Summary of Electoral Fixes by Method of Realization

This paper has presented quite a few fixes to the way we choose our federal office-holders. We can achieve some of these fixes through new or amended state or federal statutes, while others require a constitutional amendment. For many of these fixes to really take hold, we need a cultural shift. Here is a summary of the suggested improvements broken down into these four categories: state law, federal law, constitutional amendment, and cultural change. This discussion does not repeat the thrust of the arguments in favor of each reform but rather presents the possibility of achieving the reform through each method of realization.

Fixes Through State Laws

We can implement some fixes through state laws, but such laws would be effective only if all or most of the states passed those laws. Gerrymandering is a good example. In some states a grassroots citizens’ movement has fought to remove politics from Congressional redistricting. But the politicians in each state’s majority party ask,

Why should we unilaterally disarm? If we get rid of gerrymandering in our state, the minority party in our state will gain more members in Congress. But I do not see their party getting rid of gerrymandering in the states their party controls – so the result would be that our party loses. Sure, we favor reforming the system but only if everyone does it together.

This then becomes an argument for the status quo.

One solution to this conundrum could be a compact among states, all agreeing to adopt the same reform when other states agree to do likewise. Of course, this type of solution only works if the argument about “unilateral disarmament” is the real objection to reform and not just an obstructionist tactic. To improve its chances of success, groups of states could adopt it. For example, Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin introduced legislation to eliminate gerrymandering simultaneously in Maryland and Virginia.[1] The two states are good candidates for this type of deal, because they are mirror images of each other politically. Maryland, with a Republican governor but Democratic legislature, is heavily gerrymandered to favor Democrats, resulting in 7 Democrats and only 1 Republican in Congress. Virginia is the opposite: With a Democratic governor but Republican state legislature, the state is heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans, who hold an 8-3 majority in Congress. If both states drew district boundaries without partisan considerations, the expected results in each state would more fairly represent their electorates, but the total number of Congresspersons from each party would probably remain about the same. Repubs would likely pickup 2 or 3 seats in Maryland; Dems would do likewise in Virginia.

Reformers might be able to identify similar groupings of states all across the country.

Like all solutions implemented by state statute, what lawmakers enact today they can repeal tomorrow. So one approach, that of amending state constitutions, is a considerable improvement over a simple state statute.

Manner of choosing the President

Local-State-National Interstate Compact (LSNIC): States could pass laws binding themselves to cast all their electoral votes for the winner of the election according to the LSN vote counting scheme. These state laws would become effective as soon as enough states pass it so as to constitute a majority of all electoral votes.

Ranked Choice Voting:

In the 2016 election, Maine became the first state to adopt Ranked Choice Voting for most of its elections. The good folks at FairVote.org believe that this Maine victory may be a harbinger of the future and that more states and other jurisdictions around the country will also begin to adopt RCV.

Although Congress can and should mandate RCV for elections to federal offices, states are responsible for elections for their own Governors, other state-wide offices, and state legislatures. Therefore, every state should adopt Ranked Choice Voting for all the elections it controls. This should include the state’s elections for federal offices if Congress fails to act.

Solutions to gerrymandering for state legislatures as well as Congress

While the best solution to the gerrymander challenge is a Federal law mandating a uniform rule-based process without human decision making for all states, individual states can adopt that same process until Congress acts.

The same redistricting plan proposed for Congress might offer the best option for solving the gerrymandering challenge for state legislatures. In some states, certain ZCTA’s might be home to too many people for state legislative districts, representing much smaller populations than Congressional Districts. In such cases, the same Scan Line used for the counties and for ZCTA’s within LAST County can also be used to partition LAST ZCTA into the Census Bureau’s census tracts, which contain ~4000 people each.

If a state finds the fully mechanical solution infeasible for some reason, it could still adopt a non-partisan redistricting commission, assisted by appropriate technology, and charged only with drawing contiguous election districts with roughly equal populations and no other considerations.

Automatic voter registration

While the best solution in this matter might be a federal statute or constitutional amendment, individual states can achieve this for their own citizens. States could automatically register voters when they reach their 18th birthday (most of them are in school and therefore a captive audience, making this easy enough to implement). States can also verify a citizen’s voter registration status and then automatically register them if necessary whenever the citizen interacts with state or local government in any way – getting a driver’s license, purchasing and registering a vehicle or a boat, engaging in any real estate transaction, paying taxes, registering for a public college, applying for welfare or unemployment compensation or Medicaid, perhaps even paying for a parking ticket.

