first choice. This would cause them to rank their second choice candidate lower because they attacked their favorite candidate. By requiring candidates to court voters outside of their core base in order to win an election, RCV actively encourages candidates to avoid attacking opponents, which would make them risk losing second and third choice votes. A 2020 study by Australian researchers found that candidates consistently used more positive words when describing opponents under RCV, when compared to language used under FPTP. When Santa Fe switched to Ranked Choice Voting in 2018, 67% percent of voters expressed a belief that the mayor election was significantly more positive than previous years. (“Research and Data…”). The data is clear: Ranked Choice Voting increases the positivity of elections and reduces the negativity. It's not hard to see how more positive campaigns can also lead to lower polarization. When candidates are actively encouraged to get along, like they are when RCV is used, the voters are less likely to view the opposition as the enemy, and more likely to get along with each other.


Political polarization in America is at an extreme peak. With this polarization comes real issues; legislative gridlock can make passing essential bills next to impossible and political tension can lead to violent insurrections like January 6th. Although no one thing can be identified as the root cause of this polarization, and while there will always be political disagreements, changing the United States from a FPTP voting system, and instead using a RCV system, would greatly reduce the polarization the country is currently facing. By encouraging positive campaigns and increasing third party viability, Ranked Choice Voting would not only help voters feel more represented, but also help people with different political views realize that differing views doesn’t necessarily make someone the enemy. With Ranked Choice Voting already being implemented in several jurisdictions both around the country and around the world and working really well, its clear that a nationwide implementation of RCV would improve the overall political discourse in the country by allowing people to have a real conversation on issues, rather than just endless arguments. 


Works Cited

CGP Grey. (2011). The Alternative Vote Explained [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y3jE3B8HsE

Geer, J. G. (2012). The News Media and the Rise of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns. PS: Political Science and Politics, 45(3), 422–427. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41691356

Gibson, B. (2023, November 1). RFK Jr.’s donor data reveals his 2024 threat. POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/news/2023/11/01/rfk-jr-2024-campaign-donors-00124621

Groves, S., & Sanders, L. (2024, February 29). US adults fracture along party lines in support for Ukraine military funding, AP-NORC poll finds. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/poll-ukraine-aid-congress-b772c9736b92c0fbba477938b047da2f

Johnson, D., & Germer, M. (2022). Ranking Presidents: How Ranked-Choice Voting Can Improve Presidential Primaries. R Street Institute. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep47135

Jones, D. R. (2001). Party Polarization and Legislative Gridlock. Political Research Quarterly, 54(1), 125–141. https://doi.org/10.2307/449211

Kleinfeld, Rachel. “Polarization, Democracy, and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 5 Sept. 2023, carnegieendowment.org/2023/09/05/polarization-democracy-and-political-violence-in-united-states-what-research-says-pub-90457.

Murray, Mark. “As the “Dean Scream” Turns 15, Its Impact on American Politics Lives On.” NBC News, 18 Jan. 2019, www.nbcnews.com/politics/meet-the-press/howard-dean-s-scream-turns-15-its-impact-american-politics-n959916.

Pomper, G. M. (2001). The 2000 Presidential Election: Why Gore Lost. Political Science Quarterly, 116(2), 201–223. https://doi.org/10.2307/798059

“Research and Data on RCV in Practice.” FairVote, fairvote.org/resources/data-on-rcv/.

Traylor, Jake. ““Put the Oval Office” Wherever He Is: Trump Fans Say They’d Back Him as President from Prison.” NBC News, 18 Oct. 2023, www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-president-prison-supporters-loyal-rcna117215.

Types of Voting Systems. (n.d.). FairVote. https://fairvote.org/archives/types_of_voting_systems/

Warburton, Moira, et al. “Kevin McCarthy Ousted as House Speaker in Historic Vote.” Reuters, 4 Oct. 2023, www.reuters.com/world/us/mccarthy-says-he-thinks-he-will-survive-leadership-challenge-us-house-2023-10-03/.


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