The following is an excerpt from “The Myths, The Facts, The Future: Everything You Need to Know About Ranked Choice Voting” written by George Pillsbury as it appears on The Independent Voter Network (IVN.US). 

Partisan gerrymandering. Money in politics. The Electoral College. Undue restrictions on who votes and how we vote. Every contentious election issue discussed today was either inherited from 18th-century England or came out of a compromise in our democracy’s incubation when there were few voters and fewer voting models.

None, however, may have as much impact and be less understood than the method we use to vote: plurality voting. England calls it first-past-the-post. Under plurality rules, the candidate with the most votes wins regardless of not having a majority and no matter how many candidates are running. Sound simple?

It’s not. Beneath its deceptive simplicity lies problematic election math and incentives that operate in opposition to what many see as democracy’s basic principles ­­­– a meaningful choice among competing candidates, votes that count toward representation, majority rule – incentives that encourage, rather than discourage, participation and a civil discourse.

Other countries that inherited plurality voting from England like Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland have long since replaced it, but this method still persists in the United States as well as Great Britain and some of its former colonies.Nonpartisan democracy institutes in the business of helping new democracies organize their elections, even those in the U.S., no longer recommend plurality voting because of its non-majoritarian, anticompetitive, and polarizing nature.

Plurality voting’s problems may already be familiar. But let’s look at a list. It —

1. Allows candidates to win without majority support.

In any race with more than two candidates, a winner can win without a majority – in many cases with as little as 20-30 percent of the vote.

2. Gives unpopular, even extremist candidates a path to victory.

Whether in a primary or general election, a relatively unpopular candidate with a narrow base can win the election when like-minded opponents split the vote.

3. Limits voter choice, creating a two-party monopoly that marginalizes the efforts of independent or new parties.

The powerful math of plurality voting is the primary reason we have a two-party system. The link is so incontrovertible that political science gave it a name: “Duverger’s Law.” Plurality elections make spoilers out of third parties. A vote for a third party risks handing the election to the person the voter most opposes, and, in the end, puts pressure on voters to choose between two major parties.

4. Creates more “wasted votes. Fewer votes count toward

In plurality voting a vote for a third party ends up as a protest or show of support. It doesn’t count towards a winner or representation.

5. Suppresses political competition. Many races go uncontested.

The monopoly math of plurality voting that turns third parties into spoilers is one reason most elections are uncompetitive. With only two major parties, the majority of elections are decided by a few voters in the primaries of the dominant major party – either Republican or Democrat. It means a relatively free ride in the general election against weak contenders or, in many cases, no opponent at all.

6. Makes elections a zero-sum game, promoting a negative, attack–based approach.

With competition mainly between two major parties, the result is a zero-sum contest. Candidates and parties have as much to gain by suppressing their opponent’s voters through negative campaigning as opposed to winning votes on their track record and where they stand on issues

7. Discourages voter turnout, as voters can become frustrated by their lack of choice.

If a store gave you only two choices for a product, you might look elsewhere. Voters understandably want and respond favorably to more choice and competition, considered among the strongest factors in voter turnout. When there is competition, months of attacks in zero-sum arena of two party politics diminish both parties and candidates can lead to many voters just staying home

Ranked Choice Voting

A simple change in the plurality method – allowing voters to rank their choices instead being limited to a single choice – does away with all the problematic incentives and outcomes inherent in plurality voting.

Choice voting can be compared to using a piano to vote rather than the single stroke of a hammer or drum.

The voting method is called ranked choice voting. It’s also known as instant-runoff voting because it is essentially a runoff election performed in one election rather than the cost, time, and turnout problems of a second round runoff held at a later date.

Ranked choice voting and other non-plurality methods have spread to most former British colonies. In the United States, it’s been adopted by 11 larger U.S. cities and several smaller ones. This month, Maine became the first state to use ranked choice voting statewide.

The American Political Science Association, a group that would know the value of ranked choice voting, uses it to elect its president. More than 50 colleges use it for student and faculty government.

How It Works and What It Does

In ranked choice voting, voters rank the candidates in the order they prefer instead of choosing just one candidate. They mark their first choice and as many backup choices as they want.
  • Round 1: The voters’ first choices are all tallied. If one candidate has a majority, that’s it. The candidate wins.
  • Round 2: If no one candidate has a majority, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are then transferred to the second choice on the voter’s ballot.
  • Round 3 (or more): The process repeats itself as needed until a candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.