It doesn’t take much to convince many Americans that there are serious problems with the U.S. electoral system. The bungled Iowa caucus vote count appeared to offer further proof that something has gone seriously wrong with a fundamental about democracy — finding out who has the most support.

“With the Iowa caucuses, an outdated mode of voting can cast real uncertainly about the outcome,” says Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, a political reform group.

Problems ranging from the disputed Florida presidential recount of 2000 through attempted hacks in 2016 have left many Americans dissatisfied with traditional methods of running elections and counting votes.

Even before the Iowa caucuses got underway on Monday, allegations of voter registration fraud were spreading fast on social media, driven by Judicial Watch and Turning Point USA, two conservative groups whose posts and tweets traveled a lot farther than the attempts by Iowa Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate to debunk them.

“These problems cause a drip, drip, drip of voter mistrust in the election system,” wrote Rick Hasen, author of Election Meltdown, a new book about threats to democracy. “In this hyperpolarized atmosphere, it doesn’t take a lot for people to suspect the worst.”

Against this backdrop, there’s growing popular support for voting methods that provide some sort of alternative to the traditional system of winner-take-all plurality voting. “What we’re seeing is that people are dissatisfied with the outcomes of our political system and are looking at root causes,” Troiano says. “They’re looking at our election system, the way we elect the people we do elect.”

Like some other advocacy groups, Unite America promotes the idea of ranked choice voting, a form of instant-runoff voting where voters express a preference not only for a first choice but also other candidates they might support. Under ranked choice voting (RCV), if no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, the candidates with the lowest levels of support are gradually eliminated until someone does receive a majority.

This method, which has been used in Australia and Ireland for about a century, has been adopted in several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Minneapolis. Its reach is spreading. In November, New York City voters approved a ranked choice voting measure by nearly 3-to-1. “The number of cities that have gone to ranked choice voting has doubled in the last five years,” says Rob Richie, president of FairVote and a longtime RCV proponent. “I wouldn’t be surprised if five to 10 cities went to it next year.”

Ranked choice voting is now moving to larger stages than municipal elections. Maine voters approved ranked choice voting in 2016, becoming the first state to use it in 2018. New measures are likely to be on the ballot this year in Alaska and Massachusetts.

Nevada, which holds the second presidential caucuses on Feb. 22, will use ranked choice voting for early voters. (Rather than seeking a majority, Nevada will use RCV to eliminate candidates who don’t reach the 15 percent threshold of support.)

Five other states will use RCV in Democratic presidential primary voting, including three on April 4. Assuming there’s no Iowa-style screwup, this will give ranked choice voting its highest-profile test yet in this country.

“It feels like a boom industry right now, when people feel like there’s the need for reform in the electoral system,” Richie says. “People are receptive to hear about them because of the national mood.”

Academic studies have poured cold water on some of the promises RCV supporters make about its likely effects, such as reducing polarization. And there is pushback against the idea. Memphis voters have twice supported RCV measures, but the method hasn’t been implemented there due to legal questions and state opposition. On Tuesday, the Maine Republican Party announced it was launching a campaign for a November ballot measure that would repeal the state’s ranked choice voting law.

Still, popular support for ranked choice voting and other electoral methods shows that there is a good deal of appetite for overhauling the way elections are structured.

“Frustration is bubbling over across the country right now,” says John Palmer, who serves on the board of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers. “The system isn’t working and the people are really disgruntled with the two parties.”

Unhappy with Plurality Winners

It wasn’t a surprise that Maine became the first state to adopt ranked choice voting. The 2016 measure was approved while Republican Paul LePage was serving the second of two terms as governor — both of which he won with plurality support, failing to garner a majority either time.

Some residents affixed “61 percent” bumper stickers to their cars, a reference to the share of voters who opposed LePage in 2010. “When there are three or more candidates, the one with a plurality might be heartily disliked by a majority of voters,” says Jack Nagel, a retired University of Pennsylvania political scientist.

In both Alaska and Massachusetts, the states likely to consider ranked choice voting this year, the governors elected in 2014 each won with plurality support. In Alaska, no candidate for U.S. Senate has taken a majority of the vote since 2002.

