By Howie Fain
Rank the Vote is proud to publish this historical overview of ranked choice voting in the US, authored by Howie Fain. A retired public school teacher from Worcester, Massachusetts, Howie was a co-founder of FairVote in 1992. Find more of Howie’s work at www.prvoting.com
This ranked choice voting history will be published serially, once a week, in nine installments that bring us up through the end of the twentieth century. We hope the history that unfolds in these installments is as revelatory and inspiring for you as it was for us. This is the second installment in the series. For more, visit U.S. Elections and Ranked Choice Voting: An Early History, in Five Acts.
The Curtain Rises on US Elections, 1787-1842
Unbeknownst to many, the framers of the U.S. Constitution did not identify a specific voting method that states must use, even when electing their own Congressional delegations. In practice, however, all elections were guided by one shared overriding “principle”: as one of the earliest adopters of modern representative democracy itself, the U.S. borrowed its system of winner-take-all legislative elections from its former colonial ruler, Great Britain, as there were no other models to choose from at the time. Less well-known about that heritage is that both countries made use of multi-winner districts as well as single-winner districts when electing their legislative assemblies—though they were still winner-take-all.
For instance, in the first Congressional elections following ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Pennsylvania elected all eight of its representatives in a single statewide contest known as the general ticket, which was adopted by several other states as well. To elect their state senators, Pennsylvania also chose to subdivide the state into a series of larger districts from which multiple senators were elected using a similar form of block voting.
Block voting in such multi-winner contests was designed to allow the majority party or group to sweep all the available seats in the state or district, leaving the minority party unrepresented. And that’s generally what happened, just as was also occurring in the UK.
Other states favored single-winner district elections for their state and federal contests. This variation of winner-take-all added an element of geographic certainty into the mix, and likely some political minority representation, but still overrepresented the state’s majority party, even before factoring in gerrymandering.
The inherent representational flaws of winner-take-all legislative elections had been evident from the outset, even though there were no known proportional alternatives. Though believing “the people at large” to be limited to propertied white men, John Adams famously wrote that a representative assembly “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason and act like them…it should be an equal representation, or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it.” With Adams abroad at the time of the 1787 US Constitutional Convention, delegate James Wilson advanced the same idea: “the legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society… the faithful echo of the voices of the people.”
While the solutions to the obvious flaws weren’t immediately at hand, it wasn’t for lack of tinkering, on either side of the pond. The earliest description of a developed proportional election system, a veritable prototype of the Single Transferable Vote created later, is attributed to Thomas Hill, a British schoolmaster, in 1819. It didn’t make much headway there, and most likely never made it stateside to even be considered.
In the early U.S, some states concerned about plurality results applied majority requirements, using a system of runoffs, for both legislative and executive single-winner elections, or alternatively allowed the Legislature to select the winner if no candidate won a majority of votes. Other states allowed for simple plurality rules to determine winners, regardless of the number of candidates competing. But even with those differences factored in, it was still winner-take-all. Even after Congress tired of the gross unfairness of the general ticket and mandated single-member districts for its own elections, via the 1842 Apportionment Act, all U.S. elections still remained winner-take-all, with or without majority requirements for election.
Would-be reformers understood that single-member legislative districts, in which only one person would be elected to represent all the varied interests within that district, were not a meaningful solution to the problems of representation. They realized that the problem with schemes like the general ticket was not that multiple winners were being elected, but how they were being elected. As such, they determined that finding an effective alternative to block voting would better solve the problems of representation. Though still lacking a proportional solution, Wilson wrote in 1791 that “bad elections proceed from the smallness of the districts which give an opportunity to bad men to intrigue themselves into office.”
But even if the US and individual states had eventually transitioned to proportional legislative elections, they would have likely maintained their “separation of powers” model of governance (versus parliamentary, as in the UK), a creation possibly modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy they observed on their home soil. That would have left directly-elected executive positions, such as governors, as necessarily winner-take-all elections, including in those states that had adopted majority runoff requirements to address the known problems with plurality elections.
With the invention of instant runoff voting still off in the distant future, the states that had initially enacted majority requirements began to feel more burdened by them in this time of limited travel and communications than they were by plurality’s flaws. These majority provisions were eventually withdrawn from their respective state constitutions, inadvertently creating a challenge for current-day reformers seeking to fix the very same problems.
Most of the early action in this narrative involves an electoral reform back-and-forth between the fledgling new country (United States) and its former colonial ruler (United Kingdom), which would also spill over much later to a few other former British colonies. But it’s also worth noting that around the time of the first U.S. elections, France also saw some developments towards proportionality on the one hand, and ranked preferences for single-winner elections on the other.
We’re all aware of the rapid descent into terror of the legislative assemblies established a few years after the 1789 French Revolution that brought down the monarchy; less well-known is the debate about how assembly members would be elected, as the Girondins, Montignards and others competed for power in the new Republic first established 1792.
In 1789, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, a Girondist, stated these principles he believed should guide the election of democratic representatives, strongly echoing those of John Adams, but this time with an explicit reference to proportionality: “A representative body is to the nation what a chart is for the physical configuration of its soil: in all its parts, and as a whole, the representative body should at all times present a reduced picture of the people, their opinions, aspirations, and wishes, and that presentation should bear the relative proportion to the original precisely.” It wasn’t until four years later, in 1793, that there was a realistic chance at a legitimate legislative assembly. Mirabeau’s ideas actually made it into a plan containing some of what we would now call semi-proportional elements, via a limited voting mechanism, also championed by his co-Girondist, Marquis de Condorcet, but it just wasn’t to be: Montagnards took control of the Constitution drafting process away from the Girondists, and overruling one of their own, St. Just, went all in for winner-take-all elections that would disproportionately increase their own representation and power. Their descent into authoritarian madness and terror followed shortly thereafter.
Even earlier than that, in the decade before the French Revolution, and therefore, when thoughts of representative democracy in Louis XVI’s France were no more than a pipe dream, two individuals separately took up the matter of improving single-winner elections by freeing them from the vagaries of plurality results. This resulted in two ranked ballot systems that survive to this day, though neither use the round-by-round tabulations and ballot transfers that largely define both of the modern RCV variants that were still many decades away from invention elsewhere.
The “Borda Count” (weighted values based on top-ranked choices), and one or another “Condorcet methods” (hopefully but not necessarily electing one candidate who beats all others in head-to-head matchups, said matchups able to be inferred by voter rankings) have almost never been used in public elections anywhere in the world, and have almost never even been proposed for such. While there are some truly limited and obscure international uses of a Borda variant, its main claim to fame in this country is its use to select Major League Baseball’s MVP.
The significance of these two systems in this particular history, taking place away from the main stage, is that use of a ranked ballot does not necessarily mean an electoral system is indeed “ranked choice voting” as we know it. But it also strongly supports key messaging from contemporary RCV advocates, that ranking ones preferences among candidates is truly an intuitive method of voting, as rudimentary versions of both Borda and Condorcet methods had first appeared centuries earlier than when their namesakes advanced them to their current forms in 18th century France.
Stay tuned for the next installment, “Understudies and Opening Acts, 1843 – 1876” which will publish on January 21.
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.