by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Most U.S. elections use plurality voting, in which the single candidate winning the most votes is elected, even if they fall short of a majority.  If the election is partisan, chances are that the finalists were chosen in party primaries in which relatively small groups of voters chose the Democratic and Republican nominees, respectively. 

For decades, political scientists have criticized this system as doing a poor job of translating the wishes of voters into election results. There are a number of reasons why.  First, as mentioned above, plurality voting may result in a single election winner who did not receive a majority of the votes, as can happen when there are independent and third party candidates in the race.  Not only that, but voters are often discouraged by the major parties from choosing independent and third party options, due to the fact that these candidates have little chance of winning.  Votes for anyone other than one’s preferred major party candidate (or perhaps one’s least unpreferred–the dreaded “lesser of the two evils” phenomenon) are often derided as “wasted” votes, or worse, “spoiler” votes.  For example, many Democrats insist that Green Party nominee Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 Presidential election, and it is true that Nader received approximately 95,000 votes in Florida that year. Gore needed only 538 more to win Florida from George W. Bush and therefore become President.  This study by Michael B. Herron and Jeffrey C. Lewis of UCLA confirms that Nader probably did cost Gore Florida–but only due to the state’s extreme closeness that year.  The authors go on to estimate that only about 60% of Nader voters would have chosen Gore had their candidate not been on the ballot.   

A key takeaway of Herron and Lewis’ study is that voters do not always vote with strict partisan constraint–that is, they do not always vote for the candidates of a single party.  In fact, Herron and Lewis find that this is particularly true of third party supporters.  This raises the second concern about the U.S.’s current system–primaries.  As my friend Chapman Rackaway points out, primaries draw out relatively small groups of voters with more extreme views than most Americans hold–the Democratic base is more liberal, the Republican base more conservative.  

Today, most state legislative districts, Congressional districts, and even entire states are uncompetitive between the two parties.  Thus, the key to winning an election is to win the party primaries, and this often means going to the extreme rather than running as a consensus-builder or deal maker.  A case in point here is the fragility of the current, bipartisan bill to reform immigration policy.  Months in the making, it is now losing Republican support, not because it may be bad policy, but because it may deprive former President Trump of the ability to use immigration as a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign.  Some Republicans even oppose it simply because it has the support of some Democrats, including President Biden.  Hyperpartisan viewpoints are apparent from Democrats as well.  There is no evidence that such divisions are what most Americans want from their political system. 

This is exactly why some states and several municipalities have embraced voting reforms long touted by political scientists–specifically, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and Approval Voting.  These alternatives offer the voters a chance to express more of their views than simply picking the lesser evil. But, are they working? 

Ranked Choice voting has been adopted statewide in Maine and Alaska.  Nevada voters have approved it once–a second “yes” vote will make it the law.  New York City and several other local jurisdictions now use it as well. Under RCV, voters rank the candidates in order of their preferences from first to last.  After the votes are tallied, the first-choice candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes re-cast for their respective second choices.  This process continues until a winner secures more than 50% of the vote.   

Maine was the first U.S. state to adopt RCV, in 2018.  A study by Jesse Clark of MIT and Princeton analyzed voters’ reactions to the new system. Unfortunately, the change weakened these voters’ confidence in elections, possibly because they found it confusing.  RCV failed to achieve one of its proponents’ goals–less negative advertising.  In fact, Clark found that negative ads increased with the use of RCV.  On the other hand, RCV did achieve another goal–increased support for independent and third party candidates.   

In Alaska, the recent adoption of RCV helped facilitate the election of Democrat Mary Peltola to fill a partial term in the state’s single Congressional district.  Peltola defeated Sarah Palin, the former Governor and U.S. Vice Presidential Candidate. It also enabled mainstream Republican Lisa Murkowski to hold onto her seat against MAGA opponent Kelly Tshibaka.   

Not surprisingly, Palin, Tschibaka, and other MAGA conservatives including U.S. Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton and former President Trump have become vocal critics of RCV.  Cotton called it “a totally rigged deal.”  In Alaska, RCV appears to advantage a coalition of Democrats and mainstream Republicans over MAGA candidates, a pattern that is also evident in the state’s legislature.  MAGA candidates and officeholders are infuriated, and RCV is now banned in Florida, Montana, South Dakota, and Tennessee. There are bills in several other states that would ban the practice if they become law.  

