Despite what the 24 hour news cycle and modern pundits would have you believe, democracy as practiced now in the United States is neither the model for democratic practice internationally nor is it a static exercise practiced once a year in November. Nor is democracy simply the act of voting.
While, the practice of modern democracy in the United States enjoys a longer, more stable history than perhaps any other modern state, the history of democracy in this country has been one of struggle. What is now held up as sacred—universal suffrage, the rights gained under the 1963 Voting Rights Act, and diminished barriers to voting for people of color—are all hard won rights that have been taken through massive grassroots action and often times have been paid for in a cost measured in lives lost. While the premise of democracy is that the demos, Greek for common people, should hold the ultimate decision making power in a polity, the actuality is that there has been and continues to be a struggle between the demos and a minority that enjoys and maintains privilege through limiting access to democratic practice and the institutions that are reserved for the elite through electoral gate keeping.
Nowhere is this gatekeeping more apparent and more rigidly defended than in plurality voting winner takes all elections. The basic premise of democratic practice is majority rule, minority rights. The actuality of the U.S. tradition of democracy is that of minority rule with majority rights. Candidates that win with less than 50%+1 of the voting public, sometimes with much less than that—Jesse Ventura's 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial win with 37% of the vote is one recent example, still claim a mandate to govern. No gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota has won a real mandate to govern in more than two decades. Because of winner take all voting systems, a candidate no longer has to convince a majority of the electorate that his or her ideas are in the best interest of the state and its people, they only have to convince a large enough minority with narrower interests and less concern for the broader collective welfare to turn out in margins just large enough to beat the other candidates. When a candidate no longer has to challenge his or her own views in order to meet the needs of the broadest good, self-interest and politics trump public service and communal well-being. Democracy is reduced to “beating the other guy.” And political offices become prize fight trophies instead of public trusts. The deeply polarized and vitriolic rhetoric of recent election cycles bear clear testament to this deepening and disturbing reality.
Thankfully, winner take all elections are not the only option. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a voting system that requires a winner receive a true mandate to govern and allows for deeper, more nuanced, yet still straight-foward and simple voting not only changes what happens in the ballot box but also the tone, rhetoric, and ideology that dominates the campaign trail. RCV, also known as Instant Run-Off Voting, is used in municipalities across the United States, including Minneapolis and San Francisco, as well as for national elections in Australia and Ireland, allows voters to rank their candidate preferences on the ballot. If no single candidate receives 50%+1 of the vote, then the lowest vote getter is dropped and his or her votes are redistributed to the voters second choice candidate, etc.. This process continues until one candidate passes the required 50%+1 benchmark guaranteeing that he or she actually has the confidence of the people when forming a government.
When candidates are forced to not only consider their narrow ideological base of supporters but also the social and political priorities of broader set of voters, it has been demonstrably proven that the tone, style, rhetoric, and reality of the practice of democracy changes---less vitriol, broader base building, and fewer or no negative ads. When a candidate is forced to consider not only his base but also the needs of those that lay further afield from his personal preferences, the result is public policy that requires a broader view that is much less likely to infringe upon minority rights.
Because of the possibility for such wide reaching impact, a commitment to ranked choice voting should be an active part of a progressive platform that weds outside-of-the-system direct action organizing and movement building with electoral reform. As the recent attacks on organized labor in Wisconsin have clearly demonstrated, as long as the electoral system continues to volley back and forth across polarizing lines, more and more harsh and intractable public policy will be the result. As a movement building opportunity, the attacks on organized labor in Wisconsin are priceless but the emotional and psychic cost on communities constantly under siege by the very people that are supposed to represent their interests is not one that can be long sustained without long lasting wounds.
Ranked Choice Voting, which inherently inhibits these types of reactionary figures from earning (or barely squeaking into) public office, is a launching point for sensible, just social change. When our voting system reflects the nuanced choices of the electorate, including the viable promotion of third parties, the public policy that results from the ensuing compromises is very simply better for everyone. From education to health care, when elected officials are forced to incorporate the broadest possible coalition to win election as opposed to a slim and fervent minority, real social change and progress towards justice is not only possible, it becomes probable without sacrificing anyone for political gain.
For more information on ranked choice voting, check out FairVote Minnesota the national organization FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.