Ranked Choice Voting Could Solve the Farce of “Democratic Unity”Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Politics Features Ranked Choice Voting
In any political group or party, there will be a diversity of thought, and that is a good thing. Go to any meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, and you might meet a New Deal-style disaffected Democrat sitting next to a borderline Marxist. That’s fine—no two people have the same political brain, and electoral politics is about creating influence by finding shared goals between like-minded, but not identical, voters.
There is a point, however, at which a single party becomes so broad as to be ridiculous. When an umbrella organization encompasses such an enormous diversity of opinion that it’s no longer possible to have “shared goals,” that party has ceased to have any practical utility beyond keeping the bad guys out of power. Further, that party is no longer capable of pursuing policy as a unified front, because from a philosophical perspective, it is no longer unified. That’s the state in which we find the Democratic party in 2019—so far-flung across the ideological spectrum that the only thing we can agree on is that Republicans should be kept out of power. Ironically, the fact that this is our sole point of concurrence makes it so much harder to achieve the goal.
The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, writing at the Washington Post had what I consider to be the best objective take on the matter. He presented the argument that Democratic politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer operate in a paradigm of fear, haunted by the memory of the Reagan Revolution which was their formative experience as professional politicians. They conceive of America as a center-right country, and they believe that to win elections and to hold majorities, you must constantly cater to the “middle” and avoid at all costs the perception of straying too far left. This is why they’re constantly refusing to confront Trump directly, or to challenge GOP legislation that flies in the face of even centrist Democratic belief.
Meanwhile, the progressive class of Democrats—typified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, among others—believe that this caution has neutered the party and ceded the initiative to Republicans, leading to massive losses and the perception on the part of the American people that Democrats are morally petrified and politically ineffective.
Here at Paste, we fall on the progressive side, and it’s no secret that we think the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are useless relics of a center-right faction that needs to be eradicated from American politics before any change is possible. For the most part, their tenures at the top of the party have been marked by national, state, local, and judicial losses, and when they’ve “succeeded,” as in the 2018 midterms or other blue wave years before, it’s been largely due to the heinous incompetence and casual cruelty of Republican governance. Even when these turnabouts come, centrist Democratic leadership is too tepid, too scared to seize the moment, and—as we saw from the first two years of the Obama presidency—they can be counted on to squander majorities without any gain. All of which, perversely, feeds into their own narrative about the perils of going too far left, which is continuously drilled into their heads by Republican propagandists.
In short, they are fiddles, and they are constantly being played by the right.
Now, look, that’s just our opinion. We believe unapologetic progressive politics will resonate—already do resonate—with the electorate, and that it’s time to end the policy of constant capitulation. Others—those who like to spend their days shouting “but her emails” and reminding us of the importance of defeating Donald Trump to the exclusion of any other political topic—will disagree. And that’s fine! That’s okay! That’s the nature of political diversity in our country.
But there’s something we should agree on: It’s stupid, very stupid, extremely stupid…that we all belong to the same party. Because even when we supposedly share the same goals, we don’t share the same goals. For instance: You can’t shake a stick without hitting a centrist Democrat who says that universal healthcare should “absolutely be the eventual result,” but who doesn’t believe in fighting for it now because of…reasons. Mostly inane reasons, like the imagined ardor the American people hold for their private insurance, all of which boil down to their perception of America’s essential center-rightness. So, in effect, no matter what they say they believe, they do not actually believe in Medicare for All at this exact moment, and because they don’t believe in it, they’re not going to fight for it, and because they’re not going to fight for it, we’re not going to get it.
Same for the Green New Deal, same for free college, etc. etc. ad nauseam. You see how silly it is that we progressives belong to the same party? We don’t believe in the same things!
It doesn’t have to be this way. The enormous fear about the ascendance of Bernie Sanders, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or anyone with the courage of their progressive convictions, is that it will “divide” the party. Hillary Clinton diehards still believe Bernie cost her the last election, and the fundamental bugaboo in the centrist brain is this idea that by dividing our loyalties, we make it easier for Republicans to win. And so we get idiotic narratives about Bernie Bros, or people calling AOC and the Justice Dems racist because they support different people of color in primaries against…incumbents of the same color. It’s madness.
