In theory, in a democracy, the majority wins. In reality, in America’s democracy, that’s not always so. The winner of an election in most of America is not necessarily the person supported by a majority. The winner is the one who gets the most votes.
Consider the recent Democratic primary in Massachusetts’ Third Congressional District. Six candidates ran to be the nominee. The winner won with just 21.7 percent of the vote, and went on to win the general election with more than 60 percent of the vote. But in the primary, no one can say whether that nominee was supported by a majority of Democrats. All we know is that almost 80 percent cast their vote for someone else.
One way to fix this problem is to implement the system used in Maine and in many democracies around the world — ranked-choice voting or RCV. That system lets voters rank the candidates. If their first choice doesn’t win, then their second-choice vote is counted. If their second choice doesn’t win, the third-choice vote is counted — and so on. The process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes. That candidate is the winner — and the one supported by a majority of voters.
Critics complain this system is too complicated. But no American is confused by the sentence “If they don’t have mint chip, then I’ll take chocolate chip.” And nothing requires that anyone vote for more than one candidate. If you want to rank just one candidate, that’s fine. The system would simply give others the chance to say who else, beyond their first choice, they could live with too.
Is it really worth it? No doubt, there are clear cases when it would have mattered — lots. Think about Florida in 2000. George Bush had beaten Al Gore by 537 votes. Yet Ralph Nader had received 97,000 votes in Florida. Even accounting for the 17,000 who voted for Pat Buchanan, it’s hard to believe that if Florida voters could have ranked their preferences, Gore would not have become president.
RCV doesn’t matter unless there are more than two candidates running. But with RCV, more candidates would be encouraged to run. If you knew your first-choice vote wouldn’t help elect your last-choice candidate, more third-party candidates would receive first-choice votes. That, in turn, could encourage other candidates to take the ideas of third-party candidates more seriously.
It could do even more than that. If candidates know they could win — not just with first-choice votes, but second- and third-choice votes — they’d have a strong incentive not to engage in negative campaigning against rivals in the primary. Not always, but certainly more than now, when the norm has become the game of trashing your opponent rather than winning America.
RCV won’t solve all the problems of America’s democracy. No single change could. But it is a critical part of any package of campaign reform by giving every voter in America, whether Republican or Democrat, a more meaningful vote. At the least, after Voter Choice Massachusetts collected more than 110,000 signatures demanding it, voters should have the opportunity to choose that power by referendum on the November ballot.
Even better, the state Legislature could follow Maine and adopt the idea for the 2020 presidential general election. If a third party candidate emerged, the trial run would give voters a chance to see the system in operation on the November ballot, at least on a small scale. Rankings would be crystal clear for the president. It could help voters see how RCV would work more generally.
Politicians don’t like change — especially change that affects how they get reelected. But our flawed election laws need fundamental change. For too long, America has suffered leaders who don’t represent the majority of voters. RCV would put an end to that.
Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School. His latest book is “They Don’t Represent Us.”