Multiple choice elections

An account of San Francisco’s experience with ranked choice elections:

Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig wants to reform elections, so he raised a million dollars and declared himself a Democratic Party candidate for president. He was a one-issue candidate, his only platform the Citizen Equality Act, by which he hopes to reform voting and reduce the power of big money in politics.

The Democrats would not allow Lessig in their presidential debates. Frustrated, Lessig dropped his political campaign but promised to continue advocating his reforms.

Lessig’s voting reform proposals range from a tax rebate voucher for everyone to give to their favorite candidate, to automatic registration and making Election Day a national holiday. The most interesting proposal is called ranked voting or instant runoff elections. Under this proposal, everyone would be able to vote for multiple candidates for the same office, ranking them first, second and third.

Why is this such an interesting idea? America has two major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. But there are other, minor parties. In Nevada, the Independent American Party, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party are the largest minor parties. On rare occasions, a minor party candidate raises enough money to compete against the major party candidate, but they almost never win. There has never been a minor party candidate elected to any significant partisan office in Nevada, and only a handful in the entire nation.

The most serious roadblock to voting for a minor party candidate is the “wasting your vote” argument. Most people want to vote for a winner, and voting minor party means you are likely voting for a loser. You will also be accused by many in the major parties of helping to get the opposing party’s candidate elected. The 1998 Nevada Senate election was the most notorious example in Nevada. Republicans believed their nominee, John Ensign, could beat Democrat Harry Reid, and Ensign lost by only 400 votes. Libertarian Party candidate Michael Cloud received over 8,000 votes, and Republicans blamed Libertarian Party voters for electing Reid. The most well known Democratic incident was the 2000 Bush-Gore election, as those who voted for Green Party Candidate Ralph Nader were blamed for throwing the election to Bush.

With instant runoff elections, you could first vote for the minor party candidate whose views most represent your own, and vote second for a major candidate you consider only the lesser of two evils. In nonpartisan elections, you could support a reform insurgent candidate first, and a more establishment candidate second. In most cases, your first choice would lose, but at least you would have expressed yourself. You would not waste your vote, because you hedged your bets. No one could blame you for helping to elect another party’s candidate, because after your first choice is mathematically eliminated, your next vote would go to the mediocre but somewhat better candidate who would then likely win.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans have been losing registered voters at an alarming rate. They each represent only about 25 percent of registered voters now. The fault lines could grow wider within their own factions. With so many American voters angry at the party establishments, there should be a way to allow them to express that anger. Libertarians could vote for the Libertarian Party presidential candidate first, and Trump or Cruz second. Assuming Bernie Sanders does drop out, why should he be just a stalking horse for Hillary, when you could vote Green first, Hillary second and express your real feelings? Instant runoff voting would help diversify democracy. No wonder the Republican and Democratic establishments are not interested.