We Don’t Need New Candidates, We Need a New System

An opinion piece about the benefits of Ranked Choice Voting.

We Dont Need New Candidates, We Need a New System

Nicole Perry

The massive number of people who don’t vote in every election is perhaps a small indication that people are unsatisfied with the current system. Two parties, two candidates, an endless cycle we can’t escape from. It feels like a trap or an ever-tightening noose and with every election, we fall farther from reason. But that’s because our system is broken. And there’s a solution, one that several places already use.


Most people probably haven’t put much thought into the way we vote. The problem appears to be with the candidates, not with the way we select them. And that’s true—to an extent. Our candidates in every election are polar opposites and most people don’t want either of them for whatever role they’re running for. When it comes to the president, it seems counterintuitive that so much of the country dislikes whoever is elected. And Biden’s election has certainly made these problems clear because even those who voted for him don’t seem to like him all that much anymore if his declining approval ratings are any indication. Third-party votes feel worthless so we’re stuck with whatever people the Democratic and Republican National Conventions choose. It shouldn’t need to be said, but the DNC and the RNC should not be the ones choosing our presidential candidates. The people should be choosing. But this is not a cause, it’s a by-product of our voting system.


Right now, we use what is referred to as first-past-the-post voting. Every eligible citizen votes for 1 candidate and then whichever candidate has the most votes wins. There are some obvious flaws with gerrymandering, voter discrimination, low registration rates and youth participation, debates about the electoral college, and government interference. For example, the conveniently timed anti-mail sentiment that Trump preached during a pandemic election when higher numbers of people voted by mail due to health concerns, something his supporters weren’t worried about. However, these problems are separate complications and our voting challenges are far more fundamental.


Our voting system was designed centuries ago by people who couldn’t even begin to imagine the world we live in today. Computers and technology are just the beginning. American politics are far more complicated, far more oligarchal, and affect far more people than the constitutional framers could have foreseen. New political ideologies, burgeoning social issues, and global catastrophe after global catastrophe litter the political playing field. That’s not even mentioning the sheer magnitude of the country in terms of population and influence compared to its founding. The difference is staggering. Unfortunately, while we’ve abandoned horse-drawn carriages for Teslas and moved from britches to jeans, our voting system remains unchanged.


That leads us to Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), the system that eliminates some of these barriers and makes voting mean something again. Rather than selecting one candidate, voters rank their choices. Everyone’s vote goes to their first choice first, then the totals are counted. If someone has the majority, then they win. If not, whoever has the least votes is dropped and everyone who marked them first will see their vote go to their second choice. And the process is repeated until someone achieves a majority.


This would mean that voting third-party isn’t throwing away your vote. Right now, the driving idea is that no third-party candidate is going to win and if you vote third-party, your vote isn’t affecting either of the two major power players. Voting third-party can feel the same as not voting at all. But with RCV, you can mark a third-party candidate, secure in the knowledge that even if your first few choices are knocked out, your vote is still in the running. If an RCV election does come down to two candidates, you can vote in alignment with your convictions but still influence the major election. And the more people have access to this safety net, the more new political parties can flourish. And I don’t think I express an uncommon sentiment when I say that I’m tired of two parties bulldozing every election.


Additionally, while the winner might not have been everyone’s first choice, they’re likely the 2nd or 3rd choice for a lot of people, meaning that they’re at least semi-popular. Currently, if a voter’s first choice doesn’t win, the alternative feels intolerable. This was clear in the Trump and Biden campaign when most voters felt that if their candidate didn’t win, they would hate the alternative. And many voters didn’t even like the person they voted for. Although Biden won, he was largely considered “the alternative.” “The lesser of two evils” is a phrase that has become far too prevalent in conversations about politics. Voting is meant to be exciting and it’s meant to make citizens feel powerful. But nobody feels powerful when they’re settling for mediocre candidates and praying they won’t have to spend four years waiting for another meaningless election.


RCV also carries the benefit that campaigns can’t be so combative as politicians suddenly need to appeal to a larger pool of voters. A candidate can’t only be the first choice for a fraction of the population, they need to make themselves the second and third choice for a lot of people if they want to reach a majority. This discourages negative campaigning against opposition and more issue-centric messages. You’re not likely to be someone’s second choice if your campaign foundation is degrading towards their first choice. But more than anything, it makes voters feel like their vote will matter, in every situation.


There are a couple of common arguments. One is regarding what’s called bullet voters. In some systems of RCV, the voter can choose how many candidates they want to rank. The argument is that some people will only mark one choice (bullet voting) and if that person gets eliminated, their vote doesn’t matter. But it feels fair to ask, is that not how every single election we have now works? Plenty of people vote third-party with the knowledge that a third-party vote isn’t influencing the competition between the two leading candidates. Bullet voting is a choice. Much like voting third party is a choice. Or, more accurately, much like not voting is a choice. RCV is not about lying to people about the impact of their votes. If they choose to ignore the path that will give their vote the most weight, that is a personal choice.


The slightly more reasonable concern comes from how the votes are counted. True, RCV is a more complicated method meaning that it’s more difficult to count. And true, our government has frequently struggled with bureaucratic tasks. Additionally, the counting of votes can be more expensive. However, with more online software available every day, counting votes is easier now than it has ever been in the past. And RCV is currently being used all over.


Looking abroad, Australia and Ireland use RCV, and many smaller regions (including parts of the U.S.) effectively use ranked-choice voting as well. Maine and Alaska both use RCV and there are many scattered municipalities around the country.


In Texas, the implementation of RCV is frustratingly difficult. State legislation has blocked Austin’s attempts in the past. State law calls for a majority and in 2001, the then-Secretary-of-State Henry Cueller said second or third choice votes didn’t count towards a majority. Not that this sentiment has ever been upheld in a legal capacity but Austin hasn’t followed up. This is doubly irritating because Austin voters want RCV. Proposition E was voted on in 2021 and the majority of voters wanted RCV for city elections. The obstacle is the state. Unfortunately, the state of Texas and the city of Austin have long had a contentious relationship from school funds to plastic bag bans. It seems unlikely that Greg Abbott and the state legislature will change their minds to enact a system that will only lessen their political influence over the city of Austin.


What might sway some opponents is the economics of RCV. Because of the way it eliminates the need for runoff elections which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the price of elections decreases. RCV is often referred to as instant runoff. Although the price of administering this system can be higher, it doesn’t outweigh the massive benefits of eliminating an entire extra election. Run-off elections also suffer from voter fatigue. They’re less known, often at weird times, and voting is already largely inaccessible for many people. Voter turnout for standard elections is already worryingly low, but turnout for runoffs is frankly alarming.


The benefits are clear, but will the country go for such a change? There’s a lot of change aversion in Texas and the U.S. as a whole, but there are also a lot of people who are unhappy with the current system. We all know—and perhaps are—a person that spends every election season agonizing over whether or not to vote third-party for a candidate they actually like or for one of the “big two” who they’re, at best, apathetic towards. Perhaps the better question is, will the government go for such a change? Because you know who loves the system we have now? The people that were elected by it. Much like the problem of gerrymandering, it’s hard to fix when those with the power to do so don’t want to. But if we don’t find a new way, then we will continue spiraling further and further into electoral insanity.