It turns out that a lot of people don’t like Donald Trump.
Democrats, of course, are furious about his very existence. He stands for just about everything they oppose. Democrats are angry that any Republicans are voting for him at all, and they’re so terrified at the possibility that he might become our next President that they’re looking into ways to move to Canada (it’s not easy, by the way).
The thing is, Republicans don’t like him either. Exit polling shows that fewer than half of all Republican primary voters—who themselves are a more radical subset of the overall Republican electorate—would be happy with Trump as their nominee. This is a stunning statistic. Since this type of polling has been conducted, never before has any candidate led so late in a presidential primary for either party with so little approval from the party as a whole.
Furthermore, a national poll from mid-February showed Trump losing to both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in head-to-head matchups. Each beat Trump by about 16 percentage points, which is an enormous margin. For reference, we haven’t had a head-to-head presidential election that lopsided since 1972.
This means that Donald Trump is likely going to be the Republican nominee for President even though the majority of Republicans actively don’t want him to be, and even though Trump is the third choice among the majority of Republican voters.
How is that even possible?
Because our voting system is broken. Aside from our unwieldy voter registration process, outdated voting machines, grotesque campaign finance laws, the electoral college, gerrymandering, discriminatory voting laws… wait, sorry, where was I? Oh, right. In addition to all of those other massive flaws, the way that we count votes is practically undemocratic.
Our current system (known as “winner-take-all” or “first past the post”) determines a winner by seeing which candidate got the most votes. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if that person got 80 percent or 20 percent; as long as no one else got more votes, that person is the winner. This system forces voters to choose only one candidate to vote for.
This often results in strategic voting, in which a voter masks his or her true preference in order to avoid an undesirable overall outcome. It’s also susceptible to the “spoiler effect,” which can be summed up in two words: Ralph Nader. A spoiler is a candidate who, through no fault of their own, splinters votes from a candidate who would otherwise have won (e.g. Al Gore), handing the election to the candidate who would otherwise have lost (e.g. George W. Bush). The spoiler effect is the reason that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided not to run for President this year.
There’s a better system that could avoid these problems: ranked choice voting.
The video below uses adorable animals to explain the system far better than I ever could using only words (even “the best words”), but the gist of it is as follows: Each voter, rather than picking just one candidate among many to vote for, ranks all of the candidates in order of preference. So, Republicans this year, instead of just voting for Cruz, could have a ballot that reads: “(1) Cruz; (2) Rubio; (3) Trump.”
In the first round of vote-counting, only voters’ top preferences are counted. If one candidate gets over 50 percent of those votes, they win, just like in our current system. If not, we go to a second round. For the second round, the candidate with the lowest number of top-choice votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are then redistributed based on voters’ second choice. The process continues until one candidate has a majority.
Let’s look at an example. Say 40 percent of Republicans preferred Trump first, 35 percent preferred Cruz, and 25 percent preferred Rubio. (Much like the rest of the Republican party, we’re ignoring John Kasich.) In our current winner-take-all system, Trump would prevail, even if every single person who voted for Rubio would rather see Cruz win than Trump. In ranked choice voting, though, Trump wouldn’t win on the first round because he had less than 50 percent. Rubio, finishing last, would be eliminated, and his 25 percent of votes would be redistributed based on voters’ second choices. If all of Rubio’s voters ranked Cruz second, then Cruz would end up with 35+25=60 percent of the vote, and he would win rather than Trump.
The Nader example might be more straightforward because, well, trauma creates lasting and impactful memories. Although Al Gore won the popular vote nationally in 2000, in Florida, George W. Bush won 48.84 percent of the vote, Gore won 48.83 percent, and Ralph Nader won 1.63 percent (all other candidates combined for less than one percent). If Florida had ranked-choice voting, it’s likely that most of Nader’s voters would have ranked Gore as their second choice due to the candidates’ similar views. Shifting even a modest majority of Nader’s votes to Gore would have swung Florida, and thus the entire election, to Gore rather than Bush. The ultimate result would have recognized that a majority of Floridians preferred Gore to Bush, even if some of them preferred Nader to Gore.
