The two-party system is the problem; ranked-choice voting is the solution

p lauren besankoLauren Besanko, who ran as a Maine Green Independent Party candidate for state representative, recently wrote an article for the Bangor Daily News about Maine’s growing movement for ranked-choice voting. From the article, entitled “The Two-Party Duopoly is the Problem”:

Ranked choice voting allows people to vote for several candidates in order, from their favorite to their least favorite, by assigning candidates numerical values. Their favorite candidate would receive the “No. 1” vote, their second favorite the “No. 2” vote and so on. One of the points of election reform like this should be to eliminate the “spoiler” effect, so we don’t end up splitting the vote, for example, between center-left and farther-left candidates, resulting in electing a far-right tea party Republican.

Reform like this could very well be the start of a path toward the end of a political system dominated by the two parties.

People who say “Green is the party of my heart, Dems are the party of my pragmatism” will no longer have this excuse to use in three-way races. They would be officially free to vote for Greens as their first choice without worrying their vote will inadvertently result in a Republican’s election.

Read the full article at the Bangor Daily News.

Dave Schwab


  1. This is one issue that I thing the Green Party could really discuss more. I’m not convinced that ranked choice or Instant Runoff Voting are the best options for voting reform. For legislatures and city councils, it seems like proportional representation would be much better, and it seems like proportional representation would be just as achievable on a local level (New York City once even had it, until a few Communists got elected and the powers that be got scared). For electing just one official, instead of a council or legislature, something like approval voting (vote for as many candidates as you’d like) or range voting (eg, rate all candidates 1-10) might work better. I’m not convinced that ranked choice voting really solves any of the problems, including the “spoiler effect,” of what we have now.

    • You’re correct that proportional representation is the best system. With ranked-choice, you still have cases where one candidate wins with 51%, meaning 49% of voters get no representation (“wasted votes”). With PR, the percentage of wasted votes shrinks to a fraction; basically everyone who votes gets representation. I favor going to PR for all legislative bodies, and devolving power from executives to legislatures – basically going to a parliamentary system similar to Germany’s mixed-member proportional system. I’ll talk up PR to anyone who will listen.

      That said, I think we’re still a ways from PR. I advocate for ranked-choice (which I have come to think is a more easily understandable name than instant runoff) for a few reasons. I studied the mathematics of voting systems in college, and learned of Arrow’s theorem, which proves that no single-winner voting system can satisfy all the criteria one could reasonably desire in terms of fairness (feel free to research that one on your own).

      That said, ranked-choice is the best of the single-winner systems, because it eliminates the perceived need to vote strategically (which in mathematical voting jargon means not voting for what you really want, ie voting for the lesser evil). Approval voting and range voting are still subject to strategic voting, and I see people feeling forced to vote against their own preferences as the main evil of our current voting system.

      For example: let’s say I’m choosing between Bush, Gore, and Nader. With ranked-choice, it’s easy: Nader 1, Gore 2. With approval, I’m in a dilemma: I’d rather have Gore than Bush, but I’d much rather have Nader than Gore. Should I approve of Gore, or not? I’d hate for Bush to win, but I’d be just as upset if my vote were to boost Gore above Nader. Basically the same deal with range voting: 10 points for Nader, but should I give Gore 9, 5, 1, or 0? (Bush clearly gets 0).

      So, ranked-choice is simple, clearly expresses preferences, and eliminates the issue of candidates winning with less than a majority. It also has side benefits, like reducing negative campaigning. It’s a clear improvement over plurality-take-all (aka first-past-the-post), and already in wide usage, so it’s not especially hard to sell. Considering the difficulty of enacting electoral reform, that’s important. And I strongly believe that once we go from FPTP to RCV, people will understand that electoral reform is a good thing, and the path to PR will look much more realistic.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tactical_voting

        According to Wikipedia, tactical voting happens in any voting system. Election thresholds in Europe for example range from 1.79% to 10%. It is 2% – 5% in non European countries. Unrepresented votes due to voting for parties or candidates that didn’t make the threshold are issues in several countries.

        Election thresholds can produce a spoiler effect, similar to that in the first-past-the-post voting system, in which minor parties unable to reach the threshold take votes away from other parties with similar ideologies. Fledgling parties in these systems often find themselves in a vicious circle: if a party is perceived as having no chance of meeting the threshold, it often cannot gain popular support, and if the party cannot gain popular support, it will continue to have little or no chance of meeting the threshold. As well as acting against extremist parties, it may also adversely affect moderate parties if the political climate becomes polarized between two major parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum: in such a scenario, moderate voters may abandon their preferred party in favour of a more popular party in the hope of keeping the even less desirable alternative out of power.

