2.7 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.

Multi-seat Congressional Districts

This makes sense only when combined with Ranked Choice Voting. Without RCV, multi-seat election districts are often less representative than single-member districts. This is because the majority party in the multi-seat district is positioned to win every seat in that district. For example, if one party has a 55%-45% advantage in a three-seat district, and voters get to vote for three candidates, all three candidates from the majority party are likely to win with 55% of the vote. But if that three-seat district remained three one-seat districts as at present, the majority party might be the majority in two of those districts, probably by a wide margin, but that party might be the minority party in the third district, and so it could lose that one seat. But as the example in the RCV discussion demonstrated, a three-seat district under RCV will usually end up with two seats from the majority party and one seat from the minority party.

Solutions to gerrymandering for state legislatures as well as Congress

A fully automated redistricting plan is best, and ZCTA’s might offer the best option for achieving it. 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, a computer program can divide a ZCTA into the Census Bureau’s census tracts, which contain ~4000 people each.

If a state finds the fully-automated solution infeasible for some reason, it could still adopt a non-partisan redistricting commission, assisted by appropriate technology, and charged only with drawing 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.

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 clearly has the authority to mandate multi-seat Congressional Districts, and having Congress do this is much better than depending on all 50 states to do it individually. 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.

General solutions to gerrymandering for Congress

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 the other reforms in this section, 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. In at least one case, dealing with the completely unrepresentative makeup of the US Senate, even a constitutional amendment may not be available as a fix.

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 amendments. 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, including the first ten (the Bill of Rights).

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.

However, it may be possible to design a fix that accomplishes all or most of a reform objective without requiring an amendment to the Constitution. Such might be the case, for example, with the direct election of the president, in which a compact among states may be sufficient to bypass the winner-take-all practices in 48 of the 50 states.

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.

Chamber of Deputies to replace the US 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 elected officials to disclose their tax returns, their assets and liabilities, and their continuing financial interests. 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. Such an amendment would:

  • change the basis for reapportioning seats in the House;
  • reconstitute the Senate as the Chamber of Deputies;
  • determine the time, place, and manner of voting for all primary and general elections for all federal offices,
  • require Ranked Choice Voting;
  • require multi-seat Congressional Districts;
  • require an automated redistricting program to draw 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 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 a vice presidential primary and general election, separate from the election for president;
  • establish the LSN voting scheme for determining the winners of the presidential and vice presidential 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 of these procedures which turn 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 all together. 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.

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

2.2 Fix the Two-Party System

2.2.1 Open Primaries

We need to mandate open primaries for all federal offices (president, vice president, and both chambers of Congress). Any eligible candidate may compete in any open primary, subject to state rules for qualifying for the ballot. Open primaries are non-partisan, although the ballot may 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.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) rules apply to all primaries. The only way to appear on the general election ballot is to earn sufficient support in the primary to qualify for the general election.

For primaries in elections for a single seat in Congress, the number of successful candidates is three. For primaries in elections for multiple seats, the number of successful candidates is double the number of seats being contested.

See Section 2.3 for the primary rules for the offices of president and vice president.

2.2.2 Party Caucuses and Conventions

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 with respect to the primary election itself. 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.

2.2.3 All Other Laws, Regulations, and Practices

Statutes and regulations should not mention political parties. Period. Regulations that pertain to benevolent associations of any kind should apply equally to political parties.

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 remove the legal impediments which inhibit the growth of new parties and which discourage unconventional candidates from running for office.

2.1 Ranked Choice Voting

2.1.1 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.

2.1.2 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.

In many multi-winner elections (such as city councils, school boards, and some Congressional primaries), the existing system results in elected bodies that represent only a portion of the electorate. In a partisan election for five positions, voters will often choose all five candidates from their own political party; and if one party has 51% support, then all five of their candidates win while the other party or parties get zero winners. Theoretically the outcome of such an election ought to result in a 3-to-2 majority for the party with 51% support, not a 5-to-0 wipeout.

Voting systems that provide for the election of at least some candidates representing all views with significant support are called “Proportional Representation” systems. In such systems, in a partisan election for a five-member city council, a 3-2 outcome in favor of the 51% majority party should be the expected outcome.

