A Forward Approach to Voting Reform
The last two presidential elections have led to increased calls for “voting reform,” which sounds good, but what does it mean exactly? Well, it means many different things—from strengthening campaign finance laws and revamping redistricting processes, to establishing voter eligibility standards and vote-counting procedures, and more. Those are all worthy topics. At the Forward Party, we focus our voting reform efforts on how we vote.
For the majority of Americans, voting means selecting one candidate from one party in the primary, and then voting for a Democrat or Republican in the general. Sure, there are other options on the ballot—perhaps an independent candidate or two you’re vaguely aware of at best and a blank line for a write-in candidate. But we’ve all heard the warnings: “Don’t vote for a third-party spoiler! It’s a wasted vote, because they have no chance to win.” And frankly, the way our system is currently set up, the warnings are well-founded.
But they don’t have to be. The founders didn’t write a “lesser of two evils” clause into our Constitution, requiring us to choose between two options we don’t like very much every few years. It’s just how the system developed over time. The good news is, not only are there alternative voting formats, but they’re already being used successfully in states and municipalities around the country.
In the system under which most of us still vote, a candidate can win with a simple plurality of votes. This format favors extremist candidates who cater to an ideologically extreme base—because in our polarizing times, that’s all they have to do. The voting reforms supported by Forward change the incentives, rewarding unifying candidates who appeal to the broadest cross-section of voters. These reforms eliminate the spoiler effect, giving candidates outside the two major parties a chance to compete with them on equal footing. And most importantly, the winning candidates most fully represent the preferences of the population they serve.
Here are a few of the many options available for improving the way we vote:
Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting, improves fairness in elections by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than just cast a single vote. Votes that do not help a voter’s top choice achieve a majority will count toward their second choice and so on. The first candidate to reach 51% or more votes wins.
- Pros: RCV has the best name recognition of all electoral reforms and has been passed in the most places, including Maine, Alaska, and New York City. For communities looking to course-correct quickly and join forces with a large bloc of electoral reform organizations, RCV is a strong choice.
- Cons: Because it’s the most widely used alternative voting format, its issues are also the best documented. Among them are the need for adequate education to avoid voter confusion and the proper technology to process ballot data.
Approval voting allows each voter to vote for as many candidates (or as few) as they “approve” of. The candidate with the most total “approvals” wins the election.
- Pros: Approval voting is cost-effective and simple to implement, requiring only a minor change to the appearance of ballots. Because candidates aren’t ranked, the tallying process is less complicated than in RCV, as there are no “rounds” of counting.
- Cons: Approval voting gives voters less ability to express nuanced opinions, and notably, unlike RCV, there is no guarantee that the winner will have the support of at least half of the voters.
STAR voting stands for "Score Then Automatic Runoff" voting. Voters rate as many (or as few) candidates on a scale of 0 to 5 stars. Unlike RCV, voters can give more than one candidate their top rating. The two candidates with the highest total scores advance to a "virtual runoff," in which the candidate who is preferred on the most ballots wins.
- Pros: STAR voting allows voters to express preferences of varying strengths. Advocates say it always elects the majority-preferred candidate and results in superior voter satisfaction.
- Cons: It has not been used in any official government elections yet, and no systems or machines have been certified to date to run STAR voting.
At Forward, we don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions to any problem, and we think individual communities are best positioned to choose for themselves which solutions work best for them. Voting reform is no different. There are great options out there to suit the needs of every community and to ensure that our elections produce results that better represent the diverse interests of the American people.
We encourage you to explore the possibilities of voting reform in your state or locality, and find out how you can initiate or support a campaign to bring one of these voting alternatives to your community. For more information, please visit FairVote.