By Howard Dean
Democrats face immense challenges to hold onto their majorities in Congress and state governorships. As a partisan, I want my party to do as well as it can.
But democracy is more than what’s best for a party. It’s what best for voters. Among Americans’ inalienable rights should be a commitment of their elected officials to set aside partisan calculations when structuring the rules governing our democracy.
Too often, that’s not what we see. In the redistricting soon to take place across the nation, for example, expect rampant partisan ugliness as legislators pick their voters before their votes pick them. But other leaders sincerely want democracy to work for voters. That helps explain increasing adoptions of ranked choice voting, a reform that addresses two of the most urgent problems in our democracy: upholding majority rule when voters have more two choices and curbing the increasingly negative character of campaigns.
Debated vigorously when Ross Perot earned 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992 and Ralph Nader tipped Florida away from Al Gore in 2000, split votes have become a regular feature of our elections. It wouldn’t surprise me if a dozen races for governor and U.S. Senate were won with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Ranked choice voting handles voter choice with a sensible change. After indicating your first choice, you have the option to rank alternate choices.
If no candidate wins a 50 percent plus one majority, then those rankings are used to simulate an instant runoff: the weak candidates are eliminated, and their backers’ votes are added to the totals of the frontrunners. The candidate who wins a majority in the final instant runoff is the winner.
I learned to appreciate ranked choice voting in 1998, when running for governor of Vermont. I faced strong nominees of both the Republican and Progressive party. With votes split three ways, I barely won a majority. Major parties can react to such an election in one of two ways: fight the very existence of third parties or change laws to handle increased voter choice. Ranked choice voting represents this more democratic approach.
My state has had ongoing debates about it — the legislature even approved it for congressional races in 2008. Elsewhere, it’s now law in cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., and Memphis, Tenn. North Carolina is using ranked choice voting to fill a statewide judicial vacancy. Several Utah Republicans won RCV-elections to fill state legislative vacancies. The United Kingdom next year will vote in a referendum on whether to join Australia and Ireland in using it for national election. Ranked choice voting is even used now to pick the Best Picture Oscar.
This year’s elections demonstrate why it makes sense. In races for governor in Rhode Island and Colorado and for U.S. Senator in Alaska and Florida, major party nominees are running third, put in the “spoiler role” usually assigned to third parties. Elsewhere, the very lack of such viable independent and third party candidates will keep potential voters from the polls.
Having more competition forces candidates to clean up negative campaigning and stick to the issues. Knowing they may need support from supporters of other candidates to win, candidates have to tone down personal attacks.
Reaching out to more voters also helps them govern better when they win.
The fundamental issue is majority rule. Without a majority standard, you can’t hold power accountable. It’s a blight on democracy when an incumbent can be returned to office even though 60 percent of voters reject that candidate as their last choice. That’s why both Sen. John McCain and President Barack Obama have actively backed ranked choice voting. No party has a lock on majority rule, and both major parties can stand up for it.
With ranked choice voting, we can uphold majority rule, make campaigns less negative and foster less partisan elections. Let’s make democracy work for all of us.
Dr. Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a candidate for president.