Ranked choice voting, and the People v. the Plutocrats and Political Scientists


Everyone knows that the American political system is supposed to be based on majority will. True, but only half correct. It is actually a political system based on majority will subject to limits to protect minority rights. Our political system was never pure populism and it should not be. Respect for minority rights should not be viewed as a threat to democracy; instead, as recent debates surrounding ranked choice voting (RCV) demonstrate, the danger comes from the plutocrats and political scientists, both which seem to oppose it because either of fears that it threatens their power or because of the belief that the people are not smart enough to vote this way.

James Madison declared in the Federalist Papers (essays written by him, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1787 defending the ratification of the proposed American Constitution) that “all government rests on opinion.” Ultimately the best feature of popular government is that the people rule. It is, as the first three words of the Constitution declare, about “We the people.” Yet while the rule of the people is the hallmark of a representative government or democracy, the worst feature too can be that the people rule. There is an ugly strain in American politics that begins with the Salem Witch trials that run to slavery, the subjection of women, the McCarthy hearings, and Stonewall. Fear and prejudice can do nasty things.

Yet the genius of the American politics (to borrow a phrase from historian Daniel Boorstin) is a constitutional system that seeks to qualify majority rule to protect minority rights. It is a complex system of checks and balances, separation of powers, competitive elections, and a Bill of Rights that is supposed to accomplish that. This is what is known as Madisonian democracy.

The system does not always work. Progressive era historians such as Charles Beard in his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States contended that the Constitution was meant to support the interests of the economic elites in the country that were badly hurt by the first American constitution the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was written by rich property owners who supported slavery and property rights. The minority they wished to protect from majority rule, for Beard, were the rich. The American political system is one designed not by the people, for the people, and of the people, but one in spite of the people. The fact that 225+ years after the writing of the Constitution the profile of the leaders of this country looks much the same as those who designed it speaks perhaps to the bias against the people in American politics. “We the people,” as former Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall pointed out, excluded the majority or the people in 1787 and the history of American politics has been a struggle to give real meaning to that phrase.

Now how does all this connect back to RCV, plutocrats, and political scientists? There have been lots of reforms and efforts to give more power to the people. Perhaps the greatest threat to a democracy is the economic power of the rich and corporations. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated it well: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” The real battle for political reform in the United States needs to begin with limiting the ability of money and economic interests to affect the political process, This is the story of campaign finance reform.

But there are many other worthy political reforms that too are needed such as limits on political gerrymandering and guarantees on the right to vote. But ranked choice voting too is a worthy reform. It is a terrific experiment to give voters more choices. It is based on the simple idea that voters have preferences and we should be able to rank our political choices. We may have our preferred candidate, a second choice, and maybe a third one. RCV is supposed to address two defects in the current system we use to vote. The first is that candidates can get elected with less than a majority of the vote–a simple plurality if it is more than a two-person race. This has been the scenario in Minnesota with the governor–no governor has received a majority of the vote since 1994. We have had all minority governors. Second, the current voting system discourages citizens from voting for third-party candidates less they fear they are wasting their vote. Thus, there is a good argument to be made that the current way we cast votes is actually counter-majoritarian and that it discourses people from voting for their preferred candidates. This is hardly democratic. Other democracies around the world have experimented with alternative voting systems to address these problems, with RCV as one possible solution.

Minneapolis’ 2009 first use of RCV was inconclusive. It was not a great test of it because of a popular mayor. Few of the other races were decided or seriously affected by RCV. But 2013 is different. The mayor’s race could have up to 8-10 candidates and running as the candidate who wants to a second choice might make sense in a crowded field.

But now some are claiming that RCV needs to be abandoned. These claims come from plutocrats, those who fear that RCV will change the political calculus and upend their preferences. They claim that it is anti-democratic, or that it is biased against the poor or people of color, or that it disenfranchises some. There is no evidence to support any of this. In 2009 there was a lot of voter error and spoiled ballots but in the end, only one ballot in the entire election was not counted. The problems seen then perhaps were first time learning curve issues that could be addressed with more voter education and training. In my study for Minneapolis on RCV, I raised some concerns but ultimately did not find evidence of discrimination and a survey of voters found that 90%+ liked RCV. Additionally, if a voting system allows for more choice among voters and strives to produce candidates who get a majority of the vote, is this not consistent with majority rule and serving the people? Our current election system favors high name recognition and candidates with money. No guarantee that RCV will break these trends, but anything that works to that end would be good.

But a second criticism is coming from some political scientists who either do not like RCV or do not understand how it works. Their central criticism is that RCV demands too much from people. It is hard enough, they say, for people to gather enough information and make choices about one candidate, let alone many and then ranked them. The political science literature, they say, simply says this is beyond the capacity of the average voter.

This is an elitist argument. True, voters are perhaps not as well informed about as many things as political scientists would like them to be, but that does not mean that the people are incapable or expressing their preferences. Under the current voting system, for good or bad, people make choices and there is no reason to expect they cannot also do so with RCV. They do that in other countries and who is to say citizens in these countries are smarter than Americans or voters in Minneapolis.

Finally, some political scientists just do not seem to understand or appreciate how RCV works. They seem to think that electing someone on a second or third round of voting (assuming no first round winner with 50% + one of the votes) is anti-democratic or that the people will not stand for perhaps a protracted count of ballots. By now Minnesotans are used to recounts and there has been no rioting in the streets. Conversely, electing candidates to office who may turn out to be the compromise choice of the majority of voters may in fact prove to be more democratic, majority-enhancing, and prone to encouraging voters to learn and compromise than does the current process. The current voting process seems to favor voting against candidates (instead of voting for someone), selection of extremists, or simply support for the current two major parties even though the evidence increasingly suggests that the current political alignment of them does not match with most voters preferences.

Overall, RCV may be one tool that can give real meaning to “We the People,” favoring the people over the plutocrats and the political scientists.