My Turn: Ranked-choice voting is better for everyone

For the Monitor
Published: 1/22/2018 12:15:10 AM

How can we promote more fair and open elections in New Hampshire? On Tuesday, the New Hampshire House Election Law Committee will hold a public hearing to consider House Bill 1540, a bill that establishes procedures for ranked-choice voting for federal and state offices in primary and general elections.

Ranked-choice voting better upholds the voice of the majority without trampling on the voice and rights of the minority. Many voters surely would have liked to have had the opportunity to use ranked-choice voting in the 2016 elections. With ranked-choice voting, voters get to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference. In the first round of tabulation, only voters’ first choices are counted. If a candidate gets enough first-choice support in the first tabulation – such that it’s mathematically impossible for another candidate to surpass them in subsequent rounds (i.e., more than 50 percent support) – then the tabulation can be over, and that candidate declared the winner. If not, then in the next tabulation, the candidate who received the fewest first votes is “eliminated,” and the voters who voted for the eliminated candidate as their first choice will now have their second choice counted. This process continues until a winner is declared, either when a candidate surpasses 50 percent or when all ballots have been exhausted. As long as a voter’s first choice candidate has not been “eliminated,” that voter’s first choice will always be counted. This allows voters to vote their conscience without fear that doing so will have the effect of electing who they like least.

This is significant when looking at the election results, both nationally and in New Hampshire, from 2016. Imagine how the will of the people might have been better expressed using ranked-choice voting in the Republican presidential primary, where a high number of candidates yielded winners garnering a low percentage of the vote. In the general election in many states, New Hampshire included, the percentage of voters who voted for third-party candidates (i.e., Gary Johnson and Jill Stein) was higher than the vote margin between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Though re-assigning those votes wouldn’t necessarily change the outcome, it could. A similar phenomenon occurred in 2000, when Ralph Nader’s vote totals exceeded the vote margin in some key states. The important thing is that we want the candidate elected to most closely reflect the will of the people.

In New Hampshire in 2016, votes for independent and third-party candidates were also higher than the vote margin between the two major-party candidates in the election for governor, U.S. senator, as well as U.S. Congressional District 1, and nearly even in District 2. With the Libertarian Party in New Hampshire now having automatic ballot status for 2018, this will start happening in many more elections throughout the state. The timing couldn’t be better for passing ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting is a better method for everyone – independents, third parties and the two major parties. Because it’s fair. More people will be willing to vote for independent and third-party candidates, knowing that their vote won’t be “wasted.” People might be surprised to find that re-tabulations won’t always match the predicted left-right ideological spectrum. At the same time, the major parties can rest assured that allowing more liberty and equality in the electoral process won’t hurt them – unless they’re winning by virtue of their exclusive power, more than by virtue of their merits.

This isn’t an ideological issue. John McCain, Barack Obama, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders and more support ranked-choice voting. In Maine, a citizen-initiated referendum for ranked-choice voting passed decisively in 2016. (And Maine citizens are well on their way to collecting enough signatures for a People’s Veto of the Legislature’s recent vote to delay and effectively “repeal” the measure).

In 2017, ranked-choice voting was proposed, in some form, in 19 states, with more this year. In Utah, for example, a 2017 ranked-choice voting bill, sponsored by a Democrat, passed their Republican-dominated House in a 59-12 vote. Not only is ranked-choice voting used for national elections in some other democratic countries, but it has been used successfully in statewide special elections in North Carolina, and is being used in 10 large cities in the U.S., as well as in the elections for numerous universities and other organizations. Voters find ranked-choice voting to be easy to understand, easy to carry out, efficient, secure and satisfying – it increases voter turnout.

We need to seriously consider and pass HB 1540; it’s timely and honors the principle that we elect our public officials by the will of the people. Candidates will need to appeal to a broader range of voters, not just their partisan base. Ranked-choice voting strengthens our democracy by giving voters more voice and more choice in our elections, delivering a win-win for voters and candidates of every stripe.

(Tiani X. Coleman is president of New Hampshire Independent Voters.)

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