Another Year When Ranked-Choice Voting Would Make Our Votes Really Count and When the Top-Two Primary Cuts Us Off Short
by Stoney Bird
Yikes! Thirty-six candidates for governor. Thirteen Democratic candidates for president. Eight candidates for Congress in the Second Congressional District.
These numbers are welcome signs of political engagement. It’s too bad the electoral system that we have (the winner-take-all system, coupled in Washington with the top-two primary) can’t handle numbers like these.
It’s not that the computers can’t count that high. It’s rather that the method of counting itself systematically disenfranchises voters and produces unrepresentative results. This is a disenfranchisement not connived at by venial election officials, but something that is built in to the system itself.
More and more people at large are seeing how far winner-take-all elections take us from representative government. Two distinguished and respected national groups have recently joined the crowd of supporters. The American Academy of Arts and Scientists have just published a report entitled “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” They put adoption of ranked-choice voting at the top of their list, second only to increasing the number of members of the House of Representatives (an interesting topic in itself). (Links to this report and other sources can be found under “Sources” at the end of this article.)
The League of Women Voters of the United States has adopted criteria for a good election method. Among them are encouraging voter participation and voter engagement, encouraging those with minority opinions to participate, minimizing wasted votes, and promoting sincere voting over strategic voting. Only ranked-choice voting meets these criteria.
The national media that have come on board include The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and Freakonomics. Our local media have been active also: The [Everett] Daily Herald, Cascadia Weekly, Northwest Citizen, and of course Whatcom Watch. And, if you don’t check any other links, try the one to the hilarious sendup that Hasan Minhaj conducts as part of his Patriot Act series on Netflix.
A year in advance, The [Everett] Herald op-ed predicted the widespread disenfranchisement of voters that actually occurred and that was an almost inevitable result of conducting the Democratic Presidential Primary as a winner-take-all election.
Let’s see how that happened.
Wasted Votes: Presidential Primary
There were 13 candidates on the printed ballot. By the time the primary date occurred, only two candidates remained in the race, the others having conceded. In the meantime, nearly 400,000 voters had cast their single vote for one of the candidates who had dropped out. These voters’ participation in the election was effectively fruitless. That is to say, about a quarter of those who voted wasted their time — except perhaps as a demonstration yet again, if one were needed, the system in which they were participating was inadequate as a way to achieve representation for the peoples’ views.
Here’s another feature: neither Biden nor Bernie was anywhere close to receiving a majority of the votes in the primary. Biden, the leader, was short in round numbers by 188,000 votes, and received less than 40 percent of the turnout. Do we really want a system of voting that produces minority winners as a matter of course when there are more than two candidates?
If the election had been conducted using ranked-choice voting, many voters who had voted for one of those who dropped out would likely have assigned their second choice (or third or fourth choice) to Biden or Bernie. Because the counting would have gone through several rounds, their votes would most likely eventually have counted. Many fewer voters would have cast votes that had no effect. And the winner would be a majority winner.
But let’s look at the results of the presidential primary even more closely. Biden’s vote total in the primary was a little over 21,000 more than Bernie’s. With that slim margin, Bernie might easily have been the winner had the election been conducted using the ranked-choice method. The 142,000 votes for Elizabeth Warren alone would likely have given him the edge.
So, on that level also, the winner-take-all election that actually took place most likely failed to reflect the views of the voters.
Not a very good start for an election year!
One good thing about the Democratic Presidential Primary: the turnout was pretty high, likely about 60 percent of Democratic voters.
Primary for Governorship
In the governor’s race, the story is essentially the same: many candidates and a vote that must be given all or nothing to only one of them. The result is many, many wasted votes, which is to say votes that don’t result in representation.
This primary is an extreme example of how many votes in a winner-take-all election can count for nothing. In the strict sense in which political scientists use the term, a wasted vote is either a vote for a losing candidate or a surplus vote for a winning candidate. Neither of these two kinds of votes yields an increase in representation. Inslee has received about one and a quarter million votes. His next competitor has received a quarter of a million. The remaining candidates share over three-quarters of a million votes between them. The votes for candidates other than the top two have achieved no representation and are wasted. Of the votes for Inslee, a million votes are surplus (more than he needed to get into the general election), and so are equally wasted. Of the votes for Culp, roughly 200,000 are surplus to what he needed to beat Freed, his next competitor. In total in this primary, 1.8 million votes (three-quarters of all the votes) are wasted!
You can make the calculation for the primary in the Second Congressional District.
No wonder people think their votes don’t count! In every winner-take-all election, most votes actually don’t count towards achieving representation.
