Extreme Makeover: Voting Edition

Elections, like baseball, are a simple game; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains. The rules are fairly intuitive to Americans from an early age. You’ve got your primaries, where the family engages in rousing infighting, and then the general election, where the guy or gal with the best power suit and tasteful red accessories wins. You vote for one candidate and get the hell out. The plebs always get stickers, and the senior citizens running the polls are guaranteed to be real pieces of work. It is democracy as the ancient Athenians must have imagined—only in their wildest dreams.

But could there be another way to do it? Indeed. The fact is, there is more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to voting. Without further ado, we present some different flavors of democracy in action. 

What the heck is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)?

Also sporting the moniker “ranked choice voting” (catchy, eh?), this mode of voting is all about "win, place, show." Voters are given a list of candidates and must pick their No. 1. Then, they go on to choose a runner-up and a second runner-up. By expressing ranked preference on a ballot, the need for a separate runoff election at a later date is eliminated. 

While this rank-and-label system might not be beloved by the Montessori teachers out there, it’s got a decently strong following. The Irish use it to elect their president, as does India—so it’s vouched for by the people who saved civilization and the world’s largest democracy. Not too shabby.  

There are also some adherents to IRV right here in the United States, and if you guessed that those hippies in Berkley had something to do with leading the charge for crazy changes in voting structure, you’d be right. The California city uses this voting system to elect its mayor and city council reps. San Francisco has also tangled with instant runoff since 2004, using it in mayoral and other municipal elections. It has stirred controversy: According to a voting analysis from the University of San Francisco, only a third of ballots cast in the 2010 city elections were filled out properly. Some voters picked only one candidate, while others were overly zealous in exercising their right to rank, assigning a number to each candidate on the ballot—effectively nullifying their vote. 

Oakland, California, started using IRV in 2010, and it too has seen its share of troubles. Some city council members made a move this past spring to stop the use of IRV entirely. 

Who’s ever heard of Single Transferrable Vote (STV)?

Most likely only your college comparative-politics professor. Now here is a voting system for the waste-not, want-not Midwestern mothers of the world. Single transferrable vote is a system slightly more complicated than trusty old IRV—it involves circumstantial instructions based on particular electoral outcomes and its acronym when spoken aloud sounds like a disease. Of course, they love it in Europe!

On an STV ballot, a voter has only one vote, but this vote may be transferred from one candidate to another, if the first-choice candidate marked on the ballot doesn’t reach a certain quota that makes him or her viable in the race. This would, for example, help to make votes count for those who like to cast ballots for candidates like Ralph Nader—one would mark the perennial third-place presidential candidate as first choice but instruct that their vote be transferred to, say, Dennis Kucinich, should Ralph not attain the “viable” quota. Voters can rank all candidates on the ballot, if they so choose.

It’s a bit of a mouthful to explain, and a sample ballot for STV certainly does involve a fair bit of close reading, a thing that might prove challenging in the tabbed-browsing age. 

Problems are bound to happen in elections that use STV, not the least of which is that people tend to rank their voting priorities in alphabetical order (or, more simply put, the order in which they appear on the ballot)—an understandable impulse when faced with a slew of unknown names and a desire not to be duped out of one’s right to vote. 

Though STV isn’t the most popular kid at the party, it has some fans. The complicated ballot isn’t too much for the big brains in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who use the system for school-board and city elections. Nor are the charms of STV lost on the Scots, who use it in local elections; the Irish, who use it to elect their parliamentarians; the Australians, who use it for senatorial races; and the Maltese, who use it for every kind of election conducted in their country.  

What could multiple-member districts do for me?

Redistricting is quite the sexy topic in American politics right now—one that’s got more than a few talking heads and deep thinkers in Washington with their boxers in a bunch. With states split into congressional districts filled with hundreds of thousands of people, it’s fair to assume a single elected official might not represent every member of his or her district. Enter the idea of multiple-member districts.

Multiple-member districts are exactly what they sound like—districts (we’re talking at the state legislature level, here) that have more than one representative in the legislative body. Proponents of the system say you can never have too much or too micro a representative force when it comes to democracy. Given our modern political climate—where states can stand for years at a time as solidly red or blue—districts with multiple members are more likely to shift along the political spectrum, easing the ill effects of harsh polarization.

In fact, a lot of states once used multiple-member districts—although the number has dropped—including Vermont and New Hampshire, which have a strong history of active township government that fits well with the micro-representation theme of multiple-member districts. But the system has its share of problems, and it was found in many places to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Many states that instituted the system made their districts much larger, which, in many instances, made representation of minority groups more difficult. In 1986, the Supreme Court overturned South Carolina’s policy of multiple-member districts on these grounds.  

Like we said, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. 

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