KEY POINTS

  • Instead of making voters choose one candidate among a list of many impressive potential elected officials, under RCV, voters are empowered to rank their favorite candidates in order of preference. 
  • Studies show that RCV leads to campaigns that are more unifying and less negative. That’s because under RCV, candidates compete to be second choice even for voters who are not their die-hard supporters
  • Nevada recently implemented RCV for its early mail-in ballots during the 2020 Democratic Caucus, and the results were stunning.

While the battle against Coronavirus continues around the world, there is an issue looming front and center in the United States: our fragile democracy must be shored up to withstand the remarkable challenge of holding safe, secure, and accessible elections in the midst of a pandemic. Many in the democracy reform community are focused on ensuring that absentee and mail-in voting is in place all over the country, and that it will be safe to vote in person this year. Those changes are critical. But, especially as vote-by-mail options are expanding, we should also think about bringing Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) to many more places.

Currently, most voters are only able to vote for one candidate, which often becomes a decision between the “lesser of the two evils.” However, instead of making voters choose one candidate among a list of many impressive potential elected officials, under RCV, voters are empowered to rank their favorite candidates in order of preference. 

The process is simple: if one candidate wins an outright majority of the vote share—that is, 50% or more—a winner is immediately declared. If not, the candidate who receives the least amount of votes is eliminated. Then, the votes for the second-choice candidate of voters are distributed among the rest of the field. This process keeps going until a candidate is supported by a majority of voters, or until only two candidates remain. RCV thus ensures that winners are liked by a true majority of voters. It also amplifies the voices of individual voters and, in so doing, changes both campaigns and citizen participation in our democracy for the better.

RCV would be especially welcome during these extraordinary times. Studies show that RCV leads to campaigns that are more unifying and less negative. That’s because under RCV, candidates compete to be second choice even for voters who are not their die-hard supporters. Having positive campaigns during unprecedented moments in our nation’s history is imperative so our country can finally unite. Now, more than ever before, we must step beyond the confines of party lines and political silos. Ranked-Choice Voting is not a cure-all. But it can certainly help.    

Second, while RCV is always a simple process, it works even better when people fill out their ballots at home rather than at a polling place. When people vote from home, they can spend more time gathering information on the candidates to make informed choices about who their first, second, and third choices are for president, senator, mayor, and more. 

Don’t take our word for how successful RCV can be, though. Instead, look to Nevada. The state recently implemented RCV for its early mail-in ballots during the 2020 Democratic Caucus, and the results were stunning. Nevada gathered over 75,000 early votes, boosting voter turnout from the 2016 Democratic Caucus by nearly 20,000 votes. Moreover, during their first encounter with RCV, over 99.5 percent of early Nevada voters correctly ranked preferences on their ballots. 

This makes complete sense. Citizens make choices everyday, whether it be deciding what to cook for dinner or what brand of yogurt to buy at the grocery store. Ranking candidates is no different. Especially when they have a few extra minutes to double-check their work at home, RCV is a seamless process. The combination of RCV and voting at home is particularly useful for primary elections, where candidates can drop out. That means if someone mails in a ballot and then their first choice drops out, the vote isn’t wasted—it’s just shifted to the voter’s next favorite person.

Nevada’s smooth and efficient RCV outcome, coupled with the increase of mail-in ballots, have given Americans a taste of RCV’s potential in elections. Fortunately, Nevada isn’t alone. States including Kansas and cities including San Francisco have also implemented Ranked-Choice Voting and have noticed outcomes just as magnificent as Nevada. More women of color engage in the political process and win elected seats, voters feel an incentive to finally participate in the political arena, and overly expensive run-off elections are avoided. In the long run, Ranked-Choice Voting may be a critical part of how we maintain a representative democracy while mitigating the spread of Coronavirus. 

Ranked-Choice Voting will be used in one state—Maine—in the 2020 presidential election. The national crisis gives us additional reason to work toward implementing RCV in as many places as possible, as soon as possible. After all, even without coronavirus, the number of people voting by mail had been increasing, and that trend should only pick up. RCV and vote-by-mail are a perfect match. Adopting it will allow everyone to partake in American democracy, to be fully represented by their elected officials, and have their voice maximized in the political arena. The only way we can achieve all three of those principles and provide voters with optimism for our democracy in this unchartered territory is by instituting Ranked-Choice Voting.

Jason Harrow is executive director and chief counsel of EqualCitizens.US

Victor Shi is an EqualCitizens.US Fellow