Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I would prefer...

It's no secret that Congress has been troubled by ideological intransigence, with an increasing number of seats going to candidates more rigidly aligned with the party base. The number of moderate politicians and of those willing to compromise seems to be dwindling in the national capital. Unfortunately, as awareness of and dissatisfaction with this problem increases, a solution to the problem remains elusive.

A big part of the problem is that gerrymandered districts make it so that a party primary is more important than the general election to winning a seat. Both major parties like the idea of secure seats that these district provide, but the problem is that primaries, especially when a general election win is secure, favor the more ideologically extreme candidates. This happens because moderates of that party and independents may not participate, while those on the far right or far left are more likely to be involved in the primary process for their respective parties.

Creating more sensible, geographically sound districts would help to alleviate this problem, but there may be another way; specifically, there might be good reason to pursue a ranked-choice voting system for congressional elections.

In ranked-choice voting citizens indicate their preferences among several candidates by ranking the candidates in order. Then, the winning candidate is selected by a process that ends when a candidate obtains a majority of the vote. The process involves assessing the first-rank votes for all candidates, then eliminating the candidate with the fewest votes and assigning those voters to the remaining candidates based on their second choices. Next the candidate who now has the least votes is eliminated and the voters previously assigned to them are redistributed based on second (for those who put the candidate first) and third (for those who had the candidate second) rank preferences. The process continues until one candidate is preferred to all other remaining candidates by a majority of the electorate.

Ranked-choice voting systems have been used effectively in municipal elections, particularly in San Francisco, so rank-choice voting is definitely compatible with American democracy and more than abstract theory. In my home state of Minnesota, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are implementing a ranked-choice system that supporters hope will improve their elections in eliminating narrow-minded, partisan primaries and allow the truly preferred candidate to win.

The reason this sort of system could help with congressional elections is that the elimination of primaries and the need to still appeal to voters who don't consider you there first choice are likely to help the chances of more moderate candidates in districts that are strongholds for a specific party. The difference from the current system in these cases would essentially be that rather than say a tea party republican and a moderate republican fighting it out in a primary election in which only hard-line conservatives participate and then handily winning the general election, the two would both participate in a general election and would have to convince moderates in their party, independents, and even democrats that they are the better choice  for democrats the "lesser of two evils" in a sense. In a more contested district the system could still be beneficial, since perhaps a party that would have lost with the candidate their party primary would have put forward could win with a moderate candidate who would not have made it through a primary election. If you're interested in what two former members of congress think, I recommend listening to the Minnesota Public radio story that sparked this post.

There are, however, problems with such a system that have to be considered and somehow addressed. The ranked-choice system opens up the possibility of things like strategic voting (not ranking candidates in  accordance with one's actual preferences) and manipulation of the number of candidates (encouraging those who would not otherwise run and/or dissuading those who would) in order to influence the outcome. For example, strategic voters could go so far as rank a viable secondary candidate from the other side first in order to delay the distribution of the second rank votes from that candidate's supporters, the majority of which would presumably go to the primary candidate from that same party. A party might also exert undue influence in persuading a candidate not to run when they know the other party has two viable candidates, thus concentrating their votes more quickly in the process than the other side. These strategies probably won't work for the minority party in the heavily partisan, gerrymandered districts where a majority will support every candidate from one party above the other party, but in contested district it may come to be a matter of who has the better strategy in a race to pass 50 percent.

There would also have to be a change in the way Americans think about election results. In a rank-choice system the winner could be the first-choice of relatively few voters if he or she is the second and/or third favorite of many. Logically this is probably the best person for the job because it is better to have someone everybody likes than someone only a few partisans love, but seeing it that way requires a shift in perspective from many Americans who talk about election mandates and are used to and comfortable with the person who is the first-choice of the most voters winning.

Ultimately, rank-choice voting has some potential to make our congressional elections more palatable and our congress itself more moderate, but various problems need to be addressed and substantial public support garnered before we can adopt such a system. I hope we can make rank-choice voting work, but if we find another way to make our elections and elected officials less partisan I am all ears. And even if rank-choice voting for I think rank-choice voting for congressional seats never pans out, we should be able to at least make our less-partisan local government elections more polite and more representative of the voters' preferences. That alone is a future which I would definitely prefer.

1 comment:

FairVote said...

Glad you flagged ranked choice voting as a good idea. See an important application of it in multi-seat district elections that better represent the spectrum of opinion at

Note that the strategic scenario you lay out would not make sense.