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Taxes, primaries and expulsions, oh my!
Winner-take-all-palooza: taxpayers' money wasted on runoffs and primaries, and politics turns toxic with expulsion of legislators in Tennessee. But what if we used RCV everywhere?
A week ago, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott launched an exploratory committee to run for president. Scott joins former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina and Arkansas governors Nikki Haley and Asa Hutchinson, and two businessmen as candidates – with Governors Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem and former vice president Mike Pence among others exploring bids. With each new entry, the chances soar that the nomination goes to whichever candidate can muster a core vote of 35%.
That’s because in many state primaries for the GOP presidential nomination, the highest vote-getter will win 100 percent of that state’s delegates, even if most Republican voters prefer somebody else. This “plurality wins all” method could lead to a lot of split votes and spoiler candidates that prevent the true majority-preferred candidate from prevailing.
But what if the presidential primaries used ranked choice voting, allowing all voters to have the peace of mind of freely ranking their favorite choices without “wasting” their vote? Each political party would likely experience a less divisive primary, and enter the general election more united behind a candidate with proven broad appeal within the party.
The value of this use of RCV was featured recently in a highly recommended viewing: a March 24 forum on RCV at the Gary R. Herbert Institute for Public Policy at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. They were discussing the fact that voters in twenty Utah cities used ranked choice voting (RCV) for their local elections in 2021 as part of municipal pilot program. Nearly nine out of 10 Utah voters ranked multiple candidates on their ballots, and 8 out of 10 voters said RCV was easy to use. 60% of voters were more likely to vote for their top-preferred candidate instead of strategically voting for the lesser-evil, and 63% of voters liked using an RCV ballot.
Meanwhile, back in the land of single-choice primaries – which are used all across the US -- if any candidate drops out before Primary Day, early voters who picked that candidate may not see their vote count for any other candidate! That was especially problematic in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, when more than three million voters cast their vote for a candidate who dropped out before ballots were counted. If RCV had been used in those primaries, when those candidates dropped out each voter’s ballot would have transferred to their next-ranked candidate. That would have ensured those votes had counted too.
With such obvious benefits of RCV in presidential primaries, it’s no wonder so many states are considering it. Maine will use it in 2024 and the Vermont State Senate just passed legislation to do so in 2028, with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and other state allies working to move this bill across the finish line. We're thrilled to see pro-RCV bills this year in more than 25 states, including several on RCV for presidential primaries. In 2020, four states used RCV for their party-run presidential primaries (which don’t require supporting legislation); we expect several state parties to go this route in 2024 as well.
Winner-take-all mindset takes a disturbing turn
In another sign of the deep polarization consuming the country, Tennessee’s Republican-dominated State House recently expelled two Democratic lawmakers for participating in a protest over gun laws on the House floor. Both of those expelled were African American and among the youngest members in the chamber.
Expulsions rarely happen in state legislatures, and are almost always bipartisan votes where the lawmaker in question is found guilty of criminal activity. The Tennessee expulsions represent another shift towards politicization of the democratic process. The fact that both of those expelled were immediately re-seated (until a special election can be held) by unanimous votes of the Nashville and Memphis local governments underscores the growing gulf between the parties in Tennessee, as well as in many states.
This dangerous division would not be possible without the polarization and toxic use of gerrymandering enabled by winner-take-all elections. Given that today’s political divides are increasingly reflected in where we live, most districts are heavily weighted in favor of one major party. Yet with the “spoiler effect” dominant in single-choice elections, the rise of an alternative party is nearly impossible.
With only the primary election competitive in nearly all districts, representatives seeking re-election only have to pay attention to the concerns of the relatively few voters who vote in their party primary – and those primary voters increasingly tend to be hyper-partisan who fear and loathe the other major party.
But what if the United States, in order to escape this zero-sum, winner-take-all politics, used proportional ranked choice voting (P-RCV)? That really would be the best long-term solution. P-RCV would ensure nearly every district is represented by officeholders from both major parties while also allowing independent and minor parties to hold the major parties accountable. General elections would always matter in every corner of every state.
Thankfully, proportional RCV is already taking hold in communities across the nation. Just last year, the largest cities in Oregon and Maine voted to adopt it, with Portland, Oregon on track to implement it for city council elections in 2024. It was also approved for primary elections by the county board of Arlington, Virginia – meaning that on June 20, 2023, proportional RCV will be used just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital. FairVote’s north-star legislation, the Fair Representation Act, would implement this method for U.S. House elections.
It’s Tax Season! How much of your taxes are wasted on runoff elections?
Tax Day is just around the corner, and millions of us are rushing to get our returns in before the deadline.
We all want to know that our hard-earned money is going to something important, like schools or public safety. Yet in hundreds of jurisdictions across the nation with runoff elections, which is a second election among the top two finishers to determine the majority winners, much of our money is wasted on unnecessary, low-turnout elections instead.
FairVote and Third Way’s research shows that a single runoff election can cost a local jurisdiction hundreds of thousands of dollars, with costs pushing into the millions for states and larger cities and counties. Remarkably, the 2020 Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs cost the Peach State’s taxpayers $75 million – with another $500 million or so in campaign spending. Of course, with runoffs we pay more to get less – the runoff usually gets brutally nasty as candidates attack each other in a mano-a-mano race to the finish line.
With voters hearing the worst about the eventual winner, is it a coincidence that the runoffs almost always have lower turnout than the initial election in November? Often times the winner in a runoff election has fewer votes than the second-place finisher in the first round of the election!
But what if we used ranked choice voting to conduct “instant runoffs” during the November election, when turnout is naturally the highest? There would be no need to pay for an extra day of voting and vote-counting, or extra weeks or months of campaigning. The money our governments spend on runoffs could be redirected to better causes -- or put back in our pockets with a tax cut.
Rob Richie @Rob_Richie
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