US must redesign electoral system, switch to ranked choice voting

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The following views expressed by Jack Gil are their own and not reflective of the Berkeley Energy Commission.

In September, Maine’s Supreme Court ruled that the state would be allowed to use ranked choice voting in the upcoming presidential election. The decision came after a campaign led by the Maine Republican Party failed to secure a “People’s Veto” against a state law that allows ranked voting in the presidential election.

Also called instant-runoff voting, ranked voting allows voters to rank all of the candidates on a ballot based on their preference — first, second, third, etc. — and candidates must win more than 50% of the vote to win. If no candidate wins a majority vote, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated and has their first-choice votes reallocated to the voters’ next choices. The process repeats itself until a candidate has a majority vote.

The social and political benefits to ranked voting are convincingly numerous. Its impacts on political representation for underrepresented groups, increasing voter choices and decreasing polarization have been measured and praised by social science researchers.

This year, Maine will become the first state in the nation to use ranked voting for a presidential election after voters approved its adoption in 2016, establishing a precedent other states and cities should soon follow. In fact, both Massachusetts and Alaska are already holding ballot initiatives this year proposing its adoption. Countries such as Australia and Ireland have already enacted forms of ranked voting in their national elections. And cities across the country — including Bay Area cities such as Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and San Leandro — have also already adopted ranked voting for local elections.

The idea has become more popular as politics in the United States have become increasingly polarized and aggressive, and as more voters such as myself feel that their voices are left unheard in the democratic process. According to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll conducted by Rutgers University in 2014, voters in ranked choice cities reported feeling more satisfied with the conduct of election campaigns and perceived less negative campaigning compared to voters in non-ranked choice voting cities. Ranked voting can also save states and municipalities money by eliminating the need for runoff elections, which can decrease voter turnout, and could particularly affect groups that already have systemic obstacles to voting.

Importantly, ranked voting has been shown to boost diversity in those running for office, especially women and people of color. There is a wide disparity in racial and gender representation in this country. For example, a vastly disproportionate number of members of Congress are white — the current Congress is only 22% nonwhite, the highest record ever for the U.S. Congress. They are also overwhelmingly male. Women currently make up just 23.7% of all members of Congress. Our country would benefit from a political system that more accurately reflects the demographic composition and views of its people.

If the 2020 primary and general election cycle has taught us anything about our form of liberal democracy today, it is that the American political system is in need of some fundamental changes to the way it operates. Elections in the United States have consistently been dominated by two major political parties, largely as a result of our plurality voting system, which favors the hegemony of only two parties. Yet according to a 2018 Gallup poll, up to 57% of voters feel that the United States is in need of a third major party — a sentiment that has been consistently reported since 2013. It seems elections in 2016 and 2020 have only worsened people’s already weak faith in the U.S. government’s ability to represent their views and solve problems.

Many people, including myself, have felt disenfranchised by the current two-party system and grown tired of “lesser evilism” repeated every election cycle. Implementing ranked voting would eliminate the spoiler effect associated with voting for third-party candidates, giving them a fighting chance at winning, or at least influencing, elections in this country.

Under ranked voting, voters are also free from worrying about how others will vote and can safely vote for their preferred candidates. With the two main 2020 presidential nominees being so disliked by so many voters, now is the time to call for the adoption of ranked voting nationwide. It is especially frustrating that last October, an influential Democratic leader such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed SB 212 — which would have granted all jurisdictions across California the ability to establish ranked voting — despite overwhelming support.

In a safe Democratic state such as California, where general elections for seats at the state and federal levels are often considered guaranteed for the Democrats, the need for ranked choice representation is clear. It would create competition, spurring candidates to innovate new policy positions to maintain voters’ support.

We should demand our leaders be open to reforming our democracy for the greater public good. It is my hope that the movement for ranked choice voting will continue to grow as it has for the past few years and that discontent with the United States’ political duopoly will fuel the push for these changes to be made.

Jack Gil is an energy commissioner for the city of Berkeley. *Title for identification purposes only.