One of the central selling points of ranked choice voting is that the eventual winner will have gotten support from a majority of voters, even if he or she was not everyone’s first choice.

“The fact that ranked choice voting is supposed to produce a majority winner may appeal to some people who have seen presidents win with less than a majority of the vote,” says David Kimball, a voting expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Still, it’s not necessarily the case that the winner under ranked choice voting will receive majority support. When there are especially large fields, there’s a problem with “exhausted voters” who fail or refuse to express preferences for more than two or three choices.

Something similar happened in Iowa. The problems there stemmed from problems with an app and a phone-in system that were supposed to allow precinct captains to report results easily to the state Democratic Party. But when candidates at each caucus failed to receive 15 percent, their supporters are supposed to “realign” and shift their support to viable candidates. A lot of people just went home instead.

“Ranked choice voting does produce a majority winner,” Kimball says, “but because some votes are exhausted by the time you get there, there may not be a majority of people who voted in the first place.”

Ranked choice voting is more complicated than expressing preference for a single candidate, says Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University who has studied the method.

It’s also unlikely to result in some sort of broad consensus among the electorate against more ideologically extreme candidates who can get elected under plurality voting, he says. Other methods that held out the promise of promoting more moderate candidates, such as California’s top-two primary system, which sends the top two primary votegetters on to the general election, regardless of party, have failed to result in the election of more moderates.

“If people want to adopt ranked choice voting because they want to ameliorate partisan polarization, I think they’re probably going to be disappointed by the results,” McDaniel says.

Reducing the Spoiler Effect

Kimball notes that ranked choice voting seems to cut down on negative campaigning. Candidates can’t viciously tear down their opponents if they hope to be the second choice of their supporters. There have been examples of candidates forming alliances, telling supporters “vote for me and then vote for her.”

Ranked choice voting also cuts down on the spoiler effect. Rather than worrying about having to support a Democrat or a Republican as the only plausible winners, people can vote for their favorites, knowing that the eventual winner won’t sneak in because votes were “wasted” on an independent or minor party candidate. “It allows people to vote their conscience, but makes sure we have a majority winner,” says Alex Kaplan, vice president of policy and campaigns at RepresentUs, an election reform advocacy group.

Because many Americans believe the political system is broken, they’re more open to new ways of doing things, he says. “For so long, we’ve been told there’s one way to decide our winners,” Kaplan says. “People are seeing there are alternatives that make sense.”

RepresentUs supports ranked choice voting, but Kaplan says it’s time to try new solutions in general. One other idea that’s slowly gaining attention is called approval voting.

As with ranked choice voting, under approval voting people can support multiple candidates. Rather than ranking their preferences, however, they would simply vote for as many candidates as they like. If there are four candidates on the ballot, citizens could vote for one of them, or for two, or for the whole lot. The person with the highest total would win.

Approval voting has been used by associations and nonprofits in selecting their own leadership, but it’s never been used for an election in the United States. In 2018, a ballot measure to adopt approval voting in municipal elections passed in Fargo, N.D.

It was presented as a test case, showing that the idea could garner popular support and that the method could work. Supporters of the idea are currently collecting signatures in St. Louis, with the goal of putting a measure on the August ballot. “Approval voting is simple; it’s easy to understand; it’s easy to tabulate,” says Tyler Schlichenmeyer, steering committee chair for STL Approves, which is sponsoring the measure.

As in states considering ranked choice voting, St. Louis has seen some citywide elections decided by narrow pluralities. In 2017, Lyda Krewson won the all-important Democratic primary for mayor with less than a third of the vote, barely outpacing her nearest rival. “St. Louisans are hungry for a leader with broad support in the community,” Schlichenmeyer says.

Early polling suggests considerable support for approval voting and no organized opposition has yet emerged to fight the proposed measure. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be skeptical about the method, says Nagel, the Penn professor, especially because the St. Louis measure would allow a subsequent runoff.

“There is an incentive in St. Louis to cast approval not for the people you approve of, but the person you like the most, plus another candidate you don’t like at all who you think would be a pushover opponent,” Nagel says.

A frequent complaint about approval voting where it’s been used is that there’s a strategic temptation to truncate your approvals. Voters don’t check a box for all the candidates they like because they want the vote they do cast for their favorite to have more weight. “If most voters cut back to just one, the system is the same as what we have now,” Nagel says.

