Mandi Jo Hanneke
If you’ve followed state, national, or local politics at all during the last year, you may have heard about Ranked Choice Voting and a number of initiatives to implement it. Cambridge, MA uses it. Maine just passed it. Here’s a primer on what it is, why it’s important, and why the Charter Commission put it in the proposed Charter the way it did.
What is Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Run-Off Voting and Single-Transferable Voting)?
Imagine there are 8 people running for the 3 at-large Councilor seats in the new charter. In our current system, called block voting, each voter picks three or fewer. The 3 candidates who have the most votes win, no matter how much support they garnered.
With Ranked Choice Voting, each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. The votes are tallied, starting with every voter’s first preference. A candidate is elected once she receives ¼ +1 of the votes cast. 1 If 3 candidates don’t meet that threshold after the first count, then the candidate finishing last is eliminated and the votes for that candidate are transferred to the second-ranked candidate. In addition, once a candidate is elected, excess votes for that candidate are transferred to the next-lower-ranked candidate. This process continues until three candidates have received ¼ +1 of the votes cast.2
These two videos describe it much better than I ever could:
|Ranked Choice Voting in Single Winner Elections||Ranked Choice Voting in Multiple Winner Elections|
Why is this important?
You’ve heard of the “spoiler effect” or “throwing your vote away” when there are 3 candidates for 1 seat, right? The thought is, you really support candidate C, but she doesn’t have a chance of winning, and if you actually vote for her, your least preferred candidate, B, might win because enough votes have been pulled away from Candidate A, your second choice. So, what do you do? Vote for C on principle, recognizing that B might win, or vote for A so that B doesn’t win, denying C a chance to show how many people actually support her?
With Ranked Choice Voting, the choice would be easy: Rank Candidate C first, Candidate A second, and Candidate B third (or not at all). That way, you vote your conscience, and ensure your vote isn’t “thrown away.”
But what are the other benefits, you ask? Well, with Ranked Choice Voting, minority candidates are more successful in elections in which there are multiple seats open. Further, those elected tend to better represent the views of the entire electorate (proportional representation) versus in a block voting system, in which voters who support the majority view can control the election of all seats, ensuring that no candidate with minority views gets elected (slate voting).
There’s also some evidence that the campaigns are more positive. After all, candidates are seeking not just your first vote, but your second and third vote too, (or 4th, 5th and 6th), so they don’t want to alienate entire groups of voters by negative campaigns.
There’s a feeling that the campaigns focus more on issues, too, for similar reasons.
This is a huge change from the current block voting system, in which a slate of candidates representing the majority’s views can win all the seats in an election, thereby blocking out the minority political views from seats at the table.
Why is Ranked Choice Voting only in the Charter Commission’s Transition Article?
A charter is meant to outline the broad strokes of a government, not the minutiae of running elections. Adopting Ranked Choice Voting requires setting forth very specific information, including how ties are broken, how excess votes are allocated down-ballot, etc. Such legislation is not meant to be in a Charter, because the laws might need changing as technology changes.
Since a Charter is not meant to be amended frequently (and it’s hard to do because of that), the implementation methods of Ranked Choice Voting are best suited for a bylaw, not a charter.
The Charter Commission unanimously supports the implementation of Ranked Choice Voting, and we made the language as strong as possible to have it implemented as soon as possible. But the specifics are best left to a bylaw and a committee that is tasked with specifically looking at the options and implementation methods of other cities, towns and states.
We’re excited to have Ranked Choice Voting in the Charter.
It will help increase the diversity of elected officials, keep campaigns focused the issues, keep candidates positive, and help ensure that councilors are elected in roughly the same proportion as the factions in town they represent.
It’s the fairest election system out there today. We look forward to implementing in Amherst in future elections.
1The threshold for election is 1 vote greater than the inverse of 1+the number of seats available (1/2 + 1 for 1 open seat; 1/3 +1 for 2 open seats; 1/6 + 1 for 5 open seats; 1/7 + 1 for 6 open seats; etc.).
2Cambridge, MA uses this system to elect their councilors and school committee member. The specifics of the Cambridge council elections in 2017 using this method are located here: http://www.cambridgema.gov/election2017/Council%20Round.htm. In addition, a good explanation of the Cambridge system and its benefits can be found here: https://fairvote.app.box.com/v/cambridge-ballot-image-report