Just as an aside, high schools should require every high school junior and senior to “vote” in a mock election, using the same ballot that their parents are using in the real election and at the same time. This will help our young people get into the habit of voting.

Convenient voting procedures

Every state can adopt welcoming rather than restrictive voting rules: absentee ballots available to all citizens without needing to give a reason; absentee ballots accepted if received up through the last election day; early in-person voting to include at least one weekend; adequate polling stations, voting machines, and voting hours.

Fixes Through Federal Laws

For our national fixes to be most effective, we must adopt them nationally – which means either a federal statute or an amendment to the US Constitution. However, federal statutes sometimes run afoul of the Constitution itself. The Constitution contains two provisions which often appear in conflict with each other:

  • Article I Section 8 lists the powers of Congress, and then contains this final power: “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
  • Amendment 10 states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

In practice, when Congress proposes a law concerning an issue not expressly within Congress’s authority, proponents argue that Congress’s power to act on this issue is implied by its express powers. Those who oppose the law disagree, contending that the 10th Amendment supersedes, so the issue must be left to the states or the people. In some cases Congress goes ahead and passes the proposed law. Then someone files suit against it, claiming that the law violates the 10th Amendment. Sometimes the Supreme Court agrees with the opponents and determines that the law is unconstitutional.

Thus the question of constitutional limits on Congress’s power is clearly an issue concerning many of the fixes suggested in this volume. For example, concerning the time when elections take place, Article I Section 4 states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations”. Originally, every state selected the date of the general election as it saw fit, but in 1845 a federal statute fixed the date of the general election as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. So Congress clearly has the authority to fix the date of the general election for Congress. But what about the general election for the electoral college? And what about primaries? When the Constitution was written, primary elections did not exist. Some might argue that Congress’s authority to set the date of the general election for Congress implies that it has the authority to also set the dates of primaries. Actually, the Constitution does not distinguish between primary and general elections – it just refers to “elections”.

One solution to the question of federal versus state authority has had some success over the years and could be used as a model for wider application. This solution is the use of block grants in which Congress allocates sums of money to individual states, based on the varying needs of each state. Each state then has the authority to spend the block grant funds as it sees fit within the broad parameters of the purposes of the block grant. Congress has used block grants for education assistance programs (clearly a state matter), healthcare (Medicaid, administered by the states), emergency relief from natural disasters, and infrastructure projects. The federal government can sometimes smooth out differences between the states based on the relative wealth of each state, while in other cases state needs differ widely. Landlocked states do not need money for ports, for example, while other states never suffer earthquakes. In all these cases, governmental assistance may be necessary to give each citizen the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, but the Feds are not always the best source for that assistance.

Ranked Choice Voting

The Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to fix the “manner of elections” for Senators and Representatives; and implicitly, Congress probably also has the power to fix the “manner of elections” for President and Vice President. While state laws can implement RCV on a state-by-state basis, it would be far preferable, quicker, and more effective for Congress to mandate RCV in all federal elections.

Three rounds of Presidential primaries

Because Congress can fix the “manner of elections” for Senators and Representatives, Congress can certainly fix both primary and general election dates for members of Congress. We can debate whether or not Congress has the constitutional authority to mandate primary election dates for President. If Congress adopts a national Presidential primary system, the Supreme Court might rule it unconstitutional. Were that to happen, then we would need a constitutional amendment to get to a national Presidential primary – but we’re not there yet, so it’s certainly worth a try.

Vice Presidential primary and general election separate from the election for President

The original Constitution says very little about the election for Vice President, and nothing at all about primary elections for any office. (The only mention of primary elections in the Amendments is in Amendment 24, which barred the poll tax.) Therefore, as in the case of three rounds of Presidential primaries, the question is whether Congress has authority to legislate on the topic of the Vice Presidential primary and general election. Again, it’s worth a try – and if Congress were to establish a primary election for Vice President, and separate voting in the general election for President and for Vice President, and if the courts then ruled that this law is unconstitutional, then we would need to pass a constitutional amendment to make it happen. But again, we could give it a go, and see whether such a law will be upheld.