Primaries: Beyond-Use Date
When primaries were first devised during the Progressive Era, the aim was to put the voters in charge of selecting the candidates of each party. Until then, choosing the candidates had been in the hands of Democratic and Republican party bosses. Boss Tweed, of the New York City Democratic Party machine, was one of those who understood the importance of controlling the nominating process. But, he only “controlled” for a time. Eventually, he had to flee New York as a deck hand on an ocean liner, was apprehended in Spain, was returned to New York and convicted on 200 counts of various kinds of corruption and theft. He died in jail.
Washington’s “top-two” primary sets all candidates for a given position against one another, no matter what their political leanings, to see which two will go through to the general election in November. It’s a primary just for the sake of having a primary. There’s actually no good reason to cut down the field in this way — or to incur the public expense — especially when the remedy is at hand in the form of ranked-choice voting.
Here’s another practicality of primaries. Younger voters barely vote in them at all. Of those aged 18-24 (post-millennials), about half are registered to vote, but only 4 percent of these vote in primaries. Of millennials (those aged 25-35), about 65 percent are registered, and only 9 percent of these vote in primaries. By contrast, 90 percent of eligible people over 60 typically are registered to vote, and, of these, 60 percent vote in primaries. This is unbalanced.
The effective exclusion of student voters is worsened because they often register at one address (let’s say, their college address), and then, when the primary ballots are mailed out in August, are staying at a different address (let’s say, the beach). As a matter of policy, the post office does not forward ballots! There is a way out: the student in question can call the local auditor’s office and request the ballot be mailed to the address where the student will be staying over the summer — but why have we set things up to be so difficult? This is yet another form of voter suppression, and one that has been in effect for a long time.
Voters of every age turn out less often in the primaries than they do in the general elections. Often, the most partisan voters vote in the primaries, with the result that the most partisan candidates are the ones we are left to vote on in November, another false choice for the voters.
The combination of the spoiler effect and the artificial constraint of “top-two-ism” exacerbates one of the worst tendencies of winner-take-all elections: to restrict elections to two parties.
A further defect is the possibility of producing really unrepresentative results. For example, in the 2016 primary election for state Treasurer, three Democrats split 52 percent of the vote, and two Republicans split 48 percent of the vote. In the general election, the voters got to choose between the two Republicans!
So, with Washington state’s very odd “top-two” primary, as I summarized in my July 2019 Whatcom Watch article, we get a voting method that:
a. “doesn’t select a given party’s candidate (the original purpose of primaries),
b. unnecessarily limits the field that the voters can choose from,
c. has the potential to produce a really unrepresentative result,
d. leaves out the younger (and older) voters at an important early stage of the election process, and
e. takes a chunk out of the public treasury in order to achieve these curious aims.”
Elections Without Handcuffs
Lisa Ayrault, director of FairVote Washington, tells a story of the time when she was a middle school math teacher 30 years ago. She took her seventh grade math students through the various different voting methods. They didn’t pick a system they thought was the best, but it was very clear to those seventh graders that the winner-take-all system was the worst you could have.
When we adopted it in 1789, constituting the government out of people who were elected was a major step forward. At that time, winner-take-all was the only known way for conducting elections. Since then things have changed a lot.
What is so bad about winner-take-all elections? To begin with, there is the spoiler effect, sometimes known as the perceived need to vote for the “lesser of two evils.” People are very often afraid to vote for the candidate they really like for fear it will throw the election to a person they really can’t stand. They are voting their fear rather than voting for what they want. It’s the election method itself that puts them in these handcuffs. It means: the results do not reflect what the people really want.
It also means the election system itself shepherds people into voting for just two parties, when it’s perfectly clear there are many more than just two points of view — another way in which our political system misrepresents our views.
The constraints imposed by the spoiler effect are bad enough, but let’s talk a little about gerrymandering. Years ago, Mark McDaniel, an unusually frank Republican politician who was then a state senator in North Carolina, accurately described what redistricting is intended to do in these United States (see quote in middle column). The League of Women Voters recently estimated that 90 percent of the seats in Congress are effectively taken out of the hands of the voters by this corruption of our elections. The politicians realize this, and, under cover of their “polarization” dramas, are firmly united in preserving the gerrymandering system. It keeps them in office whether they do the public’s bidding or not! Not having to pay attention to voters, they are free to conduct the business of their major donors — and, as political scientists have shown, that is the business that they conduct, not ours (see Page and Gilens, “Democracy in America?” in sources).
In Washington state, the gerrymandering is done in bipartisan fashion. I described how that works in the July 2019 issue of Whatcom Watch.
