Commentary in VTDIGGER, Friday, August 7th, 2020
In deciding how to vote in our August 11th primary election, many of us are faced with a dilemma.
It’s due to our widespread use of plurality voting in which the candidate or candidates with the highest vote totals, but not necessarily a majority of voter support, go on to the general election in November.
Do I vote for the candidate or candidates I like best, or should I narrow my option(s) to choose among only the candidate(s) I believe are most likely to be elected, so I don’t waste my vote? Our present way of voting in Vermont can and likely often does result in our electing candidates that a majority of us would not necessarily support, and this increases the political division and partisanship we see in our American politics today.
Unless choosing among only one of two candidates, we face this dilemma every time we vote, whether in the primary or general election for electing our US President and Vice President, US Senators and Representative, our Governor and all other state and local representatives. If I vote for my first choice, will I actually help elect my worst choice?
This dilemma applies across all parties in all elections. However, this year’s Democratic primary ballot in the Chittenden District to select among 13 candidates to fill 6 Vermont Senate seats provides an extreme example. Four current Senators are up for re-election and thus are better known to many voters. But there are many potentially well qualified alternatives in the race. If 100 percent of votes were equally divided among all 13, each candidate would receive less than 8 percent of the vote. This hardly indicates that a majority of voters would support any particular candidate. When the actual votes are counted, the 6 with the highest number of votes will go on to the general election in November. However, with so many candidates, it’s highly unlikely that any of the six will obtain a 50% majority of the vote. Most of the six winners will be nowhere near 50%.
Whether locally, statewide or nationally, our present plurality-based voting system works in ways that undermine, rather than strengthen, our democracy. It helps to elect leaders with a passionate but minority base of support, that a majority of voters might never approve of. As voter interest and participation drops in elections, it makes it easier for the passionate minority to win. It also provides incentive for the passionate minority to “game” the system to their advantage by, for example, limiting voter turnout by others who might vote differently.
This system of electing our representatives with a plurality rather than a majority of votes is one, though not the only, big reason our country is so ideologically divided and our federal political system has become so widely viewed as dysfunctional. It doesn’t have to be this way.
We can and should instead strengthen our democracy by adopting a method of voting that ensures that each of the candidates we ultimately select, regardless of party or ideology, has a majority of all voters in support. This can easily be done in an election by using ranked choice voting. This popular electoral system allows voters to rank candidates by preference, meaning they can submit ballots that list not only their first-choice candidate for a position, but also their second, third and so on.
The candidate with the majority (more than 50%) of first-choice votes wins outright. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, then it triggers a new counting process. The candidate who did the worst is eliminated, and that candidate’s voters’ ballots are redistributed to their second-choice pick. In other words, if you ranked a losing candidate as your first choice, and the candidate is eliminated, then your vote still counts: it just moves to your second-choice candidate. That process continues until there is a candidate who has the majority of votes.
At a time of great national political division and discord, it’s time to strengthen our democracy in a wide variety of ways to better serve our broad public interests. Adopting ranked choice voting is an important first step.