Multi-seat Congressional Districts

Congress should not just repeal the 1965 law that prevented multi-seat CD’s; rather, Congress should mandate multi-seat CD’s combined with Ranked Choice Voting. As in many electoral reforms, a constitutional amendment might be an even better approach. But also like many suggested electoral reforms, we might learn from the experience of having multi-seat CD’s, and then conclude that that solution produces results as unsatisfactory as the system we have now. In that event, having a federal statute that Congress can modify might be preferable to having a constitutional amendment that is far more difficult to modify.

Congressional Redistricting Solution

The comments about multi-seat CD’s also apply here. Congress can mandate this; a constitutional amendment can solve it more permanently; but if the fix does not work well or leads to other challenges, a federal statute is easier to replace than a constitutional amendment. Perhaps the best approach would be to adopt a federal statute first, try it out for a few election cycles, and then initiate a constitutional amendment when we have determined that this is a good permanent solution.

A compressed election season schedule

Congress can fix the dates of primary and general elections for members of Congress, and probably also for President and Vice President – after all, in 1845 Congress mandated the date of the general election for all federal offices as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Congress can choose to adjourn whenever it pleases. Hence, Congress could eliminate the lame duck session of Congress and greatly shorten the transition period for the office of President.

Convenient voting procedures

The argument that Congress has the power to effectuate these reforms is based on the same constitutional provision as other congressional election reforms, namely, the first clause of Article I Section 4, giving Congress the power to determine the manner of holding elections for the Congress. If a federal law in this area is determined not to be constitutional, then a constitutional amendment giving Congress the power to establish such regulations might be in order.

Automatic, universal voter registration

Congress already has the authority to implement laws ensuring the voting rights of all citizens (Amendment 14), regardless of race (Amendment 15), religion (Amendment 1), sex (Amendment 19), or age (for anyone at least 18 years old) (Amendment 26). A federal law providing universal, automatic voter registration for all adult citizens would be a fine way to exercise that authority and would likely pass constitutional muster.  Again, if not, then a constitutional amendment is the alternative.

Campaign finance reform

There are several parts to campaign finance reform, each amenable to different solutions:

  • Concerning campaign contributions, Congress could try to pass new campaign finance reform laws, avoiding the elements that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional.
  • The President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, could appoint new Supreme Court justices, who could overturn the Citizens United
  • Congress could legislate public financing of all federal political campaigns.
Candidates and elected officials: Financial disclosures, transparency, and nepotism

Congress could pass federal laws that require candidates and elected officials to disclose their tax returns and their assets and other financial interests. We already have laws preventing nepotism, but the President is exempt from that law; we should fix that, and make the President and Vice President subject to the same law as our legislators. However, it’s unclear whether courts would consider such laws constitutional.

Fixes Through Constitutional Amendments

Some fixes require a constitutional amendment, an exceedingly high bar to pass.

Article V of the Constitution provides two methods for proposing amendments to the Constitution:

  • Congress, by a two-thirds vote in both chambers, can propose an amendment. This is the only method that has been used so far.
  • Two-thirds of the state legislatures can also request Congress to call for a constitutional convention for the purpose of proposing constitutional amendments. This method has not yet been used.

To become part of the Constitution, a proposed amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or three-fourths of state conventions, whichever mode of ratification is specified by Congress.

Amending the Constitution is difficult. In the 230 years since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, we have only managed to adopt 27 amendments.

A constitutional amendment is a most desirable fix, precisely because it is so difficult to undo; but for exactly the same reason, it is also the most difficult to achieve.

Amending the Constitution

We need to replace the amendment process itself. Though this is not an election system fix per se, its adoption will greatly facilitate the other proposed constitutional changes, including an entirely rewritten constitution.

Manner of choosing the President

A constitutional amendment to adopt the Local-State-National Presidential voting scheme is much better than the Local-State-National Interstate Compact precisely because no state can undo it. An amendment would also eliminate the electoral college and the possibility of sending the Presidential election to the House of Representatives.

New Senate to replace the Original Senate

Even one or more constitutional amendments may not bring about this fix, but clearly the constitutional amendment route or a brand new Constitution are the only fixes available.

Apportion House seats based on voting rather than population

This amendment would provide that the decennial reapportionment of House seats to the several states be based on the average number of votes cast in each state in the two most recent Presidential elections (rather than the population of each state, as at present). However, for drawing the boundaries between Congressional Districts within a state, population figures must be used.

