Students Laud Ranked Choice Voting in Georgetown University Election

by Devin Mitchell, Ben Petit // Published March 5, 2014

At 1:01 AM Friday morning, the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) announced via Twitter  that Trevor Tezel and Omika Jikaria had been elected GUSA President and Vice-President. Though they may not be on the radar of most political analysts, Georgetown elections stand out as a forward-thinking and innovative step in our democracy.

In 2006, GUSA made a decision to alter its electoral system. After five consecutive years in which no candidate won a majority of votes, student leaders looked into alternative voting systems that would ensure candidates received majority support. The system they chose is ranked choice voting (RCV, also called “instant runoff voting” at Georgetown). Ranked choice voting is a method used across the country and around the globe to elect officials. Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters are able to rank candidates in order of preference. To be declared winner, one candidate must receive over 50% of the non-exhausted votes, upholding the principle of majority rule.

To count an RCV election, administrators initially tally only first choices. When all first choices are counted, administrators check to see if any candidate already has a majority of votes. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the least first choice support is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as their first choice then have their votes added to the totals of their second choice candidate. This process repeats until a candidate passes the threshold of 50% of the remaining ballots.

georgetown electionThe 3,517 students who voted in the executive election Friday had to decide how to rank four different tickets of candidates. The GUSA Elections Commission illustrated the electoral process early Friday morning, releasing the election results on Twitter round-by-round. Initially, Trevor Tezel and Omika Jikaria came in with 35.23 percent of first choices, followed closely by Zack Singer and Dan Silkmen with 29.9 percent. While both tickets performed well in this initial round of voting, neither received a majority. With no ticket receiving a majority in the first round, the instant runoff began. Thomas Loyd and Jimmy Ramirez were eliminated first. The ballots of their supporters were examined and added to the total of their second choices. 224 of those ballots transferred to Tezel and Jikaria, building on their initial lead. In the next round, Ben Weiss and Sam Greco were eliminated. With only two tickets remaining, Tezel and Jikaria defeated Singer and Silkmen by receiving over 50% of the vote in the final round.

Had the elections stopped after the first round, as most U.S. elections do, Tezel and Jikaria still would have won, but with only just over a third of the vote, far from a clear mandate.

“I wouldn't feel comfortable certifying an election where you can expect the winner to have maybe around 35 percent of the vote,” said Elections Commission Chair Ethan Chess. “We elect winners who have the broadest bases of support.”

Discussions with a variety of students around campus students revealed that most who were engaged with the election believe in the system as a method to determine student leaders.

“I think in general it works well,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous. “If your number one candidate doesn't place - then you still have some say.”

The ranked choice system also changed the nature of campaigning in student elections. Voters rank in order of preference instead of just choosing one candidate. As a result, candidates cross-endorsed other tickets and encouraged voters to rank them second on their ballots. This shows that candidates understand the importance of building coalitions in a ranked choice voting election, rather than relying merely on their own base of support.

The Tezel-Jikaria ticket and Weiss-Greco ticket cross-endorsed each other, as did the Singer-Silkman and Lloyd-Ramirez tickets.

IMG 0032"It makes a lot more sense for one of the two people who are so similar ... to be in office than a totally different candidate who represents a minority of the students interests but that has the vast majority of students interest split,” said Abbey Cooner, a supporter of Ben Weiss and Sam Greco, the third-place ticket.

Cooner also said she preferred instant runoff voting to a system with a separate runoff election on a later date. Such elections tend to have much lower turnout and don’t always accurately reflect the will of the electorate.

“I just think there's a big risk of not having as many people show up to vote,” she said. “There’s such a big effort around getting out the vote the first time around that I just couldn't imagine having to do it for a second day.”

Georgetown’s use of RCV is an innovative step forward in empowering voters and encouraging inclusive elections. Instead of candidates working against each other to divide and conquer their electorate, we see them working together to ensure that, no matter the outcome, those elected represent the views of a broad coalition of their constituents.

Georgetown is among a growing list of colleges and universities setting an example for other schools, cities and even states to adopt similar electoral reforms. By making connections with students, organizations and legislators, FairVote seeks to help establish, implement, and sustain the use of ranked choice voting at all levels of elections.