Opinion: Ranked choice voting perpetuates polarization. There’s a better way.

Approval voting makes polarizing candidates unelectable, and gives us politicians who can actually work together to pass important laws by consensus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Citizens vote at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

Utah voters, like the majority of Americans, want a meaningful solution to partisan politics. Polling shows that there are sensible policy positions on almost every major political issue that a supermajority of the public would support, yet we seem incapable of fielding politicians who can win elections on that consensus platform.

Many believe that ranked choice voting might be the solution, yet do not appreciate that another voting method — approval voting — is a much better way to depolarize politics, while ranked choice voting actually tends to rank out consensus-building candidates. This is because ranked choice voting is designed to create a runoff between the top two first choice candidates, who usually are political opposites of each other.

Take, for example, a three-way election between a conservative, a liberal and a moderate. What will most likely happen in our current political environment is that the majority of voters will pick the conservative or the liberal as their first choice and the moderate candidate as their second choice. Contrary to what many people assume, none of those second choice votes for the moderate candidate will ever be counted in a ranked choice voting system. Instead, ranked choice voting will eliminate the moderate because they got the fewest first choice votes, and force a runoff between the conservative and the liberal, entrenching the partisan divide rather than alleviating it.

This scenario played out in the 2022 Alaskan congressional race, in which ranked choice voting created a runoff between two polarizing candidates — Mary Peltola and Sarah Palin — while eliminating the moderate candidate, Nick Begich, even though the election results analyzed by The Center for Election Science show that most Alaskans would likely have voted for Begich over Peltola or Palin in a one-on-one race. In this way, ranked choice voting divides moderate voters, forcing them to pick a side rather than allowing them to form a united voting bloc.

The problem with ranked choice voting is its false assumption that first choice votes should dictate election results and its failure to count all the second choice votes. What is needed is not a system that forces a runoff between two polarizing first choices, but rather a system that reveals the candidate who most voters across the entire political spectrum approve of, regardless of whether that candidate is their first choice.

Approval voting accomplishes this in an elegantly simple way: On an approval voting ballot, you just vote for all the candidates you approve of, and each of those votes is counted equally rather than being ranked. This drives the public toward a consensus, and it ensures that all votes are counted.

For example, in the hypothetical three-way election between a conservative, a liberal and a consensus-building moderate, if enough conservatives and liberals also vote for the moderate as their “back up” choice, the moderate will sweep the election with the most total votes. In fact, under approval voting, all voters are highly incentivized to cast one of their votes for a candidate who they perceive to be the most widely liked — even if that person is not their first choice — in order to prevent another disliked candidate from winning. More than that, approval voting encourages new kinds of consensus-building candidates to run in elections by giving them a clear pathway to victory, something that financial donors would readily perceive.

Approval voting makes polarizing candidates unelectable and gives us politicians who can actually work together to pass important laws by consensus. Voters in St. Louis and Fargo appreciated this when they recently passed ballot measures to implement approval voting for local elections.

In uniting voters around the most universally appealing candidates, approval voting brings out the truth about Americans: Most of us are not actually polarized. Rather, our existing voting systems force us to choose between two polarized options. We can do better, and approval voting is how.

Jean-Paul Ciardullo

Jean-Paul Ciardullo is a litigation attorney specializing in complex conflict resolution. He writes on voting reform and volunteers for Utah Approves.

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