        In contrast, elections which use the ranked voting system can take account of each voter’s complete indicated ranking preference. For example, the single transferable vote redistributes first preference votes for candidates below the threshold. This permits the continued participation in the election by those whose votes would otherwise be wasted. Minor parties can indicate to their supporters before the vote how they would wish to see their votes transferred. Ranked voting systems are widely used in Australia and Ireland.

        The presence of an electoral threshold (typically at around 5% or 4%) can lead to voters voting tactically for a different party to their preferred political party (which may be more hardline or more moderate) in order to ensure that the party passes the threshold. An alliance of parties can fail to win a majority despite outpolling their rivals if one party in the alliance falls beneath the threshold. An example of this is the 2009 Norwegian election in which the right-wing opposition parties won more votes between them than the parties in the governing coalition, but the narrow failure of the Liberal Party to cross the 4% threshold led to the governing coalition winning a majority.

        This effect has sometimes been nicknamed “Comrade 4%” in Sweden, where the electoral threshold is 4%, particularly when referring to supporters of the Social Democrats who vote tactically for the more hardline Left Party.[7][8] In the German federal election, 2013 the Free Democratic Party got only 4.8% of the votes so did not meet the 5% threshold. The party did not win any directly elected seats, so for the first time since 1949 was not represented in the Bundestag. Hence their ally the Christian Democratic Union had to form a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party.

        In several recent elections in New Zealand the National Party has suggested that National supporters in certain electorates should vote for minor parties or candidates who can win an electorate seat and would support a National government.This culminated in the Tea tape scandal when a meeting in the Epsom electorate in 2011 was taped. The meeting was to encourage National voters in the electorate to vote “strategically” for the ACT candidate; and it was suggested that Labour Party voters in the electorate should vote “strategically” for the National candidate as the Labour candidate could not win the seat but a National win in the seat would deprive National of an ally. The two major parties National and Labour always top up their electorate MPs with list MPs, so a National win in the seat would not increase the number of National MPs.

        Even in countries with a low threshold such as the Netherlands, tactical voting can still happen for other reasons. In the campaign for the 2012 Dutch election, the Socialist Party had enjoyed good poll ratings, but many voters who preferred the Socialists voted instead for the more centrist Labour Party out of fear that a strong showing from the Socialists would lead to political deadlock. It was also suggested that a symmetrical effect on the right caused the Party for Freedom to lose support to the more centrist VVD.

        The electoral threshold is also the standard used for Presidential/Prime Minsterial debate in those countries also. If that is a good example, America would have the highest threshold at 15%. If you use campaign funding standards, America would have the even higher 25%.

      • Dave, you are confused on the tactical voting issues with IRV vs. rated methods. In close elections IRV can indeed punish you for voting for your favorite in first position by causing the election of your worst option – see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtKAScORevQ

        Rated methods (score, approval, etc) do not suffer this serious defect at all. You can always safely give maximum support to your favorite. FairVote’s tactical voting criticisms of the rated methods all refer to the tactical weighting or unweighting of candidates who are NOT your favorite.

        A better compromise solution to all of the above is Rated IRV – http://equalvote.co/r_irv – because its mechanics actually incentivize more honest scoring, and it’s dramatically simpler than IRV.

  2. I responded with a long detailed reply, but that was apparently censored. So hopefully at least this link is tolerable for this site.


    In short, Dave Schwab’s comments about tactical voting repeat common intuition-based fallacies that election system experts frequently encounter.

    Clay Shentrup
    Co-founder, The Center for Election Science

    • “I responded with a long detailed reply, but that was apparently censored.”

      You must be confused… there is no record of you leaving a previous comment on this thread.

      • Dave, this site is eating replies.

        You have the tactical issues with IRV and approval seriously confused. IRV can indeed punish the voter for honestly giving maximum support for his or her most favored candidate – you can see this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtKAScORevQ . On the other hand, Approval and score NEVER punish you for giving maximum support to your actual favorite candidate. All of the “tactical voting” criticisms of the rated methods revolve around weighting or unweighting of support for candidates other than your favorite (i.e. bullet voting, naive exaggeration).

        Thus your statement, “That said, ranked-choice is the best of the single-winner systems, because it eliminates the perceived need to vote strategically (which in mathematical voting jargon means not voting for what you really want, ie voting for the lesser evil). Approval voting and range voting are still subject to strategic voting, and I see people feeling forced to vote against their own preferences as the main evil of our current voting system.” is exactly backwards.