Ranked Choice Voting is one such “Proportional Representation” system.

2.1.3 What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

RCV is a system of voting and of counting ballots that is designed to ensure that 1) the candidate who wins an election with a single winner has demonstrated some level of support from a majority of the voters, and 2) the collection of candidates who win in a multi-winner contest represent all the views held by a significant portion of the electorate.

2.1.4 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. The voter’s procedure is the same no matter if an election will have one winner (like the general election for governor) or multiple winners (like a city council).

Counting ballots and determining winners

The procedures for counting ballots are somewhat more complex. The general principles are these:

  1. in an election with only one winner, at least half the voters should support the winner to at least some extent, and
  2. in an election with multiple winners, all candidates who meet a certain threshold of support are winners, considering every voter’s ranked choices.

The mathematics of counting ballots are detailed in an addendum at the end of this post.

2.1.5 Expected RCV Results

Elections with one winner

For elections with only one winner, 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 a particular election, Party A and Party B each field one candidate, but a former Party A leader who still has strong support within the party does not like the official Party A candidate and so decides to run as an Independent. Perhaps the Party A voters give 35 votes to the official Party A candidate and 25 votes to the Independent, while Party B’s voters all support the one Party B candidate. As a result, Party B’s candidate wins the election with 40 votes, even though a majority of the town’s voters clearly do not prefer that candidate.

With RCV, a different outcome is more likely. The Party A voters who defected to the Independent as their 1st choice would likely choose the regular Party A candidate as their 2nd choice. Therefore, when no one has 51 1st choice votes, the candidate with the fewest 1st choice votes, the Independent, is eliminated, and the votes for the Independent are reassigned to each voter’s 2nd choice. As a result, Party A’s candidate wins the election. In terms of governing, the Party A candidate can claim to have the support of 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.

Elections with multiple winners

The same village with 100 voters has a three-person village council, all elected at large. Without RCV, in a typical election year, Party A and Party B each put up three candidates (though Party B often has trouble finding three candidates to run, since they have so little chance of winning). The voters vote for three candidates. Most of the time, as expected, the three Party A candidates each get 60 votes and all are elected.

Now look what is likely to happen with RCV. To make this simple, let’s assume that the Party A voters all agree that Candidate A1 is their first choice, Candidate A2 is their 2nd choice, Candidate A3 is their 3rd choice, and they do not vote for any other choices. Similarly, Party B’s voters agree on their preferences for Candidates B1, B2, and B3, in that order.

When an election has three winners, the threshold for winning is 25% plus 1 vote – in this village, 26 votes. That is because if one candidate has 26 votes in an election with 100 voters, it is mathematically impossible for three other candidates to beat him.

So in this village, when the votes are counted, Candidate A1 is declared a winner, because he has 60 1st choice votes, more than the 26 needed to win. Candidate B1 is also a winner, with 40 1st choice votes. No one else has any 1st choice votes. So the first step is to use the excess votes for the winners, and reassign those to the voters’ 2nd choices. In this case, the 34 excess votes for Candidate A1 are reassigned to Candidate A2, making Candidate A2 the third winner. Party A ends up with two seats on the village council, and Party B has one seat. That is, Party A has two-thirds of the seats on the council, not terribly different from the 60% majority it holds with the voters, while Party B gets one seat on the council, not too distant from the 40% minority it has among the voters. But clearly this result is more representative of the village voters than a three-to-nothing rout would be. In fact, because of RCV, in future elections Party B will find it easier to recruit candidates to run.

2.1.6 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, this is simply not the case, especially if the winner represents a plurality but minority view.

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 to supporting the candidate or party the voter really likes. The RCV vote-counting procedures ensure that, if no one wins the election outright, and if the voter’s top choice is eliminated, that voter’s second choice will be counted.

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: 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.

2.1.7 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).[1] 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.

2.1.8 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 – and 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.

2.1.9 Addendum: Counting Ballots with Ranked Choice Voting

The procedure for counting votes in an RCV election depends on whether the election has one winner or multiple winners.