With winner-take-all elections, we can vote all we want, but the politicians have insulated themselves from it having any effect. As I am increasingly hearing from people who, weary with the falseness of our system, are resorting to cynicism: “If voting did make a difference, they wouldn’t allow it.”
Turning the Corner
With ranked-choice voting, you don’t have either of these two structural problems. People can vote freely for the candidates they like. As long as they have marked down more than one choice, their voting for their real favorite can’t throw the election to the bad, bad candidate.
Better yet, gerrymandering becomes effectively impossible. That’s because, if it’s adopted in its multiwinner form, it produces proportional representation. Let’s unpack that idea a little.
Up to now in this article, we’ve been talking about single-winner ranked-choice voting. That kind of voting is suitable for offices like mayor or governor where there is only one office-holder. One of the problems with the current Washington system is we apply single-winner ideas even when we are electing a body, such as the legislature or a county council (or port district, or PUD, or school board, and on and on).
From the point of view of a voter filling out a ballot, multiwinner ranked-choice voting is just like the single-winner type. You rank as many candidates as you like. There are several representatives from each district and the vote counting is a little different, but the end result is that representation on those bodies will be in proportion to the views of the voters. In other words, if 40 percent of the voters have a particular point of view, that point of view will be able to get 40 percent of the representation in their district.
How finely grained the resulting proportional representation is depends on how many representatives there are per district, but, if the system were properly set up, conservatives who happened to live in western Washington could be represented by someone they voted for, for example, and progressives who live in eastern Washington could likewise be represented.
Gerrymandering is one problem. Another is that when you have elections in the single-winner form, a bare plurality of voters can get all the representation. That’s a particular problem where elections are conducted at-large. We have some of these in Whatcom County (some of the seats on the County Council and all the seats on the Bellingham City Council, for example).This is the problem the voters of Yakima County have been facing, a situation which we’ll talk about just below.
Experience shows that where ranked-choice voting is adopted, people who would not have considered running are more likely to run — and to be elected. This includes women, racial and ethnic minorities, and third parties. In other words, our elected bodies begin to fulfill John Adams’ ideal: that they should be a “mirror” to the public.
More than that, in a crowded field like the recent Democratic Presidential primary, candidates would not have to shout at one another about their differences, especially when, for the most part, they share values and aims as many of those Democratic candidates did. Where ranked-choice voting is adopted, the amount of negative campaigning tends to decrease.
Yakima: Representation for All
In Yakima County, 48 percent of the people are Latinx. They have been unable to elect one of their own to the County Commission for the last 20 years. Under Washington’s brand new Voting Rights Act, local plaintiffs and state groups have sued, and proposed ranked-choice voting as the remedy. As the Voting Rights Act requires, they notified the commission six months in advance. Sadly, the commission did nothing. The outcome is likely to be a court order to implement ranked-choice voting. This will allow this significant minority to achieve representation in proportion to its numbers. Something similar recently happened in Eastpointe, Michigan, using the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court
I joined the legal profession years ago in part because I so admired the civil rights decisions the Supreme Court of the United States was making. It wasn’t too long before I realized: what the Supreme Court had made, the Supreme Court could unmake. Rather much later, I realized what the Supremes were doing both in the making and the unmaking was altering and then re-altering the Constitution. They were a continuing Constitutional convention consisting of a tiny minority assembled without having been appointed for that purpose by the people that they were governing. Way back in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supremes had appointed themselves!
I won’t go into some of their most extraordinary constitutional “discoveries” — that corporations are persons, that “separate but equal” was okay, that money equals speech and therefore that political contributions by the rich cannot be restrained. I won’t even go into their long period overturning any kind of legislation providing benefits for workers or other social causes under the doctrine (never before seen in law) of “substantive due process.”
For now, I’ll only mention their recent decisions relating to partisan gerrymandering. There was briefly cause for hope when they took up a case involving flagrant partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin (the Wickford v. Gill case) and equally flagrant Democratic Party gerrymandering in Maryland. Then-Justice Kennedy resigned and Kavanaugh was appointed. The result was a decision declaring that partisan gerrymandering was a “political” question (Suprem-ese for “we won’t go there”) that could best be solved by state legislatures, the “political” branch. Pay no attention to the fact that it was the legislature that set up the system of partisan election-rigging in the first place.
As Mr. Dooley said years ago, “No matter whether the Constitution follows the flag or not, the Supreme Court follows the election returns.”
If that’s what they do, then we should be able to elect them.
