Nevadans will have three statewide ballot questions before them this November, and none have driven more discussion and intrigue among political junkies and insiders than the question of ranked-choice voting, or RCV.
While its chances of success are uncertain, it does touch on a universal feeling that something is wrong with our electoral system, and structural reforms are needed to address a general discontentment among voters across the spectrum with representatives, candidates and political parties alike.
This dissatisfaction has been manifesting itself as a contributing factor in Nevada’s increase in registered independents and decline in partisan-party registrations, which has ironically lent itself to further empowering the extremes of both parties and further alienating others.
The constitutional amendment on the ballot for Nov. 8 known as the Nevada Top-Five Ranked Choice Voting Initiative presents itself as a solution, but given the unique twist that differentiates it from pure ranked-choice voting it will likely continue to alienate voters and cause more harm than good.
An Old Idea Repackaged
Ranked voting can be traced back to the 13th century and was expanded upon by various writers in the 18th century. Many of the concepts behind RGV are logically sound – in fact, I was first introduced to it in an undergraduate Intro to Logic class as an alternative voting system.
The basic idea is a system where voters rank their candidates in preferential sequence from 1-n (1 being their top choice and n being the total number of candidates for a particular office) on their ballots.
If no candidate breaks a majority (50 percent of votes cast plus 1), the bottom vote getter is eliminated, and the votes cast for them redistributed based on the next preference of the voters who voted for the eliminated candidate.
If after this redistribution a candidate achieves a majority, the election is over, and a victor is declared. If a majority is still not achieved after the first round of redistribution, the process repeats itself by eliminating the next bottom vote getter as needed until someone breaks 50 percent + 1 of the total votes casted.
Theoretically, a pure ranked-choice system will garner more accurate representations of an electorate’s preferences and put forward legislators more representative of the communities they serve than our current first-past-the-post system where a simple plurality can get you elected if you have an energized minority behind you in a large enough field.
What makes the Ballot Question before Nevadans different from the pure ranked-choice voting explained is the open jungle primary component. This would eliminate the closed primary system in Nevada and allow all voters regardless of party affiliation (or lack of) to vote for their candidate of preference. This would be similar to the jungle primary system in California, except the top five vote getters would advance to a general election to be decided by ranked-choice voting rather than the top two.
If approved, this change would go into effect for all future races in state except for U.S. president, which means the U.S. Senate and House seats, statewide office elections (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and controller), and the state legislative races would operate under this system.
The elimination of partisan primaries and expansion of jungle primaries is unpreferable even to someone who hates the two-party system like myself. If adopted, this reform would do great harm to the role of political parties as vehicles of political engagement and change in our democracy by directly weakening them.
What we need is a proliferation of political parties to encourage political participation by individuals who otherwise feel forgotten or underrepresented by the two major parties – not an attempt to weaken parties.
To achieve this outcome, electoral reforms should be focused on the enactment of proportional-representation for the assembly (where legislative representation is tied to vote share received by each party), elimination of barriers to ballot access imposed on third parties, the liberalization of campaign finance laws, the repeal or modification of The Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 (which arbitrarily caps Congress at 435 and makes Congress less representative and accountable), limiting ranked-choice voting to statewide constitutional offices with closed primaries and the enactment of voter ID laws.
Laboratories of Democracy
During the Progressive Era of 1890-1920, ranked-choice voting was a popular municipal voting reform along with other Progressive hits of the era: women’s suffrage, ballot initiative and referendum reforms, home-rule municipal charters, non-partisan elections, direct election of U.S. senators and open primaries (the last two being the only inherently bad ideas).
By the 1960s, ranked-choice voting was pretty much repealed everywhere. The resuscitation of this concept is fairly recent and still centered in cities. A quick survey around the country revealed two states (Alaska and Maine) with about 20 municipalities that use some form of ranked-choice voting today.
If ranked-choice voting was such a great idea, why was it virtually universally repealed? The best explanation I’ve read has come from Variants of Ranked‐Choice Voting from a Strategic Perspective, by Drexel University’s Jack Santucci. Santucci argues that a key reason for ranked-choice voting’s “instability” in the United States has been the fact that we are not a multi-party system but rather a two-party system.
Santucci notes: “In most other RCV democracies, such systems have been imposed to manage existing (or incipient) multi‐party competition: Australia, Ireland, Malta, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and most recently Wales. In the US, by contrast, two‐party politics have been constant. Therefore, RCV adoptions in the US have been, by necessity, about managing or creating intra‐party factionalism. Differences between ‘multi‐party politics’ and ‘two‐party factionalism’ may help explain RCV’s historic instability in the US. Note that, in repeal campaigns, opposing party bosses often blamed these systems for producing a “lottery effect.” This suggests widespread frustration with unpredictable outcomes – both from elections and politics inside of legislatures. These problems are less common in multiparty RCV democracies.”
If we approve this measure in November, we will be putting the cart before the horse. As I alluded to earlier, some form of ranked-choice voting makes sense if limited to our constitutional offices but only after changes are made to make parties work better.
History suggests failure to make these reforms first leads to the eventual repeal of ranked-choice voting in America as political strategists organize against it in a highly polarized two-party environment. It’s this that leads me to believe no matter how well intentioned the supporters of final five ranked Choice are, their efforts will fail and derail the momentum for other reforms.
One thing is certain, the rules of the game need to change. Free, fair and competitive elections are the bedrocks of democracy and as long as the two parties set the rules of the game, it will continue to favor them. Final five ranked-choice voting will do little to change that.