This June, Maine will be the first state to implement an experimental voting method. Called ranked-choice voting, this new procedure doesn’t just change the way votes are counted, it raises the bar candidates must meet to win. The draw to ranked-choice voting is immediately clear: it appears to make voting more democratic and fair. However, there are issues with the method, and not least among them is that it’s unconstitutional.
How it Works
A ranked-choice ballot would include a row for each candidate and a column for each ranking equal to the number of candidates. For example, if there are seven candidates, there will be seven rows – one for each person – and seven columns titled first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. A voter marks their first choice, and then if desired, any or all of those remaining.
If no candidate achieves a majority (50% + one vote), the one who received the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. All who chose the loser first have their second-choice votes counted and redistributed to the appropriate remaining candidates. This process continues until someone receives a majority.
Under the voting system requiring just a plurality, many citizens vote for the candidate they think will win rather than the one they really want. Consider a general election on the national stage – that is where the ranked-choice folks would like to see this go, by the way. There will be the official Republican and Democratic Party choices, any number of “third parties,” and perhaps even a rogue Republican or Democrat running in defiance of the party’s favorite.
Suppose a citizen really wants to support a Libertarian, but fears that “throwing away” a vote by backing a third party that seems doomed to fail, just makes it easier for the government-growing, liberty-stifling Democrat to win for example. By this reasoning, every vote taken away from the Republican might as well be a vote for the Democrat. It becomes a game of voting not for the candidate you really want, but against the one you least want. It works the same on the other side: one who might vote for a Green Party or even Communist or Socialist candidate could feel pressured to settle for the Democrat just because either the Democrat or the Republican will almost certainly win, and the Democrat is a whole lot closer to what that voter wants than the Republican.
Ideally, ranked-choice voting eliminates this fear. If a third-party elector’s first choice ends up with the least votes, he or she is eliminated and the voter’s second choice – almost certainly the Republican for the Libertarian and the Democrat for the other examples above – is considered their new first choice.
In addition to freeing voters from this feeling of pointlessness, requiring a majority rather than simply a plurality means that whoever wins was, at the very least, not the last choice of over 50% of the electorate. It should be more fair and democratic. Beyond that, it should change how candidates campaign and behave towards the people and each other. Theoretically, they would no longer be able to alienate those who aren’t likely to choose them first – as doing so risks pushing them farther down the list.
As noble as “fair and democratic” may sound, recall that the United States is not a democracy. There are democratic elements, for sure, but there are safeguards built into the Constitution specifically designed to prevent direct democracy – though we lost one with the 17th Amendment. From the Electoral College to the intentionally difficult prerequisites for amending the Constitution, our nation was designed to protect all minorities and the nation as a whole from the tyranny of the majority – the ability and tendency of a simple majority to abuse and exploit smaller groups or even the rest of the country.
On a more practical note, it’s illegal. Article IV of Maine’s constitution requires that Representatives and Senators be chosen by a plurality of all votes returned. Section 3 of Article V states that Governors shall be chosen in the same way as Representatives and Senators. Barring amendment, Maine’s use of ranked-choice voting violates its constitution.
Even if we were a direct democracy and there were no constitutional requirements for voting, this system falls short of its lofty goal. If the winner only achieves a majority through the process of elimination of one or more candidates, then there isn’t really a true majority. Fifty percent plus one person didn’t choose the winner if even one reshuffled voter actually initially listed the winner as fourth, third, or even second choice.
You Can’t Please Everyone
While the most likely outcome of any ranked-choice election is that the candidate who would have received plurality otherwise still wins – rendering it most often pointless – that’s certainly not the only possibility. Indeed, it very well could, eventually, result in a third-party candidate winning the election, though that’s far less likely.
So let’s get specific as to why this system is bad for both of the major parties. Let’s say your options for president that appear on the ballots in all 50 states are Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Gary Johnson. Here’s how ranked-choice can screw conservatives. Let’s say the results are Trump 40%, Clinton 30%, Sanders 25%, and Johnson 5%. So long as plurality rules, Donald Trump is the next U.S. president. Ranked-choice, on the other hand, would boot Johnson. Since he targeted voters from both major parties, let’s say half his votes go to Trump and the other half is split between Clinton and Sanders. Now it’s Trump at 42.5%, Clinton at 31.25%, and Sanders at 26.25%. Majority still hasn’t been reached, so Bernie must go, giving nearly all his now 26.25% to Hillary. See what just happened? Hillary goes from losing in plurality to winning with 57.5%.
So, how could that possibly go wrong for the left? Easy. Swap Bernie’s numbers with Johnson’s and Clinton’s with Trump’s. Then the reshuffling would steal Clinton’s victory by plurality and hand it to Trump. This system certainly can’t please everyone, but absolutely can screw everyone.