In a one-on-one election, yes, there’s some truth to the spoiler theory. If Bernie ran as a third candidate for president, for instance, it would siphon votes from the Democratic candidate and pave the way for another Trump presidency. But this is easy to solve, and it can be done in three steps:
1. Form a breakaway party of Democratic-Socialists to end our current farce.
2. Institute ranked choice voting.
3. In Congress, progressives and Democrats caucus together.
The one part of that formula that may not be entirely self-explanatory is ranked choice voting, and it’s the key component. Also referred to by the term “instant runoff,” it’s a simple concept: When a voter hits the booth, he or she indicates multiple choices in a preferred order. In a theoretical presidential election in which Bernie Sanders was a third-party candidate, someone like me might have a ballot that looked like this:
1. Bernie Sanders
2. Joe Biden
Then, when all the votes are tallied, the top two candidates go into an instant runoff (provided, of course, that no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, which would end the election with a winner). That means that everyone who didn’t vote for one of those two candidates in their top spot now gets to have their second choice count. So, in the above example, let’s say that Joe Biden and Donald Trump each take 40% of the vote at first count, and Bernie takes 20%. That means Bernie is eliminated, and the instant runoff takes effect. Someone like me, who chose Bernie first, will now have my ballot counted for Joe Biden, since I essentially said “if not Bernie, then Joe.”
Maine has implemented ranked choice voting for most statewide elections, and it worked beautifully. Other municipalities in America have followed suit, but it’s still relatively uncommon.
Ranked choice voting is more than a system—it’s freedom. It would utterly change our political landscape, because it would give voters the chance to put “strategy” aside and to vote with their hearts without worrying that their failure to choose the lesser of two evils would help elect monsters. Ranked choice voting would end the concept of a “spoiler,” and the freedom would extent to political parties—there would no longer be a binding reason for progressives to stay within the Democratic party. Sure, change would happen slowly on that front, and there are power structures to consider, but the chains that hold our system in place would be broken, because “party unity” would no longer be a compelling argument.
It would work in local elections, it would work in House elections, it would work in Senate elections, it would work in presidential elections. Imagine, for instance, that instead of challenging Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary, AOC had defeated him as a third-party candidate. We wouldn’t have the silly tension between her and Nancy Pelosi, which leads to the absurdity of Pelosi attacking her own party with far more vigor than she’ll ever attack Republicans. We could end the pretense that two people like this are on the same team.
Now, maybe this is naive. Ranked choice voting might not spawn an immediate third party, since the Democratic brand is strong and comes with built-in power. But it at least opens the door to that change. And when the change comes, the new existence of three parties in Congress won’t change the fundamental reality—the Democrats and the Progressives can still caucus together against Republicans and form a sort of parliamentary coalition.
This year, the weaknesses of our electoral system are clearer than ever, and it’s led to people like Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan begging Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to form a “suicide pact” in order to avoid splitting the progressive vote and sending Joe Biden to the nomination. That’s clever, in its own way, but again, ranked choice voting could end the need for desperate maneuvers like these. On a primary ballot, in a ranked choice system, an Iowan of my persuasion might write:
1. Bernie Sanders
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Mike Gravel
And if Bernie doesn’t finish in the top two, guess what? The votes goes to Warren, and there’s no need for suicide pacts or fears of clearing a path for Biden. And again, on a larger level, someone like Bernie wouldn’t even have to run as a Democrat if he didn’t want; he could run third party and not worry about the spoiler factor.
Might I add that this would also alleviate some of the bitterness on the left? All these angry arguments about who is more electable, and the lectures about what we owe the party and the country in a general election, would disappear overnight. Every person could vote their own desire, and if our desires aren’t met, our second choices would prevail.
Now, this fix is so simple that it cannot possibly be endorsed with enthusiasm by the leadership of our major parties. Republicans will hate it, and so will powerful Democrats, because ranked choice voting necessarily erodes entrenched majorities. But there is no change that would be more empowering to the American people, in all our diversity of political opinion, than this. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it’s liberating. We deserve the right to vote with our hearts.