We want to weigh in on Evanston’s ranked choice voting referendum and explain why we support the idea wholeheartedly. For three semesters, we co-coordinated a course in the Osher Lifelong Learning program (OLLI) that we called The People versus the Politicians.
We borrowed that title from our good friend, Hedrick Smith, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and the creator of some very punchy Frontline documentaries.
Over those three semesters, we had close to 75 people who explored pretty much everything you can imagine might be wrong with electoral politics in America – gerrymandering, campaign finance, you name it.
After all was said and done, though, we concluded that the two main pathologies in our electoral world are partisan (party) primaries and plurality voting.
Now in Illinois, we can’t do anything about party primaries, but it seems that we have a shot at replacing plurality voting (in which the winner only needs more votes than any other candidate) with the vastly superior system of ranked choice voting.
We combed through our notes on class conversations and found that the following questions resonated deeply with people. And if you answer yes to any one of these questions, you will probably be happy that you voted for the ranked choice voting referendum. Here goes.
Would you like your vote to matter more?
With conventional elections, your preferences are highly constrained. You can indicate your favorite or first choice, but it stops there. That is, you get one shot at affecting the outcome. If the person for whom you vote comes in too far down the list, you’re left out in the cold.
With ranked choice voting, you may rank as many candidates as you like. And if your first choice comes in last in the first round, your vote automatically rolls over to your second choice.
And if your second choice loses out, your vote is shifted over to your third choice. As a result, you may get two, three, or four (or more) shots at affecting the outcome, up until the time one of the candidates wins more than half the votes and the election is over. In other words, your ballot becomes a more powerful and influential force.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that uses in its elections a combination of party primaries and plurality voting (all you need is more votes than anyone else, not a majority). In the most recent Chicago mayoral election, the top two candidates coming out of the primary received, in the follow up run-off election, less than 40% of the total number of votes cast in the primary. That means more than 60% of Chicago voters voted for someone else, and their votes were wasted. They had no say in the final outcome.
Would you like to be able to vote for your favorite candidate without killing the chances of your second choice?
Have you ever voted for your second choice because you thought your favorite had no chance? Why shouldn’t you be able to vote for the Green Party candidate, or the Libertarian Party candidate if you want to?
With ranked choice voting, if your favorite comes in last, your vote transfers automatically to your second favorite. You could have voted for H. Ross Perot without worrying about contributing to the election of Bill Clinton. Or you could have voted for Ralph Nader without worrying about electing George Bush.
Would you like to know that the winner of an election would have won a head-to-head contest against any of the competing candidates?
This property of ranked choice voting is very, very potent.
One of the main complaints about plurality, first-past-the-post elections is that the winner can be someone that most voters don’t like. Thus, if a candidate wins an election with less than 50% of the vote, critics can claim that most of the electorate voted against that candidate.
In practice, this criticism has some weight, but is only partly true. The problem with plurality elections is that one never knows what would have happened if voters’ second (or third, or fourth) choices had been considered.
According to work done by FairVote (a very cool non-partisan activist organization), in 439 out of 440 ranked choice voting elections for which it had enough data, the winner would have won the election if pitted against any of the rest of the candidates in one-on-one races. That is, the winner of a ranked choice election election is almost guaranteed to be preferred to any of his or her competitors.
Would you like to know that winners of primaries are more centrist?
If the winners of ranked choice voting elections have to appeal to at least 50% of the voters, you can have some confidence that the winner of a primary election will be less extreme than the winners of plurality primaries.
Would you like to avoid the time, trouble and expense of run-off elections?
Elections are not free. Every time you vote, you must fill out a ballot and make sure it gets to the proper office. With conventional runoffs, if you want to be part of the process, you must show up twice. And, of course, runoffs are an expense to the community, too. Running an election requires staff, budget and oversight.
One perk of ranked choice voting is that any runoffs are built into the process. Once the programming has been done, computers recount the votes for each round: one election instead of two.
In Evanston, any time three or more people want to run for the office of mayor, for example, we would not need a primary and then, several months later, a runoff election. Instead, the whole thing could be accomplished in one go. Another name for ranked choice voting is instant runoff.
Are you tired of the venom in political campaigns?
With plurality voting, all you need is more votes than your closest competitor. You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other guy. With ranked choice voting, if you want to win, you eventually have to attract more than half of the voters to your side. To do this, you cannot be quite so hateful and vitriolic. Rather, you have an incentive to focus more on the issues and less on the shortcomings of your opponents. We see a surprising amount of cooperative campaigning in ranked choice voting elections.
So there you have it. Elected officials with broader appeal. Less costly elections. More civil debate. More influential voters. We definitely know how we plan to vote, and we hope you join us in voting yes.
Galen Burghardt (email@example.com)
Jack Cooksey (firstname.lastname@example.org)