In 2016, Utahns made history: We took an independent presidential candidate seriously. With over 20 percent of Utah’s popular vote, Evan McMullin came closer to winning electoral votes than any third-party candidate since Ross Perot.
But our imperfect one-or-the-other system remains. This year, it offered the American public the two most disliked presidential candidates in polling history (based on favorability polls), and the swing states reluctantly chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Yet tens of thousands of Utahns chose to vote for an unaffiliated candidate — a “protest” vote, in the words of Sen. Mike Lee, who said he voted for McMullin. Nationally, over a million people voted for Jill Stein, and several million for Gary Johnson. Lacking another way for their beliefs to be represented, these people chose to “vote their conscience” for a much less competitive candidate. Personal conscience and political strategy came into conflict for tens of millions. Still, many Americans concluded that the “lesser of two evils” was the most moral or practical choice, given a flawed system. In this way, our approach of choosing one “favorite” candidate pulls us into perpetual two-person races.
What if it didn’t have to be like this? What if we could have a real third choice, every election?
There’s a simple answer: ranked-choice voting, a system Maine just voted into law. You rank your top three candidates, and the system counts up everyone’s first-choice votes. The candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated, and their supporters’ votes are transferred to their second choices. The least popular candidates are eliminated, one by one, until someone wins over 50 percent of the vote. (This approach is sometimes called instant-runoff voting, preferential voting or a single transferable vote.)
This means no one plays spoiler in a three-way race. If you favor Gary Johnson but would prefer Donald Trump and Evan McMullin to the other alternatives, you can vote for Gary Johnson as your first choice — and if he gets eliminated, your vote will be transferred to McMullin or Trump.
Under this system, a nominee who is widely disliked among general voters — such as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — must seek approval outside his or her core base of supporters: ranked-choice voting aims to make it impossible to win with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
This approach has been tested by cities around the country, such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, and it works well. If the Republican primaries had used this system nationwide, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would have had a better shot at the presidency, instead of splitting their supporters’ vote among a variety of moderate, establishment and tea party Republicans.
According to research cited by FairVote, ranked-choice voting tends to lead to less negativity in campaigns. Because candidates need to win the second-choice votes of their competitors’ supporters, they have a major incentive to avoid extremism and negativity. Imagine a political campaign where the candidates are reluctant to sling mud, where no one need choose between a protest vote and the lesser of two evils!
It isn’t perfect — democracy never is — but ranked-choice voting is the simplest way to move from a strict two-party system (or a one-party system, in many states) to a stable, positive system that gives unaffiliated and third-party voters an equal voice. In our decentralized election system, states and cities are the only place this reform can start. State Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck is already drafting a bill to put this idea into action in Utah. Ask your representatives to give her their support, or ask your city to take the lead today.
Michael Reed Davison is a father, an unaffiliated Utah voter and an MPA student. He enjoys data analysis and cooperative gaming.