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Ranked-Choice Voting: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Photograph Source: Kelley Minars – CC BY 2.0

Climate activist Bill McKibben took to the New Yorker recently to advise me and the Green Party to stand down our presidential campaign and instead work for ranked-choice voting (RCV) so we don’t “spoil” the election for Joe Biden (“Instead of Challenging Joe Biden, Maybe the Green Party Could Help Change Our Democracy,” April 15).

The problem with McKibben’s advice is that the Green Party’s demand for replacing the Electoral College with a ranked-choice national popular vote for president will not even be raised in the presidential campaign if the Greens are not in the race.

If McKibben wants RCV to be an issue in the 2020 presidential election, he should support the Green Party. As a climate activist, he should support the Green Party because we are the only option on the ballot for a full-strength Green New Deal to zero out carbon emissions with 100% clean energy by 2030. RCV is not anywhere on Joe Biden’s agenda. Biden’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy is what McKibben has devoted his life to opposing. If we don’t vote for what we want, how are we ever going to get it?

The Democratic Party has been complaining about the Green Party and trying to keep us off ballots since Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000. Both Republican presidents in the 21st century lost the popular vote when they were first elected. It is the Electoral College, not the Green Party, that installed losers like Donald Trump and George W. Bush in the White House.

The Greens have been offering RCV as a proven nonpartisan solution to the spoiler problem for 20 years. One would think that by now the Democrats would have embraced that reform in order to address the institutional reason why they have lost presidential elections despite winning the popular vote.

In RCV, voters rank their choices in order of preference. For voters, RCV is as easy as 1, 2, 3. If no candidate wins a majority in the first count, the last place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are allocated to the other candidates’ totals. This “instant runoff” process continues until a candidate receives of a majority of votes.

RCV enables more than two candidates to run without fear of “splitting the vote” among like-minded voters. RCV eliminates the incentive to vote for the “lesser evil” instead of the candidate you support the most. RCV ensures that the winner receives majority support.

RCV elects the most preferred candidate. With our current plurality elections, a candidate can win even when strongly opposed by the majority of voters, which could happen again in 2020. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes. His disapproval ratings have been consistently above 50% throughout his presidency. Yet election analysts have put forth plausible scenarios where Trump could be re-elected by the Electoral College after losing the popular vote by as much as 5 million votes.

RCV discourages negative campaigning. In plurality elections, candidates benefit by attacking their opponents instead of campaigning positively on their own policies and experience. With RCV, candidates must also compete for second choice votes from their opponents’ supporters, which makes negative campaigning counter-productive.

RCV can be used in multi-seat elections to create proportional representation in legislative bodies where each political party is represented in proportion to the voting support they have. RCV for proportional representation in the House of Representatives, state legislatures, and municipal councils would foster a more politically and socially diverse multi-party democracy. The first African American elected to the New York City council, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was first elected in 1941 when the city used RCV for proportional representation. America’s full social and political diversity would be fairly represented.

McKibben asserts that Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 cost the Democrats the presidency. Actually, Democrats, not Nader, provided Bush with his narrow 537 vote victory in the official count Florida. Exit polls found that 308,000 Democrats voted for Bush and only 24,000 Democrats for Nader. Of course, the Supreme Court stopped the recount and awarded the victory to Bush even though Gore won when a media consortium did a thorough recount. In 2016, exit polls show that the Clinton still would have lost without the Stein on the ballot. 61 percent of Stein voters would have not voted had she not been on the ballot, which means the outcome in no state would have changed with Stein off the ballot.

But for the sake of illustration, let’s leave those facts aside and imagine that the Florida in 2000 had used RCV. Gore would have won handily. A Gallup poll asked Nader voters in Florida a week before the election who they would vote for if Nader was not on the ballot. 43 percent chose Gore. 21 percent chose Bush. 38 percent said they would not have voted, voted for others, or did not answer the question. Using RCV, the reallocation of third place finisher Nader’s 97,421 votes to their second choices would have put Gore well ahead of Bush.

23 cities in the US now use RCV. Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Northern Ireland, and Scotland use RCV. The state of Maine now uses RCV, including for the 2020 presidential election.

A national popular vote for president using RCV will require a constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College. Constitutional amendments are not easy to pass. But history shows that when an amendment is an idea embraced by the people, it will be adopted.

The 27th Amendment, the most recent amendment to the US Constitution, was adopted in 1992. It languished for over 200 years as part of the original 12 amendments in James Madison’s Bill of Rights until it became an idea whose time had come. The 27th Amendment prohibits Congress from giving itself a raise during its current term. People became fed up in the 1980s at Congress giving itself raises. Spearheaded by Gregory Watson, a University of Texas college student with no budget or major organization behind him, ratification of the 27th Amendment swept through the states in the 1980s, starting with Maine.

With an unpopular president poised to be re-elected by the anti-democratic Electoral College despite again losing the popular vote, 2020 is the year to make a ranked-choice national popular vote for president a top issue in the presidential campaign. Maine is already there. It is time to make the saying that once described its reputation as a bellwether state in presidential elections—“As Maine goes, so goes the nation”—ring true again with RCV, an idea whose time has come.


Howie Hawkins is a retired Teamster in Syracuse, New York, and leading in the primaries for the Green Party nomination for president.

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