Constituent policy

Preferential Voting: The Future of Electoral Reform

Breaking It Down is GPPR’s new series focused on explaining emerging and approved solutions for various political problems. In this first part, I explain the process of preferential voting and its credibility as a tool of electoral reform in the United States.

For the first time, American voters will not vote under a uniform electoral system in the 2024 federal election. Preferential Voting (PRV), which has been a strictly local phenomenon since the early 2000s, will be adopted in Maine for the 2024 presidential primaries and in Alaska for the 2024 presidential and U.S. elections. Reprimanded by notable figures like Governor Gavin Newsom for confusing voters and adopted by others as Senator Elizabeth Warren to reinforce[ing] the principle of majority rule” and the defense of democracy, RCV has been a constant source of debate among politicians. There are bipartisan consensus that electoral reform is needed in the United States and that RCV is a viable solution for our electoral future.

Simple or Complex? RCV explained

Under our current winner-takes-all system, American voters often feel discouraged from voting due to issues with candidate selection and campaign style, two issues that RCV clearly addresses. In the case of first-past-the-post or first-past-the-post (FPTP), preliminary rounds and restrictive ballot access laws limit the selection of candidates. Similarly, in the SMU, the presence of one vote per voter increases negative campaigning and promotes polarization.

In RCV, each voter preference ranks all the candidates it supports, without fear of harming its first-choice candidate. Voters can omit any candidate they do not support from their list. A candidate automatically wins if they obtain more than 50% of the votes and, if no candidate achieves this, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. For voters who ranked the eliminated candidate first, their vote then goes to their second-choice candidate and this elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate obtains a majority vote.

The voter ranking process is no different from the rankings we do in our daily lives, like ranking our favorite sports teams. More than 90% of voters in New York, Maine and Minneapolis reported that the RCV was simple and that they had positive experiences with the process. Clearly, voter confusion is not a valid argument for restricting the implementation of RCV nationwide.

How RCV works address candidate selection and campaign style issues of SMU? First, voters are more likely to feel represented by a candidate due to lower barriers to entry, which may promote higher voter turnout and satisfaction. Second, voters split between multiple candidates no longer have to choose just one person, which also promotes voter satisfaction. Third, voters in swing states are not forced to vote strategically for popular candidates and are not blamed for “wasting their vote” if they vote for another candidate. Fourth, negative campaigning is reduced and replaced by coalition building among candidates. Fifth, the need for primary and run-off elections is eliminated, helping governments save substantial money. Finally, the RCV promotes majority rule by ensuring that the elected candidate receives at least 50% of the votes of the constituents.

Where is RCV used?

In the United States, Alaska and Maine are the only two states that use RCV statewide. Nevada, Wyoming, and Kansas use RCV for presidential primaries, and Indiana and Virginia use it for to party primary elections. Six other states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) use RCV for military and foreign voters. Through their Local Options Bill, which allows cities to opt in to RCV on an election-by-election basis, 23 cities in Utah have used RCV in 2021.

Since July 2022, FairVote predicts that 55 cities, counties and states will use the RCV in their next elections. Internationally, some countries have fully adopted RCV, including Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Malta, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Fair Representation Act: Proportional RCV for the House of Representatives

Nonpartisan electoral reform groups like FairVote not only nationally and internationally for RCV, but they are pushing specifically for proportional RCV in the United States The distinction is that proportional RCV results in multiple winners, which is why it is often referred to as multi-winner ranked choice voting. Although only a point of discussion for many years, the Fair Representation Act could lead to the use of a proportional RCV to elect seats in the House of Representatives.

How proportional RCV works work? As before, voters rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. To win, a candidate must reach a threshold that guarantees victory. As stated earlier, in a one-seat election, the candidate must obtain 50% + 1 of the votes to guarantee victory. Two seats would require a threshold of 33.3%+1, three seats would require a threshold of 25%+1, and so on.

Like last time, votes are counted in rounds. If a candidate reaches the threshold in the first round, they automatically win a seat. Importantly, if they get more votes than required by the threshold, the excess votes are redistributed to second-choice candidates. This ensures that excess votes are not wasted. However, if no candidate reaches the threshold in the first round, the last candidate is eliminated and his votes are redistributed normally. This process would continue until a candidate reaches the required threshold.

Proportional RCV requires that single-member districts be replaced by multi-member districts, where two or more members are sent to a legislative body. Single-winner ridings are problematic not only because of gerrymandering, but also because voters are locked into “congressional ridings.” who are increasingly biased towards one party… [which] leaves too many voters unrepresented and powerless to influence the outcome” (Fair Voting 2022). Larger districts are formed, which removes the power of district lines in choosing the winner of an election. For example, when a district has been safely ruled by one party for many election cycles, minority voters possess powerless votes. Thus, with proportional RCV, seats are allocated on the basis of proportional representation and, combined with RCV, majority rule is applied and minority power is also respected.

Defenders of the Fair Representation Act note that proportional RCV would create multi-member districts with 3 to 5 winners for states with 6 or more representatives, promote accurate representation and prevent exclusion of crucial groups, and increase candidate diversity. Proportional RCV is only currently used in 3 jurisdictions, and will be implemented in 3 other jurisdictions over the next year. It was formerly used in 24 jurisdictions, but was abolished by the broad abolition of RCV in the 1950s due to technological barriers with counting.

Critics wonder if we know enough about proportional RCV. Historical analysis has shown that legislative cohesion was not guaranteed with the implementation of multi-winner RCV (Santucci 2018). In a more recent paper 2021, Santucci used historical case studies to show how seemingly minor technical problems with proportional RCV had strategic implications for political parties and sometimes led to unintended results. However, since modern political conditions are radically different from those of the cited historical examples, this analysis fails to adequately explain why the cited concerns of the past are likely to be repeated today. So, while the criticism offers fair caution, it may be unfounded.

Conclusion

Preferential Voting addresses some of the most crucial problems of the American electoral system, and even of American civic engagement. In the various places where RCV is already implemented, there is overwhelming bipartisan support for this system. Although proportional RCV may be a novel idea with limited scientific exploration, both components of proportional representation and RCV have been researched extensively, establishing the credibility of proportional RCV and the Fair Representation Act. Preferential voting saves governments money, empowers voters and diversifies candidate pools, and will strengthen American democracy if we choose to apply it nationally.


Alisha Saxena (her) is a Masters Candidate in Public Policy at Georgetown University and a Policy Intern at AARP and EIG. She previously worked as a part-time research associate at RepresentWomen, where she studied international gender parity in politics and levels of elected representation for disabled and first-generation women. She is editor of the Georgetown Public Policy Review and founder of the McCourt Disability Policy Initiative.