Candidates and elected officials: Financial disclosures, transparency, and nepotism

This amendment would require all federal general election nominees and all federal elected officials to disclose their tax returns, their income, assets, transactions, creditors, investors, customers, and liabilities. It would also prohibit federal elected officials from hiring, nominating, or appointing any immediate family member to any federal position.

Comprehensive constitutional amendment on electoral reform

For all the electoral reforms proposed in Part II, a single constitutional amendment might be best. The proposed amendment would cover both the principles and the procedures of all federal elections. For safety’s sake, it should also give Congress the power to modify procedures that turned out not to work as intended.

Chances for adoption of this single constitutional amendment concerning elections will be greatly enhanced if we are able to first adopt the Amendment on Amendments.

The single amendment on elections (The Amendment on Elections below) will

  • change the basis for reapportioning seats in the House;
  • reconstitute the Senate as a representative body;
  • replace the position of Vice President with the new position of Chancellor;
  • require Ranked Choice Voting;
  • require multi-seat Congressional Districts;
  • institute a uniform and rule-based process for drawing Congressional District boundaries in every state based only on population and geography;
  • establish the election schedule for all federal primary and general elections, including three rounds of Presidential and Chancellor primaries and one National Primary Day;
  • require open primaries, with all candidates for a given office competing against each other in a single primary, without regard to political party;
  • establish uniform, convenient voting procedures throughout the country;
  • establish the rules by which candidates qualify for primary and general elections;
  • establish the LSN voting scheme for determining the winners of the Presidential and Chancellor elections, while eliminating the electoral college;
  • establish a National Voter Registration Authority to provide universal, automatic voter registration and a permanent Voter Identifier for every eligible citizen;
  • remove political parties from all election laws and regulations;
  • allow Congress to modify any election procedure which turns out to have been ill advised.

Fixes Through Cultural Change

Many of the fixes proposed in this paper will only become useful improvements to our democracy when people believe in them and act accordingly. That will require a cultural change. Let me recite a few examples:

  • Ranked Choice Voting only really works if voters mark their ballots with more than one choice for each office. Even if RCV is the legal voting procedure, if few voters vote for more than their 1st choice, then the candidate with a plurality after round 1 will always end up the winner as other candidates are progressively eliminated. So we will need a significant public education effort to encourage voters to understand and use their enhanced voting power.
  • We can establish an official season for electioneering that begins on July 4, but because of our First Amendment freedoms, candidates can say anything they want at any time. Therefore the public’s recourse is to discourage media outlets from giving free coverage to political campaigning outside the approved season, and to punish at the polls those candidates who violate the agreed-upon conventions.
  • Many Americans have become apathetic about politics, disengaged from political discourse altogether. Compared to other Western democracies, America’s voter participation is abysmal. A significant percentage of our fellow citizens have become completely disenchanted with Congress (which garners an 11% approval rating from the public), and we have turned away from the two major political parties: for twenty years, new voters are opting more and more to register as independents, if they even register to vote at all. The various fixes proposed in this paper could motivate uninvolved citizens to re-engage in the political process. When we empower people more than parties, when independents can participate in primaries, when every vote counts, when people see that they can have more opportunities to contribute and more leverage to affect the outcome, then and only then can we entertain the hope that the new cultural norm will favor engagement over apathy.
  • To encourage greater voter participation, every student in grades 9 through 12 in the country should vote in every election, using a sample or specimen ballot. The ballot itself can be the actual ballot for the precinct where the school is located. Awards should be given to schools with the highest participation rates. In this way, every high school graduate will have participated in one presidential and one mid-term election while in school.

Portrait of Future Congressional Elections

Putting this all together, here is a snapshot of future Congressional elections if all these proposals are adopted by the year 2021:

