Do or do not Americans believe elections and/or the functions of government should be determined by the will of the majority?
For most Americans, the response to that question would be yes. The problem is the election system Americans are using (especially in partisan primary elections) is obscuring, if not outright thwarting, the will of the majority. In other words, too many American primary elections are resulting in the will of the minority being imposed on the majority.
What this essay will do is show you why the statements above are true—and what to do to solve the problem.
The Partisan Primary Problem
The principal problem with partisan primary elections comes when an office has multiple candidates contesting for the nomination for the general election and the ballot being used is the standard “winner take all” or “first past the post” format. This is the ballot format only allowing voters to vote for one candidate and no other expression of preference is allowed. (Affordable alternative ballot methods exist; more on that shortly.)
As a result, the winner of partisan primary elections with strong candidates will too often mean the winner of the election will have only a plurality of the vote, not a majority. (Majority being defined as 50 percent plus one vote or better of all the votes cast.) In other words, the type of ballot being used with multiple candidates can make it impossible to determine the true will of the majority.
There are two recent regional examples of this for important offices. (These results are cited as examples, not as an expression of disagreement with the results in and of themselves but purely because they clearly illustrate the problem.)
In the 2012 Republican Party primary elections for U.S. Senate in Missouri and Nebraska, Todd Akin won in Missouri with 36 percent of the Republican vote. This means 64 percent of Republican voters preferred someone else to be the nominee. Akin went on to defeat in the general election.
Deb Fischer won in Nebraska with 41 percent of the Republican vote. This means 59 percent of Republican voters preferred someone else to be the nominee. Fischer went on to victory in the general election.
The realities of time and money in elections means Americans have become accustomed to accepting inferior results like these as normal. There are two realities driving this acceptance. One reality is holding runoff elections has been deemed unaffordable. Taxpayers foot the bill for elections, and elections are expensive. The fixed costs of things like renting polling places, printing ballots and employing poll workers have restricted the ability to hold runoff elections.
Another reality against holding a runoff election is doing so only delays selecting a party’s nominee and hinders that candidate’s preparation for the general election.
Why No Runoff Election Is Bad
There are two problems with results like the ones described above and no opportunity for runoff elections. One is that when nonpartisan voters vote in the general election, they are being forced to choose between at least one candidate who was not even a majority choice within their own party.
Consider these specific numbers from the 2012 Nebraska Republican U.S. Senate Primary Election. Out of 547,366 registered Republicans, only 35.3 percent voted in the primary. Of that 35.3 percent, 79,039 voters made Deb Fischer the winner with 41 percent of the vote. In other words, 14.44 percent of Republicans decided who would be on the ballot for the Republican Party in the general election. By either measure, total Republicans or total voting Republicans, this is far short of 50 percent plus one vote or better.
As these numbers illustrate, while more voters need to be aware of the importance of primary elections and participate in them, the even more pressing problem is the inability of the current methodology to determine the will of the voting majority. Instead, the will of the minority is being imposed on the majority. (And while Republican results in a red state are being shown, similar examples for Democrats in a blue state could be found.)
Here is the second problem the inability to determine the true will of the majority within the party creates. Consider a situation where a party’s membership is made of two factions. One faction with 60 percent of the membership favors philosophy A1. The other faction’s 40 percent favors philosophy A2. What can happen is if two candidates run from the philosophy A1 faction, but only one from philosophy A2, then the votes of the philosophy A1 supporters can be split in such a way that philosophy A2’s candidate wins.
That win poses problems for the party membership in the general election. Should or should not philosophy A1 supporters campaign and vote for someone who does not support their philosophy?
Further, nonpartisan voters may have an expectation that when they vote for that party, they are voting for philosophy A1. If nonpartisan voters vote with an expectation of getting government based on philosophy A1, but get philosophy A2 instead, then this may erode voters’ confidence in the party brand for future elections. Determining the will of the majority, therefore, can be desirable, even vital, for preserving the integrity of the party brand.
The Problem Exists in 2014
Circumstances have created the potential for a continuation of the problems described above for the 2104 Partisan Primary Elections in Nebraska and in other states, too.
