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The Opposition: Is America’s Voting System Best Left Alone?

By Greg Tasker 

Everyone agrees voting in municipal, state, and federal elections, should be simple, convenient, and fair.  

And while there is a growing chorus of voices across the country advocating for election reforms including ranked choice voting (aka instant runoff) and nonpartisan open primaries, there is also widespread support to retain the status quo. Plurality voting, the most common form of voting in the United States, is easy to understand and the winner is clear cut.  Each voter casts one vote, for only one candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins.  

Reform advocates believe alternative methods offer voters a broader choice of candidates, a stronger voice in the election process, are more inclusive, and put a greater focus on issues rather than personalities.   

Among the frequent complaints about plurality voting are the negative impacts of gerrymandering, where districts are drawn to favor one political party over the other; the spoiler effect, limiting the number of candidates to ensure one party winner; and the constant barrage of negativity espoused by candidates in local, state, and national elections.  

One of the biggest positives of the current election system is that it is secret and it is the simplest for voters, advocates say. When a vote is cast, that choice is not transferable or manipulated. There is no second or third round of tallying and no run-off election. This system elects the candidate with the largest number of votes – period.  

“The biggest problem with ranked choice voting is ballot exhaustion,” says Hans von Spakovksy, a senior legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and a former member of the Federal Election Commision.  

He shared this example: In a race with five candidates, a voter, for whatever reasons, may rank only two candidates and ignore the others. But if a voter’s two ranked candidates are eliminated in the first two rounds of tallying, those ballots are finished. The voter has no say in who is chosen from the remaining rounds of tallying.  

“This ballot exhaustion leads to the election of candidates who are not the first choice of the majority of voters,” he says, adding that the winner has only won a majority of whatever votes were left in the final round of tabulation.  

While California’s election reform has, implementing the top-two primary system, alleviated some concerns that surface in plurality voting – the lack of opportunity for third parties and independents – it’s unclear whether the system itself has enabled minorities to achieve better representation too, says Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Better minority representation, he says, has instead come because of California’s changing population demographics and recent reform in creating electoral districts.  

“It certainly gives outside candidates a second bite of the apple,” he says, referring to the opportunity a second-place vote-getter in the primary could have to beat the lead in the followup general election.

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.