  • We will have adopted Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for Congressional elections along with multi-seat Congressional districts, specifying 3-seat CD’s.
  • After the 2020 Census is complete, apportionment of House seats will occur. States with 3 or fewer seats will elect all House members at large. States with 4 or more House seats will create new CD’s, using these rules:
    • Each state will create as many 3-seat CD’s as mathematically possible. When this is done, the number of seats left over will be 0, 1, or 2.
    • If the number of seats left over is > 0, then the state will have either a 1-seat CD or a 2-seat CD. This CD will be the highest-numbered CD in the state.
  • Next, redistricting will occur in every state that has more than 3 House seats. Each state will implement redistricting according to the rules for redistricting without human intervention described in this document. States will publish their CD boundaries, which will remain in effect until the next decennial census.
  • Primary Rules:
    • Any citizen can become a candidate for the House, according to the rules of that state.
    • All candidates will appear on the singular primary ballot. The ballot will indicate the party affiliation of each candidate.
    • All registered voters may vote in the primary.
    • RCV procedures apply to voting (that is, voters will rank order their selected candidates) and to counting of ballots.
    • The number of successful candidates in the primary depends on the number of House seats in the CD: For one House seat, 3 candidates are winners; for two House seats, 4 candidates are winners; and for three House seats, 6 candidates are winners.
  • General Election Rules:
    • The general election ballot will contain the names of only those candidates who were successful in the primary.
    • All registered voters may vote in the general election.
    • RCV procedures apply to voting (that is, voters will rank order their selected candidates by preference) and to counting of ballots.
  • Election Season Rules:
    • In even-numbered years, Congress adjourns sine die before Independence Day, and campaigning begins.
    • National Primary Election lasts for nine days, ending on the second Sunday in October.
    • General Election lasts for nine days, ending on the second Sunday in December.
    • New Congress convenes in January. (Note: No lame-duck session occurs.) (Note also: In a national emergency, the President may convene a special session of Congress.)
  • Political Parties:
    • Political parties, like any benevolent association, at their own expense, may hold caucuses, conventions, polls, and elections. They may endorse candidates, raise funds, articulate positions, advertise, and lobby.
    • None of these activities have any legal standing or bearing on elections.

[1] http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/blog/bal-senator-proposes-twostate-solution-on-redistricting-reform-20160209-story.html. [Accessed July 25, 2017.]

Big Fix 2. Restrain the Two-Party System

Open Primaries

We need to mandate open primaries for all federal offices (President, Vice President, and both chambers of Congress). These are the rules for primaries that we should adopt:

  • Any eligible candidate may compete in any open primary, subject to state rules for qualifying for the ballot.
  • One primary will take place for each elected office. Candidates from every political party and from no party (independents) may participate. The ballot will indicate the party affiliation of each candidate.
  • All registered voters are eligible to vote in every primary for every office within the jurisdiction where they legally reside.

For Congressional primaries, these special rules apply:

  • For primaries in elections for a single seat in Congress, the number of successful candidates is three.
  • The only way to appear on the general election ballot is to earn sufficient support in the primary to qualify for the general election. Therefore, the general election ballot for a seat in the Senate or House will have at most three names.
  • With a slight variation, RCV can be applied to primary elections. Naturally, each voter wants the list of successful primary candidates to include the voter’s preferred candidate, but, if the voter’s preferred candidate does not make the cut, the voter might very well want the list to include the voter’s 2nd or 3rd choice. This is the procedure for the primary election for a seat in Congress (either chamber):
Counting of ballots in primary elections for Congress[1]

The number of successful candidates in a primary election for one seat in Congress (House or Senate) is three.

  1. Count the 1st choice votes for each candidate, and rank order the results. Repeat steps 2 through 4 until only three candidates remain, or until three candidates each exceed 25% of the total vote. (Note: it is mathematically impossible for four candidates to exceed 25%.)
  2. Eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes.
  3. Reassign each vote for the eliminated candidate to each voter’s next highest choice for a candidate not yet eliminated.

If a ballot for the eliminated candidate contains no choice for a candidate not yet eliminated, then that ballot is exhausted and is no longer counted as part of the total vote.

The proposed rules on open primaries will allow all registered voters (Democrat, Republican, any 3rd party, or Independent) to participate in all primaries and will allow voters registered as Republican or Democrat to select a primary candidate from the opposite party. These changes can only be an improvement for our democracy.

Party Caucuses and Conventions

A caucus or a convention of Democrats or Republicans is much less likely to select a candidate acceptable to the entire electorate than a primary election open to all voters. Voters should select all general election candidates through primaries rather than caucuses and party conventions. Party activists will not like this change, of course; nonetheless, it would be good for our democracy.

Political parties may continue to hold elections for party offices, and they may hold caucuses and conventions at any level at their own expense. Such activities are completely independent from the public primary elections. Endorsement by a political party helps a candidate raise money and enlist volunteers for a campaign, but that endorsement gains nothing from a legal standpoint. That is, candidates must still qualify to appear on the primary ballot according to the rules of each state, and they must survive the primary to compete in the general election.