        A better system than all of the above that meaningfully addresses these problems is Rated IRV. Simpler ballot, simpler tabulation and very high resistance to tactical voting. You can learn about it here: http://equalvote.co/r_irv

      • Dave,

        It’s the same response I emailed to you. I definitely submitted it. When I didn’t see it, I submitted it again to be sure, and it said, “Oops, it looks like you already said that.”


        • I saw that you emailed me, but that never showed up in the comments thread. Must be a bug. Feel free to try again, as it seems like your comments are coming through now.

  3. IRV reduces the need to vote “strategically”, so you can rank your real choice first, without worrying about splitting the vote.

    That’s very nice, but what’s the actual outcome? Did my sincere first choice count? Is the elected body any more representative overall of how people voted?

    With IRV, I can vote for who I want.

    With PR, I can elect who I want.

    • I totally agree that PR is the system that we need to get eventually. As I stated above, I see IRV as a useful step toward getting PR. Doesn’t Fairvote also advocate for IRV as a stepping stone to PR?

  4. Hey guys,
    Thank for the thoughtful comments. Here is my concern with approval voting: I’m afraid mudslinging from the democrats toward us specifically would increase ten-fold upon adapting an approval voting system. It would be in their interest to make us look like scum so that voters would not check us off as “approved”. With IRV, we’d see dems probably say at least ok things about us, because many democrats would prefer to see us in office over republicans because our ideologies align more with them. They would advocate dem 1, green 2, gop 3, and we would advocate green 1, dem 2, and gop 3. We would need a strong campaign advocating for voting for “green 1″ votes so that we don’t just fall into that second place space due to peoples’ conditioning to “just vote dem”

    • Thanks for chiming in, Lauren! I totally agree with you here. Many people have noted that IRV reduces negative campaigning. I don’t know if approval voting would mean more negative campaigning as compared to the status quo, but it would still be an issue. This matters for several reasons: mudslinging turns people off of politics, and makes it harder to find good candidates. It also detracts from actual substantive debates.

  5. Expect more “chad issues” like in the Florida Bush election that way. While a good idea in principle and one that in the 1980s allowed to propel an all-women city governmnt into power whose candidates had published meticulous voting guidelines up front (and voters had adhered to them obviously), there are many states in Europe where at least in local elections you have such ranked voting choices. In the end people seem to get tired or don’t care, I don’t know, but the candidates voted into office deceivingly resemble those that other voting mechanisms produce …

  6. I should note that Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Botswana, Canada, Cook Islands, Dominica, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Micronesia, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Palau, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Swaziland, Tanzania, United Republic of Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Virgin Islands British, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all use FPTP.

    IRV is the only voting reform that has had any traction in America, which in America means absolutely any traction at all.

    Support by party for IRV used to be shown on Wikipedia, so I will give the old revision.

    Then, there are other issues like ballot access and debate inclusion that would make voting system meaningless. Write-ins have an exponentially harder time regardless of voting system.


    That is the most recent edition. I will add the IRV plank in my counting despite not being in that edition. Just imagine the same responses as to non interventionist foreign policy, but with an IRV row heading.

    Grade Card for Greens
    Green Party 11
    Democratic Party 8
    Libertarian Party 7
    Republican Party 0
    Constitution Party 2

    Grade Card for Democrats
    Green Party 8
    Democratic Party 11
    Libertarian Party 4
    Republican Party 3
    Constitution Party 1

    Grade Card for Libertarians
    Green Party 7
    Democratic Party 4
    Libertarian Party 11
    Republican Party 4
    Constitution Party 6

    Grade Card for Republicans
    Green Party 0
    Democratic Party 3
    Libertarian Party 4
    Republican Party 11
    Constitution Party 9

    Grade Card for whatever you call supporters of the Constitution Party
    Green Party 2
    Democratic Party 1
    Libertarian Party 6
    Republican Party 9
    Constitution Party 11

    The grade cards above will be helpful guides to showing how simmilar party platforms are. I took eleven issues and gave one point for each similarity and zero points for each difference. 5 or less would show that parties are different while 6 or more would show that parties are simmilar.

    Example Explanation
    Greens and Libertarians
    Abortion Restrictions NO
    Legalization of Same Sex Marriages YES
    Immigration Restrictions NO
    Capital Punishment (Death Penalty) NO
    Drug Liberalization (Drug Legalization) YES
    Non Interventionist Foreign Policy YES
    Instant Runoff Voting YES

    I do personally weigh issues like Drug Legalization, Non Inteventionist Foreign Policy, and Instant Runoff Voting highly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.