New York City adopted RCV in 2019.  It became something of a controversy in the last mayoral election, but there is little evidence that it changed the result. In fact, studies show that RCV rarely changes election outcomes.  Nationally, the leader in first-choice votes is only denied a victory by RCV only 3.8% of the time, according to a FairVote study cited by Politico.  NYC workers created this handy video explaining RCV–it may also be useful as a classroom teaching tool. 

Still, RCV has stirred controversy, and the data from Maine indicating that it may weaken voter confidence is disturbing.  Is there a simpler alternative that would still give voters more options? 

One popular, simpler alternative to RCV is approval voting, now used in several U.S. municipalities including St. Louis, which adopted it in 2021.  Approval voting allows voters to select as many candidates as they like, rather than just their first choice.  This rewards candidates who are able to build popularity even with those whose first choices are other candidates, and makes it more difficult for polarizing candidates with high negatives to win.  St. Louis now uses approval voting in the primary, and then holds a runoff between the top two finishers for the general election.  In 2021, voter turnout increased, and the African-American majority city elected its first Black mayor under the new system.  No party labels appear on the ballot. 

Many political scientists will be disappointed to learn that another electoral reform still has not caught on in the states.  Proportional representation (PR) has long been lauded as an alternative that allows much broader representation of voters’ preferences.  Under PR, after voters have their say, seats are divided up in governing bodies in proportion to the percentage of votes cast for the respective parties.  PR was once used in many U.S. cities including Cleveland and Cincinnati, where it helped weaken the power of party machines.  However, most of them have since abandoned it–partly because party politicians don’t like it.  In some cases, explicit appeals to racism and/or anticommunism convinced the public to repeal PR in the 1950s.   

Unfortunately, PR can be even more complicated than RCV.  There are various forms of PR, but they can be roughly grouped into the closed party list and open party list approaches.  Under the closed party list PR, voters see a list of candidates that will be elected in order, depending on what percentage of votes their party gets, but the voters may only vote for a party.  Under the open party list, voters may choose both a party and the candidates within that party that they wish to support.  Asking American voters to completely recalibrate how they vote in order to accommodate PR may be a heavy lift. 

A final reform idea is the top-two primary, currently being used in California and Washington State.  This system involves only one primary ballot for all voters.  All primary candidates from all parties appear on the ballot, and voters may cast their vote for one candidate–from any party–per race.  The two finalists then face each other in the general election.  In districts with a heavy partisan lean, this often means that two candidates from the same party face each other in the general election. 

The results from California and Washington have been mixed.  A meta-analysis published in New America found that the changes wrought by the top-two system have been underwhelming.  They have created new incentives to infuse money into politics by providing general election challengers in districts with a strong partisan leaning–districts where the incumbent would have otherwise won easily, perhaps unopposed. However, most Americans tell pollsters they want less, not more influence of money in politics. Top two systems have also failed to push candidates toward the moderate center.  Advocates had hoped that when two candidates from the same party squared off in the general, the supporters of the other party (say, Republicans in Nancy Pelosi’s district, or the Democrats in Kevin McCarthy’s) would support the more moderate candidate.  But studies show that voters’ primary cue for ideological leaning today is party label:  Democrat=liberal, Republican=conservative, and voters have trouble making distinctions between more and less moderate candidates from the other party.   

At the local level, St. Louis’ positive experiences with approval voting may indicate that this particular reform is the least befuddling to voters.  RCV has definitely made a splash in Alaska, but a study from Maine indicates concerns about voter confidence.  Top two primaries sound promising, but the results have been decidedly mixed.  Whatever Americans decide, there is bound to be continued interest in finding alternatives to the current system.  Many Americans are curious about a different system than one in which candidates win their primaries by placating the relatively small number of voters in the party base, then other voters choose the lesser evil in the general election–if they have a choice at all. 


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored five books, the most recent of which is Reform and Reaction: The Arc of Modern Kansas Politics.  Co-edited by H. Edward Flentje, the book will be published later in 2024.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on X (formerly known as Twitter).