With the two-party duopoly of neo-fascist Republicans and neo-liberal Democrats choking any meaningful changes to the American political system, many progressive, independent and even moderate voters are embracing the concept of ranked choice voting as one means of creating more democratic and responsive procedures to conduct elections and open up greater opportunities for Americans to participate in the democratic process. The recent midterm elections were good news for supporters of ballot reform to make the democratic process more accountable to the people, and allow for greater voter participation in choosing and electing candidates for office. Of the ten voting reform ballot initiatives across the country eight have passed, including the first step towards statewide ranked choice voting in Nevada. In Alaska, which already has ranked choice voting for local and congressional elections, Democrat Mary Peltola defeated the favored Republican candidate Sarah Palin to become the first Alaska native to serve in Congress. Without ranked choice voting it is doubtful that Mary Peltola would have defeated Sarah Palin, who was a former governor and candidate of the Republican Party for Vice-President of the United States in the 2008 presidential election, in a state that leans conservative and tends to vote for Republicans.
Ranked choice voting is just that when voters rank their choices by first preference, second preference, third preference and so on. In order to win an election a candidate must obtain a minimum of fifty percent from the total vote plus one. With the current system that is practiced in most jurisdictions, a candidate can win with a simple plurality of the votes cast. This format favors extremist candidates who appeal to an ideologically narrow base of the electorate, especially in primary elections where extremist voters motivated by anger, hatred, racism and bigotry are more likely to turn out. RCV changes the incentives, rewarding candidates who can best unify the voters by appealing to the broadest cross-section of the electorate. It eliminates the spoiler effect, giving independent candidates outside the two major parties a chance to compete with them on an equal footing. And most importantly, the winning candidates by obtaining the majority of the votes best fully represent the preferences of the population they were elected to serve.
Several major jurisdictions already have ranked choice voting. In 2021 New York City used RCV to elect candidates in primary and special elections for mayor, city council and other municipal offices. Although RCV was not used for general elections, or elections for national, state and county offices, it was still having a huge impact in the city where primary elections, due to one party dominance, more often than not determines the winner of the general election. As mentioned before, Alaska already has RCV and based on the results of the recent midterm elections, Nevada may become the second state to have RCV. In addition to New York City, several other cities and localities in various states have already adopted or are in the process of adopting RCV for their elections.
In states like New Jersey adoption of ranked choice voting becomes even more essential to open up the democratic process and allow more people to participate. especially minority and low-income communities. In New Jersey, for example, the so-called primary election to decide who will be the party’s nominee in the upcoming general election is ultimately decided by individual county party bosses who can dictate the ballot position for each candidate in the primary. Ballot position, especially in primary elections, is crucial for electoral success as voters are more inclined to vote for candidates in the first ballot column than they are for candidates in second, third, fourth columns and so on. The advantage of ranked choice voting is that voters would have the opportunity to vote for multiple candidates even though they may not have the best ballot position. This process gives insurgent candidates, candidates otherwise disadvantaged for lack of money and organizational support, to have a greater impact on the outcome of the election than they would otherwise. Candidates from minority and low-income communities also stand a better chance of affecting the outcome than they would under the current procedure. With ranked choice voting minority candidates, for example Mary Peltola as the first native Alaskan elected to Congress, have a much better chance of overcoming obstacles they faced with a decision by plurality rather than majority.
With direct elections for office when, in addition to the two major parties, multiple small parties have candidates for the same office there is also a greater chance that with ranked choice voting and majoritarian decisions these smaller parties will have a greater impact than under the current system. With RCV major party candidates have a greater incentive to appeal to voters who otherwise would feel alienated and ignored by the political oligarchy who are now in control. Registered voters would also have greater incentive to turnout since they know they will have greater impact to influence the outcome of the election rather than “wasting” their vote on a smaller party.
Under the current two party system, candidates and voters from minority communities and low-income districts are effectively disadvantaged and disenfranchised as political bosses representing the establishment political and economic status quo have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of elections, especial party primaries to determine which candidates will represent their respective political parties in the general election. With ranked choice voting minority and low-income candidates will be able to exert greater influence on the outcome of an election. Major party candidates will then be forced to address themselves to issues and concerns with people of color and low-income, disadvantaged voters. In those districts and jurisdictions where RCV is used there is evidence that turnout among minority and low-income voters is significantly higher.
Several advocacy and activist organizations in states like New Jersey with the most restrictive primary and general election access have filed lawsuits against those restrictions that increase the power of political bosses and oligarchs to control the outcome of elections. Several court cases are being considered and eventually may find their way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The legal argument against those restrictions is that they are unconstitutional in giving political bosses a disproportionate amount of power and influence at the expense of greater voter participation. The basic right to vote in a democracy is eroded and diluted by those restrictions within the political system as it is currently structured. Hopefully as these cases wind their way through the judicial system the higher courts will eliminate at least some of the more onerous restrictions.
Ultimately, political activists and organizers will have to put pressure at the state and local jurisdictions to allow for ranked choice voting, especially since with the current political system as it is set up states have the most responsibility for organizing and supervising elections. Hopefully other states in addition to Nevada and Alaska will establish ranked choice voting as the means for deciding electoral outcomes. Local governments also have flexibility in adopting RCV for elections within their jurisdiction. As the movement spreads it is hoped that more elections will be decided by majoritarian process, as the current system of plurality voting favors political bosses and oligarchs at the expense of greater participation and voter turnout, particularly from minorities and low-income groups.
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