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How the U.S. can break away from the two-party system with ranked choice voting


The 2024 Presidential election is just under six months away, and “the number of young Americans between 18- and- 29 years old who ‘definitely’ plan to cast their vote for president this November has decreased from 57% to 49% between 2020 and 2024, says The Harvard Kennedy Institute of Politics.  Pew Research also finds that about a quarter of Americans feel disconnected and dislike our two major parties.  One local non-profit, MassVote, endorses a new method of voting to mitigate low confidence and compel people to vote: Ranked Choice Voting.


Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a voting reform policy that induces higher voter turnout by using a system where voters “rank” candidates in order of preference.  RCV is not a new policy.  It dates back to the “1850s in Europe as a proportional representation system used in multi-winner elections.” Countries such as Denmark, Australia, and Ireland have a history of adopting it.  Eventually, it made its way to an ample number of U.S. cities.  The closest city to Boston University that uses RCV is just over the Charles River in Cambridge, which uses it as “‘proportional RCV’ to elect nine at-large city council seats and six at-large school board seats,” as FairVote reports.  


Ranked Choice Boston (RCB) says if the city were to adapt it, it could look a few ways depending on the office.  The primary voting for city council and mayor will remain one seat, but this time, voters will rank four candidates instead of picking between two, then continue to “‘instant runoff rounds,’ eliminating the least popular candidates until one candidate has the support of a majority.”  This method will eventually elect a candidate that is more representative of what the voters want; if your second choice was elected, you would still feel similar values represented despite your primary choice losing.  City council at-large elections become slightly more complicated; voters can choose four candidates out of the top eight options from the primaries. This process requires a candidate to receive a minimum of 20% of the votes and enables “the opportunity to ensure that at least 80% of voters consistently see one of their favorite candidates elected – excellent representation for the diversity of Boston.” This offers the chance for more choice, participation, and representation.  


I spoke with Greg Dennis, Policy Director of Voter Choice Massachusetts, about how he believes this policy can usher in increased voter participation.  Dennis says that the mechanics of this policy are what brings in a fresh new sense of democracy,

“what ranked-choice voting does is give voters more voice and more choice. You may have been in an election where you wanted to vote for an underdog candidate, maybe a third party or independent candidate but felt like you couldn't, that you’d be throwing their vote away on someone who doesn't have a shot of winning. Maybe you wanted to vote for one of the major candidates in the race, but felt like one of those extra candidates was going to siphon votes away and cause your favorite candidate to lose.  That kind of dilemma creates a lot of division in our politics. It means voters feel like they have to settle for the lesser of two evils and means candidates sometimes feel like the election was spoiled by someone that had no business being in the race.”


Given the declining enthusiasm for voting and the current candidates in younger generations, ranked-choice voting could introduce more parties than Democratic and Republican candidates.  The rigid two-party system in the U.S. is the primary factor in increasing polarization and why voters have low confidence in our elections, says Vox.  At the same time, we have third-party candidates, but their supporters are typically “shamed,” and their voice is washed out, as Dennis argues.  RCV can encourage more parties with diverse ideological representation to run, giving voters more choices, and they will not feel confined to one side vs. the other. 

It is no surprise that the two parties' ideologies are becoming more polarized; Pew Research found that 48% of young adults (aged under 30) “often wish there were more political parties,” and 39% of Americans aged 18 to 29 believe that “more parties would make problem-solving easier.”  If more parties are introduced, it could compel younger voters who have low confidence in voting and feel underrepresented in voting.  RCV is an effective medium for introducing more candidates to the public if more parties are introduced. The framing of this system will encourage more participation in democracy, “ensure that larger communities of common interest can appropriately elect more candidates,” and give voters more choices, says RCB.

One of the most important features of RCV, which will bolster confidence and trust in elections, is that it gives the often neglected minority ideology a voice, making equity and access at the forefront of voting.  Dennis says,


“You can better represent minority opinions minority in every dimension. If you applied rank choice voting to multi-seat elections where most democracies worldwide do not rely so heavily on single-seat elections, they have multi-seat elections electing multiple people at a time. When you're electing multiple people, you can try to achieve what's called proportional representation where you represent each voting block in proportion to its number of votes. If one party receives 30% of the vote, they get 30% of the seats, if the second party gets 40% of the vote share, then they get 40% of the seats, the third party gets 10% of the vote, then they get 10% of the seats and so on. Applying rank choice voting to a multi-seat election in a proportional way would really benefit minority opinions more broadly.”


As described earlier, the Boston City Council election could resemble this. RCV is a simple policy already being used that has many beneficial long-term effects on American participation in democracy. If voters are still uneasy about how this policy works, Dennis reassures them that “the more people use it, the more they like it, and the more they want to keep using it.”  


The low enthusiasm among young voters in elections could create a greater sense of trust and representation of the rising generation.  For young people who feel apprehensive and dissatisfied about the 2024 presidential election, Dennis strongly recommends thinking to yourself, “vote with my head in the general election, but at the same time, I'm going to work for these structural reforms, so I don't have to make these lesser of two evils choices anymore.”  He also recommended that it is essential for college students to wield and normalize this change. While we await the city of Boston’s decision to use RCV, it is important for voters to familiarize themselves with how voting policies can disenfranchise or encourage voters to take action.  Two great local organizations working on this are Ranked Choice Boston and MassVote, working tirelessly to ensure equitable voting.


Bibliography

Borelli, Gabriel. “Support for More Political Parties in the U.S. Is Higher among Adults


“FAQ About Boston RCV.” Ranked Choice Boston, January 18, 2024.


Freelander, Adam. 2024. “Why US elections only give you two choices.” Vox.


Green, Ava, and Greg Dennis. Interview with Greg Dennis . Personal, March 27, 2024. 


Pew Research Center. How well the major parties represent Americans, the public’s


“Ranked Choice Voting.” Fair Vote, n.d. https://fairvote.org/our-reforms/ranked-choice-


“46th Edition - Fall 2023.” The Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Accessed

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