Ranked Choice Voting for Proportional Representation
Whether you are a socialist who believes in a clean break, a dirty break, or no break from the Democratic Party, ranked choice voting for proportional representation should be a top priority. Single-member plurality (SMP) voting drives progressives to vote for centrist Democrats to stop Republican extremists. With ranked choice voting, progressives can vote for the candidates they really support without the fear of “spoiling” the election and enabling rightwing Republicans to win with pluralities.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) eliminates the spoiler problem in elections for executive offices. It ensures that the most preferred candidate wins instead of a plurality winner who may be opposed by most voters. Multi-seat RCV eliminates the winner-take-all problem in elections for legislative bodies. It ensures proportional representation of all political viewpoints. The left gets its fair share of representation that is proportional to its vote.
How RCV Works
With RCV, voters rank their choices in order of preference. For voters, RCV is as easy as 1, 2, 3. In a single-seat RCV election, if no candidate wins over 50%, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the second choices on their ballots. This counting process continues until a candidate reaches a 50% plus one majority.
In a multi-seat RCV election, the surplus votes of candidates who exceed the winning threshold are transferred to their next ranked choices. After the surplus votes are transferred, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to their next ranked choices. These rounds of counting continue until all the seats are filled.
With RCV, voters can vote for who they most want without worrying that their vote will be “wasted” on a losing candidate. In single-seat RCV for executive offices, the preferences on your ballot ensure your vote continues to count through the rounds of instant runoff voting, even if your more preferred candidates are eliminated. In multi-seat RCV for legislative bodies, every vote counts toward electing the proportional share of representation for your political viewpoint.
Plurality Voting Suppresses the Left
The enduring power of the spoiler problem to motivate progressives to vote for the lesser evil centrist instead of the independent progressive is demonstrated by 180 years of independent left presidential candidacies. The last time an independent progressive exceeded 4% was a century ago. The best result since then was in 2000 when Ralph Nader, an accomplished progressive reformer with high name recognition (60%) and high approval ratings (66% of those familiar with him), won only 2.7% of the vote.
The lesser-evil dynamic enabled corporate New Democrats to displace liberal New Deal Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s, in the absence of a viable challenge to this right turn from the independent left. This lesser-evil dynamic has led to greater evils. It has driven a relentless march to the right in which Democrats chase Republicans rightward in pursuit of swing voters.
Lesser Evil Voting Reinforces Republican Extremism
The force of SMP’s lesser-evil dynamic on progressives is stronger today than ever because the Republican Party is no longer a traditional conservative party. It mobilizes its base around racism, nativism, and irrationalist conspiracy mongering that portrays covid, climate change, evolution, and Biden’s election as hoaxes perpetrated by self-serving liberal elites.
Progressives’ reasonable fear of extremist Republican rule pushes their votes into the pockets of corporate Democrats more than ever. Subject to the lesser-evil incentives of SMP voting, the independent left receives far fewer votes and representation than the majoritarian support its policies have.
In the absence of a viable progressive or socialist political alternative to the corporate Democrats, many working class and lower-middle class people, particularly white people but not only white people, have latched on to the Republicans’ politics of resentment, scapegoating, and posing as economic populists. This dynamic has reached a new extreme level of racism, irrationalism, and authoritarianism with the Trump Republicans.
RCV in the USA
RCV is not new to U.S. elections. RCV elections have been conducted in some jurisdictions for over a century. Multi-seat RCV for proportional representation was adopted by two dozen cities in the Progressive Era. The motivation was to break up the usually Democratic and sometimes Republican machines that monopolized power in many cities through SMP voting, with a good measure of bribery, kickbacks, favoritism, and voting fraud. Good government progressives, the minority major party in a city, ethnic minority groups, and independent socialist, labor, and progressive parties combined to push through proportional representation.
Proportional representation worked as intended. More parties were represented on city councils. In New York City, where Democrats had long held nearly all the seats, four or five parties had representation after each of the five city council elections under proportional representation from 1937 to 1945.
Proportional representation also enabled ethnic minorities to elect representatives: the first Irish Catholics in Ashtabula, the first Polish-Americans in Toledo, and the first African-Americans in Cincinnati, New York City, Toledo, and other cities. The first African-American elected to the New York City council was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1941 as a third-party candidate of the American Labor Party.
