We have all heard complaints from our friends and family about what is wrong in Washington: polarization, partisan standoffs and hardball legislative tactics that seem more about scoring points against the opposition than good governance. A recent Marquette Law School Poll found that 84% of Wisconsinites described government in Washington as “broken.” That politicians are not meeting our expectations is one of the few political things on which Democrats, Republicans and others agree.
Member of Congress often seem to be focused on whipping up their rabid partisan supporters instead of serving a broad swath of the public. It is not hard to see why politicians are inclined to play to the party base. In a two-party system where each voter picks one candidate they want to win, politicians are incentivized to turn out their backers rather than reach out to the other side. It is a system that often rewards the most inflammatory voices rather than the consensus builders.
One of the potential solutions to these ills is to replace the current voting system with ranked-choice voting, also known as RCV. Under this system, instead of getting to pick just one candidate, a voter is allowed to rank all of the candidates on the ballot. A candidate who wins a majority of the first-place rankings is elected, just like in the current system. But if no candidate has a majority, the candidate who got the fewest first-place rankings is eliminated. Their supporters’ votes then get reallocated to the candidates who they ranked second. This process of elimination and reallocation is repeated until one candidate has a majority of the remaining votes.
Ranking candidates might seem like a radical idea, but it’s already been used in many parts of the country. Cities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco have used it for years. It was also rolled out in several presidential primaries last year. Alaska and Maine are actually using it for statewide elections, including for president.
In contrast to the current system where each voter picks just one candidate, ranking has the benefit of conveying more information about how voters see the entire field of candidates. In high profile elections such as those for Congress, ranking a few candidates will not be particularly difficult for most people to do. It might even encourage voters to learn more about all of the candidates rather than quickly latching on to one who is most acceptable.
But the real benefits of RCV only materialize when there are more than two candidates running in the general election. Independent and minor party candidates are often discouraged from running because voters worry about “spoiling” the election or “wasting” their votes. RCV changes that. A voter can confidently rank all candidates without spoiling or wasting anything. If their top choice does not make the cut, their vote will automatically go to their second ranked candidate.
A bipartisan bill in the state Legislature this year would foster more general election candidates by implementing “Final-Five Voting” to elect members of Congress from Wisconsin. The bill would replace the separate party primaries the state currently uses with a single primary where candidates of all parties run together. The top five vote getters in the primary would move on to the general election where RCV would be used to pick the winner.
This system would almost certainly give voters more choices, including multiple candidates from the major parties and some non-major party alternatives. For example, using the Final-Five system, it would not be surprising to see a congressional race in Wisconsin where voters get to rank a field that includes two Democrats, two Republicans, and Libertarian, Green or independent candidate as the fifth option. All five of the candidates would have an incentive to reach out of a wide array of voters to get as many high rankings as possible.
The problems Americans believe are plaguing Washington are not going to be easily or immediately solved by any one reform, but ranked-choice voting may be an important step in the right direction that is worth a look.
Barry Burden is professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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