Any Faster Than Iowa?

The problem in Iowa was not an inaccurate count, but a slow one. Ranked choice voting won’t necessarily speed up the process. Tabulating and retabulating votes can take days.

That could be a factor in the presidential race. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Maine, but with 48 percent of the vote. (Republican Donald Trump carried Maine’s 2nd Congressional District; Maine, along with Nebraska, awards some of its Electoral College votes by district.)

This year, Maine will use ranked choice voting for president for the first time. If there’s any significant third-party candidate in the race, it’s likely the vote there will go to a runoff, which would not be decided quickly.

There are risks aside from speed, warns Jack Santucci, a political scientist at Drexel University. Last year, Vineyard and Payson, two small cities in Utah, used a form of ranked choice voting for multi-member districts. Their “block preferential” method spreads support differently than ranked choice voting systems in places like Maine, allowing only candidates from given groups — a single party, say, or a racial group — to win all the seats.

It’s complicated, but the upshot is that it could make elections less competitive. “People like it because it looks and smells like ranked choice voting, but the point is to give every seat to one party,” Santucci says.

Over the past century, Santucci says, politicians have been able to grab the “halo” of reform and then pick and choose the parts of voting systems that allowed them to perpetuate their own power. Voters are presented with ballot measures that purport to rage against the machine, while actually keeping the machine in place. “When reform is hot like this, everything is on the table,” Santucci says.

A century ago, major election changes such as ballot initiatives and popular election of U.S. senators were driven by concerns about corruption and machine politics. Today, it’s polarization that’s making people open to new approaches.

Ranked choice voting and approval voting may have their flaws, but it’s clear that many people are now open to alternatives to the old plurality method.

“There’s a climate that happens where there’s a realization that voting is in play and we have to talk about changes,” says Richie, FairVote’s president. “I’d be shocked if, by the end of the 2020s, there weren’t some really significant changes, like in the 1910s.”


Reader Feedback

Governing welcomes reader responses to our journalism.

We received this letter from Bob Litz, the auditor in Minnehaha County, S.D.

I read with great interest your article on “election alternatives.” At the end of the article, I was still left with the conclusion that going to RCV (ranked choice voting), or a derivative of that type of system, probably isn’t going to make a difference in how fast things get reported. Inaccurate or “late” tallies are part of a perception problem that gets pounded on by those who usually have a dog in the fight.

The fact is we as a nation need to all go to a paper ballot system of voting. Tabulating those ballots and uploading results on election day is the problem. When the heat is on election administrators on election night, it is the rush to get the results out to the public, our tendency for instant gratification, that causes issues. Elections are always going to be wedded to some type of technology. Technology fails regularly, but with paper you have the backup to get it right. Does it really make sense to put out results that have not been audited in some fashion? I know, they are “unofficial” results, but who is the user of such information? Most folks are not overly concerned about speedy results. Nobody is going to a new job the morning after an election.   

In California it sometimes takes two weeks to count all the ballots. In India it takes up to six months to count all the ballots. Why is the U.S. public tied to the idea that “fast” results are mandatory? It’s not like getting a burger or taco. The folks who push this idea are those who are reporting the elections or those who are in the race, and they don’t want their supporters waiting too long on a Tuesday night for a winner. Neither group should be promoting speed above accuracy. Besides, anyone who has an inkling of what statistics are realizes that with 1/3 of the precincts voting, most races are already determined. The smaller down-ticket races are usually the ones that have to wait for results, or a really close bigger contest can also take until all ballots are counted. Accuracy matters in both of those situations, not the speed. 

Election gaffes happen. Having paper to re-count and audit is the answer. Getting folks to quit demanding instant results, so someone has something to go to press with, is another fix. After the year 2000, elections got a lot of federal dollars in the form of HAVA (Help America Vote Act) grants. Vendors came forward with a new generation of election software, firmware and hardware for elections. Most of it was focused on speed and convenience. Some of it was absolute crap when it came out and the rest of it is simply outdated today, due to cybersecurity concerns. Things changed.

Election security will always be a race between the election vendors and the bad guys. We are literally in a brave new world. Go Mr. Huxley.