We’ve recently concluded one of the most fraught elections in recent history. Emotions are running high between opposing camps, and many people, myself included, are exhausted from the toxicity. Although I and many of my friends are relieved that President-elect Biden won, none of us liked him very much. Meanwhile, Republicans, as evidenced by the Lincoln Project’s advertising, have had very mixed attitudes toward President Trump as well.
Unfortunately, both sides were left with little choice, since a refusal to vote or a third-party vote would only contribute to victory for the greater of two evils. Young voters are particularly affected by this, as Pew Research Center notes that more millennials are registered as independents than with either party.
We deserve to have parties that we feel confident in voting for, rather than forced to vote against, but our current electoral system does not allow that to happen. In 2018, voters in Maine approved a ranked-choice voting system, which enables them to pick their favorite candidate without jeopardizing the chances of the less-hated candidate they might otherwise choose to vote for. North Carolina ought to pass a similar system, as it would allow politics to be more inclusive and less divisive, while more accurately reflecting the will of the people.
First-past-the-post voting, which is the dominant voting system in the United States, states that the winner of the most votes in an election wins. The simplicity of the system makes it appealing; however, it allows people to be elected without a majority of the vote, which delegitimizes the outcome if people feel that a majority voted against a given candidate.
One solution to this problem is a runoff election, where the top two vote-getters compete to reach 50% of the vote, but these are costly and time-consuming. Georgia is expected to have two runoff races in January, which will decide control of the Senate. If every state did that when neither candidate won a clear majority, it’s possible that we wouldn’t even know who’s president right now, as neither Biden nor Trump has a majority in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
A much better solution is ranked choice, which essentially enables an instantaneous runoff. How it works is that, during an election, rather than picking one candidate for one race, a voter ranks their choices in order of preference. The first-choice votes are all counted, and if no candidate wins a majority, the least popular candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are counted. This process continues until one candidate passes 50%.
Ranked choice would enable third and fourth parties to become viable in the United States, the same way they are in many European countries. If you have an issue with the nominee of the major party you lean toward, you can express that displeasure by voting against them in the first round. If most people don’t agree with you, your vote simply goes to the major party you see as less intolerable. However, if a large number of voters also prefer a Green or Libertarian candidate, they have a chance to win the election, as the major party candidate would be eliminated first, likely donating a large portion of their votes.
North Carolina, being a competitive state, makes voting third party especially difficult, since the race often comes down to a few thousand votes, as is the case this year. When this difference is lower than the number of votes a third-party candidate achieves, it can result in lots of anger toward those voters. Our elections should empower us to vote for the candidate we most prefer, not punish us for deviating from a substandard candidate who happens to align with us, if imperfectly.
Currently, both major parties are forced to cater to an exceedingly wide array of voters. Democrats range from the conservative Joe Manchin to highly progressive Bernie Sanders, a fact that also causes conflict. Breaking the parties up into smaller constituencies enables more voters to have an organization that represents them, promotes building coalitions to pass different types of legislation and lessens a polarized narrative that sees Democrats and Republicans ignoring their own flaws while excoriating each others’ shortcomings.
An added benefit is removing the weight of a dramatic scandal from a race, as we saw in North Carolina with Cal Cunningham’s extramarital affair. Rather than having to rely on the candidate to bow out or risk splitting the vote when you try to jump ship, individuals can feel confident voting their conscience, knowing that if they miscalculated and not everyone was appalled, their vote won’t be thrown away.
If we want more students to participate in democracy, we can’t just focus on removing barriers to entry — although this is still pivotal. We should be creating environments where we feel our voices are truly represented, rather than creating enough pressure to make us cave in and vote for a candidate we dislike. Our voting system is clearly broken when a major-party candidate refuses to concede and his co-partisans continue to support him. Ranked choice is one way we could lower the stakes and better include everyone in the cornerstone of our democracy.