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Unite our nation by changing how we vote

on Thu, 11/10/2016 - 17:13

(Originally published on

Pundits are nearly unanimous in saying that the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the USA proves we are a “divided nation”. The campaigns demonstrated how candidates fanned extremist flames on all sides, making us believe the “other guys” will be absolutely terrible. That same extremism is reflected in the inability of the US Congress to function effectively, which in-turn fueled extremism among change-seeking voters.

But under it all, we are the same citizens who more-or-less got along until someone told us the other guys were evil. We haven’t changed all that much; we’re all still Proud Americans.

Could it be that our real problem is that our the way we select politicians naturally rewards extremists and tends to drag us along with them?

I think so. I think a good part of our underlaying national malaise exists simply because we vote using the wrong method. If we change how we cast, and tally our votes for candidates, we will stop the inexorable slide into becoming angrier with each other, and unable to govern ourselves. Changing how we vote will bring us together. (Stay with me; you’ll understand what I mean soon. And no, this is not a post advocating or demonizing either Trump or Clinton.)

How we vote now

On your 2016 US Presidential ballot, you saw four listed candidates: Trump, Clinton, Johnson, & Stein, and voted for one of them (or wrote-in). The candidate with the most votes “won” in your state. This is called the “First Past The Post” (FPTP) voting system (also called plurality voting).

The key benefits of FPTP are that its concept is easily understood, and ballots can be easily counted and processed.

FPTP is at the root of our problem

FPTP has a deep, hidden flaw: When casting their own votes, voters also consider how others will vote, and will regularly vote against an offensive candidate rather than for another candidate that would otherwise be their first choice. (Called tactical voting.)

The pros & cons of voting using FPTP has been analyzed, tested & compared for over 100 years. There are well-understood, bad side-effects of FPTP, and they are staggering:

  • Two-party system assured. Because voters must make a single choice, they can’t “waste” it on a candidate they might otherwise like. In mathematical analyses, controlled tests, and real-life, FPTP always ends up in a two-candidate shoot-out, regardless of the starting candidate count. Thus, FPTP virtually guarantees a two-candidate choice, with zero chance for a moderate, centrist or other non-extreme candidate to compete or win.
  • Demonizing of the “other”. Once a candidate merely needs to beat one other candidate, the best way to do so is claim the other side is evil, out to cause you & your family harm. Both sides end up doing it, and we get swept into their tempest, where we all do it — to friends, family, co-workers.
  • Extremism is rewarded. Voters driven by extremes are the most likely ones to come to the polls, whether to vote for, or (tactically) against. Thus, extremists get elected. Media gets an out-sized (and undue) influence. Some percentage of voters will accept media’s assertions of who the (two) leaders are, which reinforces their tactical voting and the reduction of the field to two. Those who distrust the media worry that other voters DO believe the media, and tactically vote to defend against that. Plus, media is drawn to covering the extremist bi-lateral flames like moths to light.
  • Strong party systems are inevitable. The bubble-up to having only two candidates with extreme views naturally creates two, ultra-powerful parties with apparatus they can control. District gerrymandering becomes useful. The reason your local district map looks so crazy is because managing votes is easier when there are only two parties that negotiate to divide and conquer.
  • Candidates can win without winning the “majority popular vote.” In a FPTP vote with more than 2 candidates, a candidate may have less than 50% of the full vote, yet still win because they have the most votes (called Plurality voting). This feels very unsatisfying to voters backing the losing candidate.

How many of these problems sound familiar? How often did you hear your friends say:

“I don’t like Clinton, but I like Trump less, so I’ll vote for Hillary.” (tactical)
“I’m tired of the negative ads” (demonizing)
“Trump’s extreme message appeals to the rural disenfranchised” (extremism)
“The media is biased for/against …” (media influence)
“The party nominating conventions are corrupt/broken /…” (2-party control)
“Trump won the presidency, but Hillary won the popular vote!” (plurality win)

Our system of voting is making us divided (or think we are). And the always-on media, plus proliferation of social media, is keeping that idea in our face all the freakin’ time.

There is another path that works

I think we can fix what ails us merely by using a different way to vote & count, called a Ranked Voting System. (There are several variants — such as Single Transferrable Vote (“STV”) — any one of which is better than FPTP).

Here’s how it works. Voters marks their ballots to rank their candidate preferences in order instead of just voting for one. Here’s how ballots are tallied:

  • The first-ranked choices are tallied in the first round; if no one has garnered > 50%, the last place candidate is knocked out.
  • Ballots from voters who picked that last-place candidate as their top choice get assigned to the second-choice candidates on those ballots, and another count is done.
  • Repeat until one candidate finally has over half.

Here’s a great video by Minnesota Public Radio showing how this works.


  • Ranked voting is resistant to tactical voting, which is the source of the serious problems listed above for FPTP. Casting, and counting using ranked voting means:
  • More than 2 candidates can be viable. The method of tallying votes means that the consensus of the electorate is better expressed. This means centrists, or moderates actually have a legitimate shot.
  • Tactical voting is useless. The method of counting makes tactical defensive voting much less effective. Now, it only plays to vote for what you are FOR, not what you are AGAINST.
  • Media bias is reduced. Media’s power to influence who the “two most likely” candidates are drops zero, and media is forced to give all candidates equal voice & not cover extremist games.
  • Most importantly, demonizing / extremism won’t help. Because there’s more than 2 candidates, candidates do not have enough time to demonize all others. A candidate must make his/her own case within the attention-time they’re getting.

… and more. Ranked voting eliminates nearly all the problems listed with FPTP.

In my mind the most important of these is the reduction in the extremism and demonization of candidates and each other — and hopefully by extension, reducing the feeling of broken-ness and divided-ness in our nation. Eliminating this negativity, and hate of the opposition in our national dialog may return us to a place where we can govern ourselves rationally, providing for and protecting all of us.

Ranked voting is not a fringe idea; it (or variants) is in use in countries from Australia to New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, in international cities like London & Hong Kong, and in US cities like San Francisco, Cambridge, MA, and Minneapolis.

Importantly, the State of Maine just became the first state to pass (via referendum) to use ranked voting for its national office elections (except president). If Maine can do this, maybe the rest of the states can, too.

So I’ll say it again: I think that (merely) changing the way we vote, and count votes, can change the way we view our government, and ourselves.

Action is committed to seeing this widely adopted. Sadly, the organization is a little tainted with some liberal bias. And I don’t know them. But I think it is still worth backing them with your donation, and whatever help you can give to help them make progress in your state. Or, contact the people in Maine that managed to get this enacted there. Our national health will improve if we all change how we vote.

Further reading:

  • Quartz has a great article.
  • As does The Atlantic. In particular, note how a third-party candidate can credibly win an election.
  • The advocacy group in Maine has a basic site.
  • Ballotopedia has a good page on the initiative in Maine, with advocate & detractor links.
  • FairVote has a nice video how IRV works.
  • Wikipedia has a ton of info on the various Ranked Voting Systems in general, though in normally-dry Wikipedia fashion.

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