Voters Want Choices. And They Want to Be Heard.

Krist Novoselic // Published June 4, 2008 in Seattle Weekly
I first became aware of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for single-seat elections in 1997 and have been a strong advocate ever since.

The system is simple: Voters rank their candidates in order of preference. Just as in traditional majoritarian voting, any candidate getting over 50 percent of the vote is elected. If there's no majority, instead of multiple ballots, there's an instant runoff. The last-place candidates are eliminated. The voters who chose them have their second or third rankings transferred to the remaining candidates until one wins a majority.

There were practical considerations that attracted me to this reform. Like most voters, I want more choices, shorter election seasons, and less negative campaigning. RCV speaks to this need.

After the 2000 election, RCV gained traction as a solution to the notion of "wasted votes": Voters are urged not to choose the candidate they prefer because it will split the vote and throw the election to an undesirable outcome. Wasted-vote rhetoric only discourages meaningful participation.

Some people think that a rock bass player, just by advocating participation in voting, can get voters to turn out. This is not so. Competitive elections of their own accord make people interested in participating. Look at the current presidential primaries: People are attracted because they feel their voice can be heard.

Ranked Choice Voting is not a new idea. It has been held constitutional and has a long history in our nation. It is more a forgotten idea. But this is changing. The reform is reemerging as an alternative to the two-round voting system used in nonpartisan municipal elections. It can also work with partisan elections.

Here is a (very brief) account of the history of Ranked Choice Voting:

In the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution was transforming society in developed nations. At the same time, the franchise of democracy was spreading. There was a fear that the growing middle class, being a majority of voters, would displace the landed establishment in government. In the early 1860's, the influential English thinker and Parliament member John Stuart Mill found a way to accommodate majority rule while still giving the minority a voice. He came across English barrister Thomas Hare's pamphlet "On The Election Of Representatives, Parliamentary and Municipal."

In his treatise, Hare was advocating the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Today we call this Ranked Choice Voting. STV also is referred to as Preferential Voting and the Hare/Clark Method. The system is called Instant Runoff Voting when used in single-seat elections, and Choice Voting (PR/STV) when used with multi-seat proportional representation.

It's taken over 150 years for the Single Transferable Vote to start catching on in the UK. Other English-speaking nations picked it up years ago. Australia and Ireland were early converts to the system and still use it to this day.

In the post-Civil War United States, the enfranchisement of black males and an influx of European immigrants threatened the balance of power. Again, the propertied establishment was worried about class issues and the impact on suffrage.

The South Carolina legislature considered Choice Voting to protect the interests of white minorities during Reconstruction. They settled instead on using the semi-proportional Cumulative Voting. After the military left the state, plurality voting came back. The simple barriers of literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, and violence became the way to keep blacks out of power.

Between 1870 and 1900 more than 11 million European immigrants came to the U.S. Most of them settled in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Political parties met the needs of the new immigrants, thus cultivating loyalty. These loyal voters were the base of powerful political machines which dominated public offices.

As a reaction to the rule of the party bosses, there were attempts to reform elections. In 1872, majority Republicans in the New York legislature passed a bill mandating Cumulative Voting for New York City. The Democratic governor vetoed it.

Between 1890 and 1920, many progressive voting reforms were put into practice. Women's suffrage, the direct election of U.S. Senators, open primaries, ballot initiative and referendum, home-rule municipal charters, and nonpartisan elections are still with us today. Choice Voting was among the reforms adopted. Choice Voting took hold in New York City along with cities in Ohio, Massachusetts, and other places. Oregonians amended their state constitution to explicitly accommodate it.

The system did what it was supposed to do: give voters more choices by giving them the ability to rank candidates. Voters were no longer stuck if they happened to live in a ward or district dominated by one party, and could choose women, independents, or racial minorities without splitting a constituency at the polls.

Mill and Hare envisioned the minority representation, but in the sense of protecting gentry from the masses. With Choice Voting in the U.S., minority representation came true, but in a way that helped folks who were usually excluded from democratic institutions.

At first, opponents of Choice Voting went to court with various suits. They claimed it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But the federal courts disagreed, and Choice Voting was upheld as legal. That meant opponents needed to mount repeal efforts. In most places there was a ballot question calling for repealing Choice Voting every time there was an election! Even though voters repeatedly turned it down, the same repeal question appeared on the ballot faithfully, year after year.

After World War II, the Cold War and racial issues came into prominence. In some of the cities using the system, blacks were getting elected and their opponents made an issue of racial block voting. In New York during the height of the Red Scare, of couple of Communist Party members were elected to the city council. Opponents decried Choice Voting as Stalinist and un-American. It was these charges, unrelenting repeal efforts, and voters' forgetting why the system was implemented in the first place, that led to successful repeals. By 1960, all cities except for Cambridge, Mass., had repealed Choice Voting.

Perhaps the Single Transferable Vote, in the form of Instant Runoff and proportional Choice Voting systems, was before its time. This fall voters in Memphis, Tenn., St. Paul Minn., and Glendale, Ariz., will be considering the reform. These ballot measures have a great chance of winning. Thirteen out of 14 such measures have won in the past few years. Last week, the Colorado legislature passed a law allowing all municipalities and special districts to use Instant Runoff Voting and Choice Voting.

It looks like Ranked Choice Voting's time might be coming after all.

(Most of the historical information in this article was taken from Kathleen L. Barber's Proportional Representation & Electoral Reform in Ohio and A Right To Representation.)