All Other Laws, Regulations, and Practices

Statutes and regulations should not favor political parties. Period.

The objective here is not to end political parties. As mentioned earlier, political parties can be quite useful in a democracy. Rather, the objective is to improve ballot access for all candidates, equitable treatment of all candidates, and inclusion of all voters.

 

[1] Appendix 1 summarizes the application of Ranked Choice Voting to various categories of elections.

 

Big Fix 1. Ranked Choice Voting

Relevance

This fix relates directly to Challenge 4. “Other election system challenges”, especially the two sub-challenges that address the lack of runoff elections and the exclusive use of single-member Congressional districts. However, this fix also relates to Challenge 1 (regarding how we choose the president and vice president) and Challenge 3 (the problem of gerrymandering). Therefore, because it has such general applicability to all elections, it deserves to be argued first.

The problem is that the traditional First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting scheme leads to undemocratic outcomes, elected officials who often fail to represent the majority of their constituents, and literally millions of voters with no effective representation at all.

Restating the Problem

We have many too many election winners who win with a plurality, that is, with less than majority support from the voters, both in our primary and in our general elections. A person might become Mayor or Congressman or Governor, and only have achieved 40% of the vote, while two or more competitors split the other 60%. It’s difficult to claim to have a mandate when you have earned the trust of only 40% of the voters. Governing after such an election, a public official might only look to that 40% base of voters for support.

Ranked Choice Voting solves this problem by insuring that the winning candidate has at least some level of support from a majority of the voters.

What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

RCV is an improvement over runoffs between the top two finishers in a traditional, First-Past-The-Post voting scheme. In the traditional runoff, if no candidate wins a majority of the vote (or, in some jurisdictions, if no candidate wins at least 40%), then a subsequent runoff election between the top two finishers decides the contest. Note that, in the runoff election, every voter casts a complete ballot. That is, a voter is not penalized for having chosen a candidate who was eliminated in round 1. Rather, the question voters face in the runoff is, “Which of these two remaining candidates do you prefer?”

An RCV “instant runoff” is a more efficient method of conducting a traditional runoff.

Ranked Choice Voting Procedures

RCV from the voter’s perspective

From the standpoint of the voter, Ranked Choice Voting is easy and straightforward. After selecting their 1st choice for any office, voters are allowed (but not required) to also select a 2nd choice, 3rd choice, and so on, limited only by the number of names on the ballot.

Since this can become unwieldy – imagine voters trying to rate 36 candidates on a ballot while hundreds of other voters wait in line to vote – I propose limiting the number of selections to three. This will apply to both primary and general elections.

Counting of ballots in all single-winner elections[1]
  1. Count the 1st choice votes for each candidate, and rank order the results. Repeat steps 2 through 4 until one candidate has a majority of the total vote.
  2. Eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes.
  3. Reassign each vote for the eliminated candidate to each voter’s next highest choice for a candidate not yet eliminated.
  4. If a ballot for the eliminated candidate contains no choice for a candidate not yet eliminated, then that ballot is exhausted and is no longer counted as part of the total vote.

Expected RCV Results

RCV produces winners with wider support than a system that declares the person with a plurality as the winner.

Here is a typical example: In a village with 100 voters, 60 voters belong to Party A and 40 voters give their allegiance to Party B. One year, in the election for mayor, Party A and Party B each field one candidate, ADAMS and BROWN, respectively, but a former Party A mayor, IVY, who still has strong support within the party does not like ADAMS and so decides to run as an Independent. Perhaps Party A’s 60 voters give 35 votes to the official Party A candidate ADAMS and 25 votes to the Independent former mayor IVY, while Party B’s 40 voters all support the one Party B candidate BROWN. As a result, Party B’s candidate BROWN is elected as the next mayor with only 40 votes, even though a majority of the town’s voters clearly would have preferred either candidate from Party A.

With RCV, a different outcome is more likely. Let’s say that the 25 Party A voters who defected to the Independent IVY as their 1st choice choose the regular Party A candidate ADAMS as their 2nd choice. When no mayoral candidate has 51 1st choice votes, the candidate with the fewest 1st choice votes, the Independent IVY, is eliminated, and the 25 1st choice votes for IVY are reassigned to each voter’s 2nd choice, namely, the official Party A candidate ADAMS, giving ADAMS a revised 60 votes and the win. In terms of governing, the new mayor can claim to have some measure of support from most of the voters and is also more likely to hear the voices of those who originally had supported the Independent.