The success of RCV proportional representation in creating multi-party, multi-racial municipal democracies is what undermined it, first in the reactionary McCarthy years. The election of American Labor and Communist candidates to the New York City council was used to mobilize an anti-communist crusade against proportional representation. In the context of the rising post-war Civil Rights Movement, the election of African-Americans was used in cities like Cincinnati to mobilize a white backlash against proportional representation. By the 1960s, only Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Arden, Delaware, retained proportional representation, where it continues to this day.
RCV has revived in the 2000s. 52 local jurisdictions and two states, Maine and Alaska, have approved RCV. The movement is gaining momentum, with five cities and Alaska adopting it in the 2020 elections and Burlington, Austin, and 23 Utah cities and towns adopting it since the election. RCV campaign are now active in almost every state.
Most jurisdictions adopting RCV in recent years have retained the single-member-district, winner-take-all system for electing legislators as well as executive officers. This is a problem, since single-member-district elections tend to produce governments dominated by two major parties, whether plurality or ranked-choice voting is used.
Australian elections are a living laboratory that demonstrates the radically different outcomes in party representation between single-seat RCV and multi-seat RCV. In Australia, the House of Representatives is elected by single-seat RCV while the Senate is elected by multi-seat RCV. In the 2019 elections, the Green Party received 10.4% of the first-choice votes for the House nationwide but only 1 of 151 seats under single-seat RCV. In the Senate under multi-seat RCV, the Greens won 9 of 76 seats, which was 11.8% of the seats and close to their 10.2% of first-choice votes.
The two major parties in Australia, on the other hand, had their popular vote magnified into over-representation by the single-member-district, winner-take-all system in the House. In 2019, the Liberal/National Coalition received 42% of the vote and 51% of the seats, while Labor received 35% of the vote and 45% of the seats.
The retreat from RCV for proportional representation is particularly problematic in New York City. In 2019, a Charter Revision Commission proposed, and voters approved by 75%, single-seat RCV but only for party primaries and special elections. Reflecting the interests of a Democratic-dominated city government where 48 of the 51 seats on the city council and all citywide offices are held by Democrats, RCV will not be used in general elections where third parties could compete without the spoiler problem.
The left needs to engage the growing RCV movement to insist that multi-seat RCV for proportional representation is not forgotten and suppressed, but becomes the central goal of the movement. Eliminating the spoiler problem with single-seat RCV for executive office elections is good. But eliminating the winner-take-all problem with multi-seat proportional RCV in legislatures is the game changer for the left.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
RCV is gaining support for many reasons. More people than ever — 62% — want a third major party, according to Gallup polling. RCV is a way to level the playing field for third parties. If as few as 21,462 votes had gone to Trump instead of Biden in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, the Electoral College vote would have been tied 269-269. Under the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives would have voted for president in a one state, one vote election. With Republican majorities in 26 of the 50 state delegations, Trump would have been installed again, even though he lost the popular vote by 4.1% and 7.1 million votes. RCV in presidential elections would end the threat of such election-stealing.
Partisan gerrymandering is another big issue today as we face redistricting after the 2020 census with Republicans in full control of 30 state legislatures. Multi-seat RCV would eliminate the gerrymandering problem. Partisan redistricting can game single-member district lines, but not multi-member districts using RCV.
RCV appeals to many because it discourages the negative campaigning that so many people are so sick of. RCV candidates want to be the second or third choices of their opponents’ supporters, so it doesn’t pay to go ad hominem on your opponents. RCV focuses campaigns on issues and sharpens the differences between candidates around policy positions.
RCV would free progressives, including progressives in the Democratic Party, to say what they think. Before AOC lined up to support Biden, she frankly declared, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” Proportional representation would end that political malpractice.
The fight for ranked choice voting and proportional representation is where socialists and progressives both inside and outside the Democratic party ought to unite. Changing the rules of electoral politics from SMP voting to RCV and proportional representation is fastest way the left will be able to gain significant political power to address the pressing problems of climate, poverty, racism, and peace on which the two governing parties are utterly failing.