By Ed Stanford
Every time an election rolls around, whether it’s a primary or a general election, voters need to answer two questions:
Who do I think will do the best job?
Who do I think can get elected? (This is also known as “Electability)
The first question, “Who do I think will do the best job?”, is not an easy question to answer. Voters listen to policy proposals, consider past performance, and weigh the intangible qualities of character and personality. We want to choose the person we trust to represent us and make decisions that will affect our lives.
As difficult as the first question may be, the second question, “Who do I think can get elected?”, is impossible to manage. Beyond asking which candidate we would choose to trust and represent us, now we must try to guess which candidate other voters might choose.
“Electability is in the eye of the beholder,” said Patrick Murray, who runs the well-respected Monmouth University poll. “Voters are not very good at predicting electability…It really is ill-informed, but we know that it’s not facts —but perception — that drive voter behavior.” 1
The bigger the election, the harder this question is the answer; guessing how hundreds of thousands will vote for a local legislator, or millions for a congressperson or governor, or hundreds of millions for the President.
Every election we are forced to play the high-stakes guessing game of “Electability” if we want to avoid “wasting” our vote. Our vote will only “count” if we vote for someone who actually stands a chance of winning. Does this sound familiar?
I like Candidate Hero and I think they would do a fantastic job representing me, and I think Candidate Jerkface is untrustworthy and doesn’t care about people like me. Unfortunately Candidate Jerkface is leading the polls and Candidate Hero is near the bottom.
Candidate Ambivalent is running second in the polls. I want to vote for Candidate Hero, but I am afraid I will waste my vote and Candidate Jerkface will get elected, so I settle for Candidate Ambivalent because they seem to have more support.
Settling feels lousy and personally I am sick of it. The plurality voting system currently in vogue in the United States permits voters to express only one choice and it forces us to worry about “electability” in order to avoid wasting our votes.
I am excited that in Ranked Choice Voting I never have to worry about wasting my vote.
Consider this situation:
I like Candidate Hero and I think they would do a fantastic job representing me. Despite the low poll numbers, I can rank Candidate Hero as my first choice because I know that if they don’t have enough support then my vote will count towards my second rank choice, Candidate Sidekick. If neither of them gets enough support and no candidate has majority support yet, then my vote will count towards Candidate Ambivalent, my third choice. I think Candidate Jerkface is untrustworthy and doesn’t care about people like me, so I won’t even rank them.
I only had to consider the first question, “Who do I think will do the best job?”, to rank my choices. That is so much easier than guessing what other people think and because my vote continues to count until one candidate has a majority of votes, it is not possible to “waste” or “lose” my vote. I no longer have to worry about “Electability.”
Eliminating the specter of “Electability” lets voters focus on the only question that should matter: “Who will do the best job.”
Here is an additional thought:
When voters have to worry about “Electability” and are influenced by their perception of group opinion, it masks support for less mainstream candidates. When X% of people who prefer Candidate Hero are persuaded by “Electability” arguments to vote for Candidate Ambivalent instead, we lose an accurate measure of support for Candidate Hero. The perception is that their ideas are less popular than reality.
Ranked Choice Voting preserves authentic information about supporters. Maybe Candidate Ambivalent does end up winning the election, but we will also see that Candidate Hero received +X% of support compared to a plurality election. Candidate Ambivalent might realize they need to address some of the policies and ideas of Candidate Hero to woo supporters in future elections.