Our current voting system only works in two-candidate races, which is at least part of the reason why we’re stuck with our divisive, two party system. Ranked choice allows more candidates to run, from more parties, without risk of the spoiler effect. This can lead to more engaged voters, better information about voters’ preferences, and, of course, better election outcomes.
This isn’t just hypothetical. According to FairVote, an organization dedicated to voting reform, ranked choice voting is used nationally in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Northern Ireland, and Scotland; it’s also used in party and local elections throughout the English-speaking world. But it’s not just an international phenomenon. San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and other U.S. cities use ranked choice voting in at least some of their local elections. Some states, such as Louisiana, use it for their overseas ballots in case of a runoff. (Those voters actually mail in two ballots: one standard, and one ranked-choice. The standard ballot is used in the initial count, and if the election goes to a runoff, then the voter’s ranked choice ballot is used.)
The system could pay major dividends in Philadelphia elections as well. As a one-party town, our officials are often elected in primaries with many candidates. Our mayoral election last year, for instance, had six Democrats running in the primary; in 2007 there were five big-name candidates on the ballot. This time around, Mayor Kenney won with over 50 percent of the vote, but in 2007, Mayor Nutter only received 36 percent of the vote. Who knows if he was actually preferred by a majority of voters, or if a ranked choice voting system would have seen a different candidate prevail.
Aside from more accurately reflecting the will of the people, ranked choice voting can change the tenor of campaigns. FairVote’s Michelle Whittaker says voters in ranked choice elections tend to receive more information about the candidates to help inform their second choice.
And she says it makes campaigns more civil, something we could certainly benefit from this year. “Negative tactics cause voters to drop you down their list,” she says. This means Trump, rather than playing as hard to his base as possible, would have had to reach out to other voters and have a different messaging strategy in order to get to 50 percent in a ranked choice race.
“This expands the conversation that you have with voters,” Whittaker says, “because you’re trying to reach out not just to your base, but to voters who support other candidates to make sure you’re a good second choice option for them.”
The data back her up. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll from 2013 found that voters in cities that use ranked choice voting in their local elections were happier with the conduct of candidates and their campaigns; they also experienced less criticism and negative campaigning among candidates.
Ranked choice voting would have had a massive impact on this year’s Republican presidential primary. Polls have shown that, when voters rank all of the candidates, Trump has the most first-choice votes, as we see in the actual election results. But the same polls show something else: Trump has the most last-choice votes as well. “A simulation using this data shows that Cruz actually ends up winning the nomination because he’s gaining support from other candidates more so than Trump is,” says Whittaker.
We may not be ready to make this happen on a national level just yet. But it could work in Philadelphia. Whittaker notes that Mayor Kenney has already come out in support of increasing voters’ choices. We would likely have to change our election rules, and possibly our actual voting machines, to accommodate ranked choice voting, but neither one of those things should be as complicated as, say, fixing our pension crisis. And actually, now might be the right time: Mayor Nutter last year allocated $22 million to purchase all new voting machines for Philadelphia. Perhaps we should invest in machines that could one day support a ranked choice voting system.
Admittedly, a shift to preference voting would be a massive change in our electoral system. But the presidential primary also offered the perfect laboratory in which to try it out, particularly in early voting states, when there were still a lot of candidates on the ballot. Caucuses, like those held by Iowa’s Democrats, are already pretty close to ranked choice voting, since voters can switch during the caucus to a second candidate if their first preference can’t gather enough support.
I participated in the Iowa Democratic caucus in 2008, even serving as precinct captain for my preferred candidate (a certain Vice President who shall remain nameless). My experience on that campaign was vastly different than any other I’ve been a part of, in part because we were always trying to make sure that voters at least supported our candidate as a second choice even if he wasn’t their first choice. The election felt more civil, and was more about candidates promoting themselves than trying to undercut their opponents, because that second preference really mattered for a lot of voters.
Who knows, maybe if they’d tried using ranked choice voting this year, Republicans wouldn’t be having a Trump-sized dilemma about what to do with their party.