Amid national conversations about how to shore up American democracy, one smaller, less acute way of making U.S. elections more democratic is being considered by the D.C. Council this year: ranked-choice voting. With D.C. races often being decided by narrow pluralities, this new voting method would make elections more democratic by bringing more voices into the fold – that’s why the D.C. Council should pass this legislation.
Right now, candidates for office win elections in the District by garnering a plurality of votes cast – as is the case with the overwhelming majority of elections at all levels in the United States. This works fine in elections where there are only two main candidates, but in an essentially one-party city like D.C. where Democratic candidates usually win overwhelmingly, this system shuts out actual electoral competition that could arise. Candidates should not have free rides to victory, and meaningful competition at the ballot box is healthy for democracy and encourages more faithful representation of voters. The D.C. government needs to move away from this system and adopt a ranked-choice format in its place.
Ranked-choice voting – often abbreviated as RCV, and sometimes called instant-runoff voting – requires voters to list a certain number of candidates in order of preference, instead of picking just one. When all the votes are cast, people’s first choices are tallied up. If one candidate gets ranked number one by an absolute majority of voters – as in, 50% plus one – then that candidate wins outright.
But if no candidate wins an outright majority, then the candidate who had the fewest people rank them first gets eliminated. Election workers – or, more likely, a computer program – then take the pool of voters who voted for that candidate and disperse their second choices among the candidates who are left. This process repeats itself until eventually one candidate has a majority of votes.
In the abstract, there are incredible benefits to asking voters to rank candidates. In general election races that include more candidates than just one Democrat and one Republican – like the most recent D.C. mayoral race, which included Democratic incumbent Muriel Bowser and two left-wing challengers – it can give nontraditional candidates a better shot of being elected. Even if minor candidates do not win the election, major candidates will have at least needed to appeal to minor candidates’ base of support in the hopes of being those voters’ number-two pick. In theory, this means that a ranked-choice voting system is more likely to produce a winner that is acceptable to more people than the current system because it takes into account a broader scope of people’s preferences. Essentially, even if a voter’s first choice doesn’t win, at least there’s a solid chance their second-favorite candidate will have gotten the nod.
To take a brief trip deep into the weeds, ranked-choice voting can make it more likely that the election is won by the candidate who would beat every other candidate in a head-to-head race – also known as the Condorcet winner.
The current method by which elections are run – where voters pick one candidate and whoever gets the most votes wins, referred to as first-past-the-post – is certainly more straightforward, but it has key downsides. In a race with many candidates, which often happens in primaries, one candidate could get a few votes more than the runner-up and win, even if an overwhelming majority of voters did not vote for that candidate.
A recent election for D.C. Council in Ward 2 – which includes Foggy Bottom – is a perfect real-world example of this flaw. The special election to replace scandal-prone former Ward 2 council member Jack Evans featured seven candidates. Brooke Pinto won with 43 percent—–which is a healthy margin, but even still, a strong majority of voters cast their ballots for someone other than the candidate who won. This is undemocratic.
This could have been avoided if the special election had featured ranked-choice voting. Pinto could have still won – considering her margin over the runner-up was around 20 points, the electorate does not seem to hate her, and she may well have won once everyone’s list of choices was tallied. Her margin of victory suggests that plenty of Ward 2 voters probably would have ranked her as their second or third choice, if not their first. Even if the outcome is the same, ranked-choice voting would make certain that it was the most faithful representation of the wishes of the electorate.
Right now, there is legislation before the D.C. Council that would enact ranked-choice voting for the 2024 general elections in the District. The bill’s chief architect, At-large Council member Cristina Henderson, is an Independent who eked out a narrow plurality win over a massive field of candidates. To illustrate how drastic this is: 85% of voters chose a candidate other than Henderson, and she won anyway. Her bill is designed to put a stop to the kind of narrow victories that leave vast majorities of voters without the representation they voted for.
The past 14 months in American politics has been dominated by discussions of how to make elections fairer and more legitimate in the eyes of voters. Passing this bill and enacting ranked-choice voting would be a small step that would make elections in D.C. more democratic.
Andrew Sugrue, a senior majoring in political communication and political science, is the opinions editor.