Because everyone recognized the possibility of this scenario coming true, with RCV the candidates are more likely to try to appeal to the voters who support their opponents. Candidates will use an argument along the lines of, “I understand your support for one of my opponents as your 1st choice, but I would certainly like to earn your vote as your 2nd choice.” Then, in a close three-way election, the candidate best able to appeal to his opponents’ voters is most likely to win. That outcome is good for democracy.

Additional Rationale

Basically, the credibility of a democratic electoral process derives from the winner’s ability to claim the support of a majority or near majority of the voters. Credibility also depends on the public’s perception that the process is inclusive, fair, and reflects the views of most of the constituents. In many three-candidate races, the winner cannot claim support from a majority or near majority of voters, nor does the public perceive the process as fair.

First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) vote-counting is a major impediment to new grassroots movements, new political parties, and lesser-known candidates. Voters shy away from voting for a third party or for an attractive but upstart candidate because they are afraid to “throw away their vote” on a candidate or a cause that cannot possibly win. RCV eliminates that barrier.

We have long had exactly two major political parties, and so most of our general elections come down to a choice between the Republican and the Democrat. Occasionally, we have three candidates with significant public support, and these general elections present situations in which RCV works really well.

We also often have primary elections with three or more candidates, and again the RCV system improves the process. All the candidates who survive the primary will have demonstrated significant support among the electorate, and nobody makes it to the general election just because several other candidates split the vote.

Critics and Costs

Critics: The major criticism of RCV is that voters find it confusing; and, say some, many voters simply refuse to vote for any candidate beyond their 1st choice. But experience with RCV does not support this contention.

Costs: The jury is out as to whether RCV would save or cost money. It certainly saves the cost of holding a traditional runoff election, where such a runoff would otherwise be required. But voting machinery may need to be replaced to support RCV, and funding for voter education would also be needed. These are all one-time costs, while RCV’s benefits continue indefinitely.

RCV in the US and Around the World

32 of the 50 US states have adopted or have pending legislation to require or to permit Ranked Choice Voting in municipal, state, or federal elections or party caucuses and conventions. Of these 32, Maine has adopted RCV statewide; 9 states (MD, MA, TN, FL, MN, CO, NM, CA, and OR) mandate or allow RCV for municipal elections; 5 states (LA, AR, MS, AL, and SC) use RCV for military and overseas voters (where mailing delays would make it difficult for those voters to participate in runoff elections); 4 states (UT, TX, IA, and VA) use RCV in party elections; and the other 13 states have legislation pending in 2017 to implement or permit RCV in some of their elections.

Australia uses RCV for its national parliamentary elections. In their system, every Australian citizen is required to vote, and every voter must rank order all the candidates on the ballot in order of their preference. In the most recent elections for the Australian Parliament, the candidate receiving the most first place votes won 90% of the seats in parliament; but 10% of the seats were won by a candidate who received fewer first place votes in the initial count, but who captured a majority of the votes only as candidates at the bottom of the tally sheet were successively eliminated.

There are many variations on the Ranked Choice Voting basic scheme, sometimes called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV): see this article on Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in Wikipedia for the details (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting).[2] The article lists the historical and current uses of IRV around the world. For details on American use of RCV and prospects for wider adoption, see the articles at http://www.FairVote.org.

Congress’s Power to Act

RCV can probably be implemented by a federal statute, safe from a constitutional challenge, at least with respect to Congressional elections. The Constitution clearly states that Congress has the power to fix the “Times, Places, and Manner of elections for Senators and Representatives”, and Ranked Choice Voting deals with the manner of elections.

One can argue that this power extends to the election of the electors for President and Vice President (the members of the electoral college), since the Constitution clearly wanted to give Congress the power to control elections for federal offices by the people. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, the people were not constitutionally empowered to vote for the Presidential electors. Now that we are everywhere so empowered, Congress probably has the right to fix the manner of elections for President as well. Constitutional scholars can argue whether Congress has this power.

[1] Some elections may have more than one winner, requiring some adaptation of Ranked Choice Voting procedures. These are given in Appendix 1.

[2]  Admittedly, Wikipedia is not the world’s most reliable source of information, but this long and well-referenced article seems to be an excellent primer on this topic.