For much of the last several years, I’ve been supporting a statewide movement to adopt ranked-choice voting. The organization leading this effort is a nonpartisan nonprofit called FairVote Washington. It’s affiliated with the national FairVote organization, and there are similar efforts all over the country. In November, ranked-choice voting will be on the ballot in Massachusetts, Alaska, North Dakota, and perhaps Arkansas. The state of Maine now uses it in all its federal and state elections.
FairVote has been promoting a bill in the Washington Legislature that would allow local jurisdictions to adopt ranked-choice voting if they wanted to do that. This coming year, it will present more bills for the Legislature to consider. They would provide for ranked-choice voting for state-level offices and for a uniform system around the state. And, if the Legislature won’t act, FairVote is eyeing the initiative route.
You can be part of this. Over 6,000 Washingtonians have signed on as supporters of ranked-choice voting in the last year, including well over 100 current candidates for state or local office. All this and more you can see on the FairVote Washington website (www.fairvotewa.org). If you go to the website, you can sign up, too (or even donate!).
Join us. It will help make your vote count.
• American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” 2020: www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/2020-Democratic-Citizenship_Our-Common-Purpose_0.pdf.
• Bird, Stoney, “Ranked-choice voting supported by Bellingham City Council,” Northwest Citizen, March 4, 2020: https://nwcitizen.com/entry/ranked-choice-voting-supported-by-bellingham-city-council/P1000.
• Bird, Stoney, “This Year We Could Really Use Ranked Choice Voting: And here is a chance to try it out!” Whatcom Watch, July, 2019: whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/this-year-we-could-really-use-ranked-choice-voting/.
• Bird, Stoney, “Washington: A Democracy Leader: But there is too much big money in our politics,” Whatcom Watch, May, 2020: whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/washington-a-democracy-leader/.
• Cole, Colin, “With crowded field, caucus best for state Democrats: Unless Ranked-choice voting is used, the presidential primary could disenfranchise many voters,” The [Everett] Herald, March 19, 2019: www.heraldnet.com/opinion/comment-with-crowded-field-caucus-best-for-state-democrats/.
• Dubner, Stephen, “America’s Hidden Duopoly,” Freakonomics, October 31, 2018: freakonomics.com/podcast/politics-industry/.
• Gehl, Katherine M., and Michael E. Porter, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America: A strategy for reinvigorating our democracy,” Harvard Business Review: www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/Documents/why-competition-in-the-politics-industry-is-failing-america.pdf. (The authors examine the politics industry — worth many billions of dollars to all the consultants and others involved — and ask if it is competitive enough to allow voters some actual choice. This is a conventional and useful kind of question for business school professors to ask about an industry. Their conclusion: it isn’t.)
• Page, Benjamin, and Martin Gilens, “Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It,” University of Chicago Press, 2020. (The authors examined over 1,700 decisions that Congress made during the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s and compared those decisions with public opinion as expressed through polling. The correlation between the strength of public opinion about an issue and what Congress decided was nil. If the public happened to want what rich people wanted, they got what they wanted 80 percent of the time. Readers should note that the study period was long before Citizens United, but after the Supreme Court’s “money is speech” decisions of the 1970s.)
• Johnson, Tim, The Gristle: “Vote,” Cascadia Weekly, July 25, 2018: http://www.cascadiaweekly.com/cw/currents/vote_2018.
• League of Women Voters of the United States, “Proposed Concurrence on Electoral Systems,” www.lwv.org/league-management/proposed-concurrence-electoral-systems. (At the recent biennial national conference of the League, these principles were overwhelmingly adopted as ones that state Leagues could “concur” in and support.)
• Minhaj, Hasan, We’re Doing Elections Wrong, Patriot Act, Netflix, June 22, 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MykMQfmLIro.
• The New York Times, “The Primaries Are Just Dumb: There’s a better way to do democracy,” Feb. 26, 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/opinion/democrats-primary-south-carolina.html. (The editorial board of the Times notes that with ranked-choice voting there would be no need for a primary, and that candidates who shared views — as the candidates in the Democratic Presidential Primary did to a great extent — could support one another instead of tearing at one another’s throats.)
Stoney Bird worked as a corporate lawyer for many years. In 2011-12, he was one of the leaders of the campaign for a Bellingham Community Bill of Rights that would have called for a ban on the transportation of coal through Bellingham, and would have acknowledged the rights of Bellingham ecosystems to exist and thrive. More recently, he has been part of the movement for adoption of ranked-choice voting. Seeing that people are removing Confederate monuments all over the country, he has decided to do the same with the Confederate monument of his own name, and will no longer call himself Stonewall Jackson Bird.