By Sara Gifford 

The founders of ActiVote realized a few years ago that the US elections are not really working for many of the 250 million eligible voters throughout the country. With the exception of the general election that occurs in November when more people vote than don’t, in almost all other elections only a minority of eligible voters show up to the polls. On average, it has been estimated that over all federal, state and local elections in a four-year cycle, all of us together could cast about 1.8 billion votes. However, only approximately 450 million votes are actually cast, meaning that the average turnout over all elections is about 25%. A dismal state of affairs!

One of the challenges of engaging voters in our current elections is that people often feel voting for a candidate that really inspires them is a wasted vote—their favorite candidate may not have the biggest bank account or the highest polling numbers out of the gates. Paradoxically, in contests when you can finally have 5 or 10 aspiring leaders to choose from, the act of picking just one becomes most difficult. Ranked choice voting (RCV) solves this problem by empowering voters to support multiple candidates by ranking them in the order they prefer  them: favorite candidate for first choice, second choice if the first one can’t win, third choice, and so on. This allows you to always vote for your favorite candidate, no matter how slim their odds or how big the field. This one simple fix converts elections from frustrating acts of self-suppression into celebratory events for expression.

Perhaps an even greater reason why ActiVote embraced ranked choice voting is that it incentivizes voters to immerse themselves in political contests and educate themselves on who is running.

Mobilizing Voters

Campaigns can’t solve the problem of voter engagement by themselves, not for lack of trying. Many campaigns burn through hours and hours of volunteers knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending texts, and holding up signs. All in an effort to reach voters. And if they have the money, campaigns will flood social media, radio and TV with commercials telling us why their candidate is great or why their opponents are terrible. Unfortunately, most voters don’t like to be interrupted in their daily activities. Many door knocks go unanswered or people open the door only wanting to get back to what they were doing as fast as they can. The most common reply to a phone call, besides not answering, is to ask “How did you get my number?”. And the useful life of many campaign flyers depends on the distance between the post box and the garbage can.

The problem is that many voters don’t want to be sold by a campaign. They might want to buy, but at their own time. For that, however, they need reliable, unbiased information and they don’t think they will be getting it from the campaigns that are vying for their attention. Voters don’t know where to turn for that unbiased information to let them figure out when to vote and who they would want to vote for.

That’s where ActiVote comes in.

ActiVote is an app that has a clear purpose: Informing and engaging US-eligible voters about every election they vote in, the elected officials that represent them, the bills those elected officials who are up for reelection vote on, and the policy issues that play at a local, state and federal level. The app is unbiased, nonpartisan, fact-based and then leaves it up to the user of the app to make up their own mind.

Users can interact with each part of the app and then see what other people think. For instance, whenever a voter reads about a policy topic, they can pick from five answers ranging from very progressive to very conservative. As soon as readers select their answer, they  can compare to how the rest of the ActiVote community answered. For each elected official, users can provide an approval rating and see the “TripAdvisor” rating for that official. Users can vote on each bill that will be voted on in  the state and federal legislatures, as well as follow how the representatives actually voted.

And last but not least: for every election that a user can vote in, they can see all the candidates and rank them in order of their preference.

ActiVote has chosen to use ranked choice voting for all elections, thus allowing you to not just pick the one person from a possibly long list of candidates, but instead users can create a ranking of candidates in order of preference. Once the ranking is set an instant runoff poll in the app determines which candidate has the most overall support among the ActiVote users.

ActiVote supports ranked choice voting for all the obvious reasons: it avoids the spoiler effect, it makes it easier for people to run, campaigns typically become less negative, it has a higher chance of electing the most supported candidate, etc. Also, however, we believe that it helps people better prepare for their eventual vote.

Real-Life Examples

The United States holds freedom of speech as sacrosanct, to the point organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union will go to court to protect the rights of groups accused of inciting racial hatred in other democracies. 

During the Boston City Council elections in 2019, voters were required to select four of 15 candidates. No easy task! First, users checked the ActiVote profiles for each candidate and identified 9 that they found interesting. Then they loosely assigned them a rank, leaving some of the candidates off.  In subsequent candidate forums, while sitting in the audience users could review their position, and move them up or down in ranking depending on whether they resonated with the candidate. Whenever something relevant happened during the campaign, users might check the app and adjust their ranking. Finally, when election day came, the user opened the app in the voting booth and voted for the four candidates at the top of their list. They reported to have never felt more comfortable with their vote in an election that could easily have been overwhelming with so much choice.

This example perfectly aligns with ActiVote’s mission: Seeking to help empower people to participate in elections. Part of that mission is making sure that once people are in the voting booth they don’t suddenly realize that they don’t know who to vote for. For that, keeping track of your current ranking while you are narrowing down your choices to ultimately settle on the candidate(s) you want to vote for is much better than only being able to prematurely pick one candidate from a large field. It shows that ranked choice voting is not just a better way to elect candidates, it is also a great way to narrow down your choices, even if you are voting in an election where you are only allowed to vote for a single candidate.

In races where a sufficient number of users have ranked their candidates, the instant run-off polling animation in ActiVote shows not only the 1st choice support of each candidate, but also the expected outcome of the election if it would be conducted using ranked choice voting, clarifying for anyone that instant-runoff is easy to understand. For instance, during the Democratic presidential primary in 2020, the instant run-off showed that votes in the crowded moderate lane (Bennett, Bloomberg, Bullock, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Klobuchar etc.) would go to other moderates. And during the Presidential Election it showed that virtually all Green Party voters (Hawkins) selected Joe Biden as their second choice, while a majority of the Libertarians (Jorgensen) selected Donald Trump as their choice.

For those looking for ways to better participate in future elections, consider checking out ActiVote. It’s also helpful for showing friends and family how ranked choice voting works, including the instant run-off animation illustrating how the winner is determined.

If everyone uses ActiVote, the question many people ask will change from “What is ranked choice voting all about?” to “Why can’t I rank more than one candidate on my ballot?”. Once ranked choice voting wins in the court of public opinion, it will be easier to get legislatures to come along as well.

Sara Gifford is COO and Co-Founder of ActiVote. Sara holds both a BS from Bucknell and an MS in Software Engineering from American University, and started her career as a software developer. She worked over ten years for Quintiq, including as a Regional VP and Chief Solutions Officer.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.