RCV procedure for counting ballots when an election has only one winner:

The objective here is that the winning candidate should demonstrate some level of support from a majority of the electorate.


  • First, if one candidate has a majority of the 1st choice votes, then the objective has been satisfied and that candidate is the winner.
  • Then, if no candidate has a majority of the 1st choice votes, then the following steps are repeated until one candidate has a majority of the “total vote”:
    • The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice among the remaining candidates.
    • If a voter did not make a choice for any of the surviving candidates, then that ballot is exhausted and is no longer counted as part of the “total vote”.


Some critics have suggested that this will not really work, because few voters will opt to make a 2nd or 3rd choice. But experience with RCV around the world does not support that conclusion. Voters do learn fairly quickly that RCV really does give them a greater voice in the outcome. It allows them to vote for their referred candidate first, knowing that their vote will be reassigned to their 2nd choice if no candidate has a majority and their 1st choice is eliminated.

RCV procedure for counting ballots when an election has multiple winners:

The objective in an election with multiple winners is to ensure that all views held by a significant portion of the electorate are represented by at least some of the winners. Essentially, the way this is accomplished is that the number of votes needed to guarantee victory is calculated (called the Actual Threshold (AT)). For example, if an election will have two winners, then the AT will be one-third of the total votes cast, plus one vote. That amount guarantees victory because it is mathematically impossible for two other people to also have that many votes. When a candidate’s vote total exceeds the Actual Threshold, the procedure involves calculating what portion of each vote for the winning candidate was needed to reach that threshold, and then reassigning the excess portion of each voter’s vote to each voter’s next highest choice among all candidates not yet elected or eliminated. If this procedure still results in too few winners, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all of that candidate’s votes are reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice.


Admittedly the math here is a bit daunting. Hopefully you can follow it. You can also see a visual demonstration of these procedures by visiting FairVote.org, open the Fair Representation Act page, and click on Demo.


  • Definition of variables:
    • N = number of winners for an election with multiple winners.
    • Threshold Percent (T%) Plus One Vote (T%+1): The share of the total vote that guarantees a candidate’s victory. The formula for T%+1 is 100%/(N+1), + 1 vote. For example, if a general election will elect three members of Congress, then T%+1 = 100%/4 or 25% of the total vote, plus one vote. This is because, if one candidate reaches that threshold, it is mathematically impossible for three other candidates to also have 25% + 1 vote. T%+1 can be calculated at any time and is always the same for any election with a given number of winners.
    • Actual Threshold (AT): The number of votes needed to win a particular election, defined as the total votes cast multiplied by T%, plus one vote. This can only be calculated after the election, when the total votes cast is known. For example, in an election with three winners and 1000 votes cast, the AT is 251. Any candidate with at least 251 votes is elected.
    • Winner’s Votes (WV): The number of votes earned by a winning candidate.
    • Winner’s Percent (W%): For a winning candidate, the portion of each voter’s vote needed to reach the Actual Threshold. It is calculated as AT/WV. For example, if 251 is the Actual Threshold, a candidate who earns exactly 251 votes is elected, but needs 100% of every vote to reach the AT. But if that candidate had 400 votes, then only 62.75% of each voter’s vote would be needed to meet the threshold.
    • Excess Percent (E%): For a winning candidate, the portion of each voter’s vote that can be reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice. It is calculated as 100% – W%. Continuing the same example, where W% was calculated as 62.75%, E% would be 37.25%.
  • If N or fewer candidates were on the ballot, all candidates are winners and the election is done.
  • The first step in applying RCV is to calculate T% and AT for this election.
  • If more than N candidates were on the ballot, any candidate whose 1st choice votes meet or exceed the AT is a winner. If N candidates meet the AT, then all these candidates are winners and the election is done.
  • If fewer than N candidates meet the AT, then the following steps are repeated, until N candidates meet the AT or only N candidates remain:
    • For any candidate who has won, W% is calculated, and then E% is calculated. E% of each of the winning candidate’s voter’s vote is then reassigned to that voter’s next highest choice (among candidates neither elected nor eliminated).

The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all the votes for that candidate are reassigned to each voter’s next highest choice (among candidates neither elected nor eliminated).

[1]  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.