A better way to vote can lead to a more responsive democracy

By Zo Tobi
Published June 19th 2005 in The Nashua Telegraph

I’ve lived in New Hampshire my entire life and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that we are a state of independent-minded citizens. Thus, it’s no surprise that 42 percent of us register to vote as independents, according to the New Hampshire Committee for an Independent Voice (www.cuip.org).

What we are really saying is, “Don’t try to fit me into a box!” To all who still feel boxed in by our winner-take-all, pick-one-or-the-other, polarized election system, I’m going to suggest an absurdly better way.

Whether you vote, don’t vote, sit at work or sit in political office, you’ve probably felt at some point or another that politicians on both sides of the aisle think too much about money and their own careers and not enough about the people they are elected to represent. I bet you’ve gone to the polls before feeling like neither Choice A nor Choice B really fit your values, and whichever of the two is elected will still give you the same old “politics as usual.” If you’ve ever run for office, you might know that you’ve got to raise the most money and sling the most mud if you want even a chance at winning. If this describes you, then read on.

The problem is plurality voting, where the principle of “one person, one vote” counts for nothing, and most candidates with good ideas simply don’t have a fair chance. The familiar expression is “winner takes all.” When three candidates run for a single seat, the winner only needs a little more than one-third of the voter support, even if two-thirds of the voters would prefer one of the other two. In multi-seat elections, such as for state representatives, all the winners can come from one town, leaving all the other towns’ voters unrepresented. In Lyndeborough, where I live, all four of our reps are from Mont Vernon, leaving us in the dust along with Wilton, New Boston and Temple.

What does all this mean? It means majority rule is out the window. It means that fair representation is a joke, and that too many of our independent-minded citizens don’t vote or even consider running for office. When the fundamental principles of our democracy are taken away, it’s no mystery people give up on politics. This is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind.

Scholars say, in all seriousness, that the only system for electing officials worse than what we use today is if we were to just pick candidates’ names from a hat.

But there is a better way, and it’s called “ranked choice voting.” Designed to reflect voters’ preferences most accurately while ensuring majority rule and fair representation, it’s already proving to bring people back to politics around the country and around the world. Whether for city, state or national elections, it is literally as simple as one, two, three. In an RCV election, you fill out your ballot by ranking the candidates in order of preference – first choice, second, third, etc., as many or as few as you prefer. This way, if your first choice doesn’t get enough votes to win, your vote can go to your second choice instead of being thrown away.

In a race for a single seat such as mayor, senator or governor, the winning candidate would need a majority – in other words, more than 50 percent – to be elected. If the first choices are counted and no one wins, the least popular candidate is knocked off, and those voters’ second choices are counted instead. This keeps going until a candidate wins with majority support. This way, voters state their preferences more accurately without fearing that their vote is wasted. I know Nashua’s mayor’s race accomplishes this with a runoff election; the problem here is low turnout and unnecessary

taxpayer dollars spent on two elections. RCV, which will be used down the road for the Burlington, Vt., mayor’s race, is like doing a series of runoff elections all at once; for this reason, it’s also called “instant runoff voting.”

In a multi-seat race such as our state representative election, RCV is also called the “single transferable vote” or just “choice voting,” and ensures the fairest possible representation. The threshold to win is determined by dividing the total votes by one more than the number of open seats. So if there are four open seats, a candidate would have to get more than one-fifth of the votes in order to win. If no candidate passes the winning threshold, the candidate with the least votes is knocked off, and the votes for that candidate go to the voters’ second choices. This process repeats until a candidate reaches the threshold, and is thus elected.

Once a candidate gets enough votes needed to win, every voter who chose that candidate will have an equal fraction of their vote go to their second choice. The way things are now, if a candidate needs 1,000 votes to win but gets 1,500, then 500 of those votes simply don’t count. They’re called “exhausted ballots.” Since there’s no way to say whose exact votes are wasted, we can say that each of those 1,500 votes really just counts for two-thirds of a real vote. In a choice voting situation, one-third of each of the 1,500 votes would go to the voters’ second-choices, bringing the candidates down to 1,000 votes exactly. This ensures that, instead of having 500 “wasted” votes on a candidate who has already won, all the votes are equally valuable.

When all is said and done, only the most-preferred four candidates get elected, and minority groups are fairly represented. Our neighbors in Cambridge, Mass., have been doing this since the 1940s.

It’s clear that the voters themselves win when all are guaranteed a vote that counts, but who else wins with RCV? The answer is everybody. Towns and municipalities would benefit from more accurate representation up in Concord. Voter turnout would increase because more diverse candidates would bring more diverse constituencies into the political discussion. Elected officials on every level would benefit from having a clear mandate. Candidates, regardless of fame or financing, would all have a fair chance of being heard and taken seriously. Political parties would benefit by having more diversity of discussion around the issues. Incumbents would be free of opponents’ mudslinging, because other candidates would play nice in order to get the second choice vote of the incumbents’ supporters.

So is RCV some pipe dream? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m apparently not the only one. Though this system was invented right here in America, it’s been in use for quite a while in New Zealand, Ireland and Australia. I couldn’t help but notice that these countries also rank eighth, 16th, and 54th, respectively, in voter turnout, while the United States ranks 139th. In recent years, RCV has seen growing support in Michigan, Massachusetts, Vermont, California, Arkansas, North Carolina and Washington state.

So if you think this is the kind of democracy that New Hampshire deserves, now is the time to get involved. Visit the Center for Voting and Democracy at www.fairvote.org and contact me at [email protected] and 305-3825 to have all your questions answered. Then, call your representative and tell them to support future RCV legislation for our state, and explain the system to them if they haven’t heard of it. Next, write a letter to the editor about RCV and tell your friends. Let’s start pushing this at the local and state level.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Zo Tobi is a student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. This summer he will be campaigning for electoral improvement in Davis, Calif., and in the fall will be studying politics at American University in Washington, D.C. while interning at the Center for Voting and Democracy. He can be reached at [email protected] or 305-3825.