It took two hours, three different trains and a bus to get from my Arlington, VA apartment to a simple office building in suburban Maryland. Summoning courage, I walked up a flight of stairs alone into a modest office and said hello to a group of strangers gathered around a table of snacks.
All that travel, all that time, was worth it because this was a meeting of the vanguard of a revolution - the ranked choice voting revolution.
Speakers rose up and spoke, all passionately extolling the virtues of ranked choice voting (RCV) and how it could save the country. They said it could civilize our politics and bring our democracy back to the people. I was inspired. As the speeches died down and the participants settled into small talk, I was left in a corner standing alone.
No one approached me, or asked me why I was there. No one asked for my help. I waited an hour, undisturbed, turned around, and took the long trek home.
I went on to support RCV for years, signing petitions, hearing speeches at local party meetings, and explaining it to friends and family. It was lonely. I felt like I was fighting for a revolution that few others saw.
Supporters of RCV, I understand the frustration that comes with this cause. I know the long conversations you’ve had, just for people to flippantly say “I still don’t get it” or “who cares?”
I know how painful it is to defend yourself from bad faith attacks.
I know how hard it is to get a measure on a ballot, to bring voters along, and to win.
I also know that while you're happy that New York used RCV for it's high profile mayoral election, you also feel like RCV was kneecapped at the last minute. The blame for releasing incorrect results falls squarely on New York City's Board of Elections. It's not RCV’s fault, but unfortunately RCV will likely get all the blame.
You put your faith, your work and your hope for a better democracy in this system, and now one human error threatens to ruin it all.
It feels like every day the "powers that be" are trying to take RCV down. You are cognizant of RCV's flaws, but you feel like you have to defend RCV at all costs, because the system we live under now is so utterly indefensible.
So I hope, from a fellow front-line activist, you hear me now. If we want truth and fairness to rule in our government, we ourselves have to be truthful and fair-minded when it comes to the voting methods movement. Some of the criticisms of RCV are cynical political attacks, yes. But some are legitimate critiques by people who share your ideals.
People are smart. Anyone can understand how to rank the candidates on their ballot. But just because they can mark their ballot, it doesn’t mean everyone understands how we arrive at the results.
We have to admit that some folks may never get it. That's a major issue we cannot ignore because we didn’t get into this movement to leave voters behind.
That complexity may seem like a small price to pay for better democracy. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that sentiment. Maybe when RCV hit the national stage after the 2000 election, faith in institutions was high enough for Americans to trust RCV.
In 2021, we can’t tell Americans that their votes go in a box, a computer reads it, and spits out the winner after applying a formula. I get it. You get it. But for a lot of the country, that’s just a non-starter.
The problem we have to admit is that with the increased complexity, RCV creates less wiggle room to identify and fix problems—like in NYC. We have to be honest and admit that the rounds and rounds of transfers increase the odds of human error, or worse, the public losing track.
You and I both want a better system, one that lives up to America's principles of free expression and rule by the people. Sometimes we feel trapped—even if RCV has issues, we stick with it because the status quo seems far worse.
Unfortunately, my friend, RCV is not the answer. Not all of the issues with NYC’s mayoral election are RCV’s fault, but the added complexity creates too many opportunities for both legitimate problems and bad actors.
If we can change our mentality, we'll see that there are other ways out of the false choice between the awfulness of our current elections and the belief that RCV is the only way out.
This March, St. Louis, MO held the second approval voting election in American history. Approval voting allows you to vote “yes” or “no” on every candidate. It’s not ranking, however it actually offers more expressiveness. Your preferences are counted all at once, rather than only when your favorites lose. This means it tends to pick consensus candidates.
It does not require rounds or runoffs, significantly reducing complexity. It's accessible. Everyone sees where their vote went and why the winner was chosen. It didn’t cost St. Louis a dime to implement, since every machine in America can already do it. The winner in the approval voting primary this March got 57% approval, after splitting the vote in a plurality election in 2017 where she finished in second place with 30%.
Your gut reaction is to say no—I understand. Read up on it before you do. Remember, there was a time when you felt this way about RCV.
You still can support RCV. You also can support approval. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and communities deserve the option that works best for them.
Look up the Google search results of the spring St. Louis elections. You largely won’t see mention of approval voting. The election went so smoothly and the transition was so seamless that many media outlets missed it. Compare that to this year’s election in NYC, where the story is the RCV process—not the candidates, their visions for New York, or the voters.
I support approval voting now. I once supported RCV. I’ve been down the lonely, arduous road of RCV. I know how you feel.
Take a look at approval voting, at yourself, at your community. You’ve been fighting for a cause, not a particular method. Our cause is a freer, fairer country where voters are empowered by their democracy. You do not have to keep fighting alone—you just may need to switch tactics as the situation has changed.
The revolution is still alive, still strong, and I think approval voting gives us the best chance to make our shared dream a reality.
Chris Raleigh is Director of Campaigns & Advocacy at The Center for Election Science, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on voting reform.
Please visit https://electionscience.org/
The Center for Election Science is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to empowering voters with voting methods that strengthen democracy. We support grassroots efforts to bring approval voting to cities across the country. In 2018, we worked with activists in Fargo, ND to help it become the first city in the US to enact approval voting. In 2019 and 2020, we provided grants to STL Approves in support of the Prop D initiative campaign.
Center for Election Science