In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only a few thousand votes in pivotal states. In these states, the Libertarian and Green parties received more votes than the margins of victory. Had some of these votes transferred to Clinton, there may have been a different 45th president.
But the blame for results like this should not fall upon third parties or their voters. It should fall on a flawed electoral system that perpetuates gridlocked two-party politics, election after election.
Almost all elections in the U.S. rely on the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, where the candidate with the most votes — regardless of whether a majority supports them — wins. It is simple and straightforward.
However, it is the same system that twists voters into voting for someone they do not love, who may be merely the lesser of the two evils that have a shot at winning. The 2016 presidential election demonstrates how FPTP is responsible for this so-called “spoiler effect”.
Fear of this outcome forces tactical voting, which occurs when people vote for a less desirable but more popular candidate. This strips away votes from third parties with little chance of victory. The natural consequence of this is a two-party system — in America’s case, the Democrats and the Republicans.
We need a system that represents the American people’s true preferences. This cannot be a system that squashes third parties from representation and makes sure that the only impact they have is negative for those who vote for them. We need a new way to vote.
A new way to vote can be found in Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). In RCV, also known as instant-runoff voting (IRV), voters rank the candidates in order of preference, and have the option to not rank some candidates. After the votes are counted, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to their second choices. This process is continued until two candidates are left, and the candidate with the majority wins.
While it is not a proportional system where seats in a legislative body are distributed by the share of the vote each party receives, RCV nonetheless addresses the spoiler effect and the resultant tactical voting in all sizes of elections. It also encourages more positive campaigns because candidates have to be liked by supporters of other campaigns in order to receive their vote if that candidate is eliminated.
RCV was implemented in Ann Arbor, Mich. following the mayoral election in 1973, when the student/activist-led Human Rights Party (HRP) split the Democratic vote and resulted in a Republican victory. In the following 1975 mayoral election, the vast majority of HRP voters selected the Democratic candidate as their second choice, and with a 0.4 percent margin of victory, the Democrat was elected. The result prompted Republicans to attack the system with litigation and a repeal vote. While the judge ruled in favor of RCV, the vote defeated it.
The bleak demise of Ann Arbor’s RCV experiment does not have to happen again. In contrast, a Maine ballot measure for RCV’s use in state and federal congressional elections passed in 2016 and successfully resisted measures to prevent its implementation. Moreover, RCV was expanded in Maine for the presidential general election taking place in 2020, and for the primaries in 2024.
A fairer system that represents voters can and must be implemented. The construct of two choices created by FPTP is not such a system. Voters deserve a chance to express their true wishes for who should be in office, without the fear of letting “the greater evil” taking it instead. And it is time that third parties are enabled to bring their views to the table without inciting the anger of the most similar major party.
We need to support the candidates that support these improvements to the electoral system. We need to support organizations working to make our votes matter. And each time the opportunity for a better voting system comes to the polls or the halls of power, we must voice our support — through a ballot saying yes, through a letter of persuasion — for what will make the voices of the people heard.
We need a system that represents the people.
We need to end First-Past-The-Post and put Ranked-Choice Voting in its place.