Political dysfunction is deeper and more pervasive than ever this presidential election year. Extremism, polarization, divisiveness, negative campaigning, voter alienation its all there, and with every caucus and every primary, the corrosion worsens.
Describing, in gruesome detail, what ails American politics comes easily to most media outlets. But fewer of them are discussing solutions. And there are solutions: Political innovation is possible, and its urgent. Were eager to serve as a resource for publications interested in illuminating a better way.
For a decade, FairVote Minnesota has championed Ranked Choice Voting a system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of their preference as a tested, achievable way to improve elections and governance. With politics descending to new depths this presidential election cycle, its never been clearer that RCV is desperately needed. Time to retire the crude, outmoded, first-past-the-post system in favor of one that promotes choice, diversity, thoughtfulness, compromise, and consensus outcomes.
To be sure, other structural reforms are needed as well: fixing campaign finance, open debates, addressing gerrymandering, improving voter access laws and other changes can also help revive our ailing democracy. RCV is one of several critical, far-reaching reforms whose time has come but it may be one of the simplest to enact, with many existing successful blueprints to call upon, in Minnesota and beyond.
So whats wrong with the status quo?
It allows no space for political diversity or moderation. The current plurality voting system is tailor made for a black-and-white world, in which everyone is either a Republican or a Democrat. Problem is, legions of American voters cant be pigeonholed that way. A Gallup poll last year showed that some 43 percent of Americans identify as independents and those voters are ill served by a system actively constricts choice.
It cultivates spoiler and wasted vote dynamics. One consequence of that system this year is that candidates from outside the two parties are running on major party tickets, rather than as third-party or independent candidates. Why? Because running independently guarantees spoiler and wasted vote accusations (see Ralph Nader in 2000) and a perceived lack of credibility with media, focused on two-party horse race dynamics. Arguably, GOP candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders would have run as independents this year but elected to run under major parties to ensure media coverage and debate time and to avoid wearing the spoiler label.
It keeps good people from seeking elected office. And its hard to know how many thoughtful, qualified candidates from outside the two-major-party domain chose not to run at all, for precisely these reasons. The status quo discourages good candidates without major-party connections from even considering elected public service.
It leads to divisive, plurality outcomes. The absence of RCV in this years multicandidate GOP primary race has practically ensured that the winner will emerge with just a plurality of the vote while perhaps even being actively opposed by a majority of voters. Ranked Choice Voting, by contrast, ensures consensus outcomes. News this week that Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee set off a firestorm of protest across the country by mainstream GOP leaders in fear that his extreme and divisive policies will appeal to only a small minority of General Election voters.
It encourages negative attack campaigning. Another major flaw with the plurality system of voting is that it encourages a scorched-earth approach: dividing and attacking is an effective strategy when youve only got to convince a plurality of voters that your opponent is a jerk. RCV promotes more substantive campaigning: In an RCV race, you may well need second-choice votes from your opponents supporters, so youre compelled to find common ground and focus on your own ideas, experience, and accomplishments.
Its just not necessary theres a better way! Many of the benefits of RCV have been known firsthand for years and not just in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where voters have used, understood, and liked RCV for multiple election cycles. Other cities, from Berkeley and San Francisco to Portland, Maine, have experienced the boost to local democracy that RCV provides. This year, Maine voters will have the opportunity to make their state the first to use RCV for state elected offices.
In the past few months, nationally respected political commentators, including New Yorker editor Hendrik Hertzberg and Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond along with nationally respected media outlets like the Boston Globe, Bloomberg View, the Nation, the Economist, Scientific American, the Star Tribune, and the Pioneer Press have made the case that Ranked Choice Voting would dramatically improve the presidential election process. In a recent speech here in Minnesota, New York Times columnist Tom Freidman said that RCV is at the top of his reform list, underscoring the need to offer voters more choice and mitigate growing extremism.
Obviously we agree; its why weve been proud to do this work for years. And were convinced its more important today than its ever been. If your publication would like to engage readers in a discussion about a concrete solution to the problems plaguing American politics problems that continue to fuel voter cynicism and disgust wed love to help.
Jeanne Massey is FairVote Minnesota Executive Director. Tim Penny is President/CEO Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.