In Nebraska the political parties will be choosing candidates for two key state wide offices in 2014—governor and U.S. senate. No incumbents are running for reelection. So far there are five Republican candidates for governor and four for the Senate.
One informed source stated the Republican nominee for governor could likely win with 28 percent of the vote. This means 72 percent of the party will have preferred someone else. Surely the determination of a nomination as important as this one should not be determined by a motivated minority of the party.
In Iowa, with five declared candidates for U.S. Senate from the Republican Party, the potential for a similar result exists. Indeed, if no candidate gets at least 35 percent of the vote (which has a high probability of happening), then the nomination will be determined at the state convention. Clearly, this is undesirable.
The Solution to the Problem
The good news is Americans no longer need to accept an inferior voting system.
An alternative voting system, already in use in various states and municipalities in the U.S. as well as internationally,* could be used. In fact, one of the best uses of this system is in elections with multiple candidates such as primaries. This system enables the determination of the will of the majority, is highly cost-effective and achieves a better sense of satisfaction with the results. This alternative system is known as Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). (Same system, different names.)
All that would hopefully be required is investment in the software needed to be able to read a revised ballot format with the state’s current voting machines. The cost of that software could be amortized over decades of elections. Voters would only have to vote once. Similarly, polling places, ballot printing and election workers would remain a one-time expense.
How RCV Works
As with so many things, the advent of computers enables this cost-effective alternative to the standard winner-takes-all ballot. For voters, the change is simple. Rather than being able to vote for only one candidate for a single winner office, voters rank order their top three choices among the candidates for an office. (See a sample ballot here.)**
The computer then calculates the results. If a candidate gets enough first-choice votes with the initial results to have a winning total (50 percent of all votes plus one vote or better), then a winner is declared. No other calculations or processes are required.
If no candidate has the required majority, then the computer determines which candidate has the fewest first-choice votes. This candidate is eliminated. The computer reallocates the votes for the eliminated candidate based on the choices of the voters themselves. In other words, for the voters for whom the eliminated candidate was their first choice, the computer now assigns their individual votes to whomever they named as their second choice. The computer then determines if a winning majority has been achieved. If so, a winner is declared. If not, the process is repeated using the voters’ highest choice among the remaining candidates until a winner is determined.
Using RCV, therefore, enables the voters to determine the true will of the majority, to have more and better choices when they vote and to have better government as a result.
What You Can Do
The author is in the process of proposing Nebraska use RCV for the 2014 Party Primary elections for statewide offices where there are more than two candidates on the ballot. This would apply especially for the offices of governor and U.S. Senate but not for the Unicameral or Congress and not for the general election.
To succeed, more people than just the author need to support this proposal.
Accordingly, voting readers are asked to do three things:
1. Express your support and make your opinions known. Take the seven-question survey at this SurveyMonkey link: www.surveymonkey.com/s/Y26R8RN.
2. Make everyone on your big email list—the one you use when you’ve found a really funny joke—aware of this essay and ask them to do these same three things. Except this isn’t funny. This is a real way to begin to give voters better choices and make government more effective and efficient.
3. Regardless of what state you live in, forward this to your state senators and/or representatives. Tell them you like this idea. Tell them you want elections to determine the true will of the majority. Tell them you want more voting choices on the ballot and better government as a result. Tell them you want to be able to vote in your primary using RCV and you expect them to make it happen.
Keep this in mind: you have the behavior and outcomes you have today from government because of the system we use to elect the officials of our government. You will continue to have the same behavior and outcomes so long as we continue to use the existing system.
If you want to change the behavior and outcomes you’re getting, then you have to change the system first. This is a small step on that path. Keep in mind you had to learn to walk before you could run.
Thanks for your help.
* Listing of where RCV is already in use: www.fairvote.org/where-instant-runoff-is-used#.Ujd1MtKsiSo.
** Link to video explaining RCV and Sample RCV ballot: www.fairvote.org/How-Instant-Runoff-Voting-Works. Link to a sample ballot (note that these ballots incorporate a variation of RCV whereby voters only mark their top three choices): fairvotemn.org/sites/fairvotemn.org/files/RCV%20DEMO_08%2020%2009.pdf.