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The Many Pathways to Fixing our Democracy

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is having and holding onto its moment in the US, displaying benefits ranging from extending the timeline of citizens' votes to cutting high election costs and yielding more diverse outcomes. These advantages have not gone unnoticed and garnered support for the system, building a robust movement for better elections. The costly midterm election season in Texas' 28th District is just one illustration of an unfortunate missed opportunity where RCV could have a huge positive impact.

This landscape leaves a question for RCV proponents: What is the best way to implement RCV across the country? Should the strategy focus on local adoption, or will it take a federal mandate?

There is no community more active and local than a college campus. And as the movement for ranked-choice voting gathers steam around the country and its successes mount, there have been critics. Dartmouth College provides a great example of this. The school switched from RCV to approval voting in their student body presidential elections in 2011 and saw significant drops in support for election outcome and the approval ballot system. This essentially turned their elections into majoritarian results. Since then, Dartmouth has removed approval voting from their elections and continues to display RCV's benefits unconventionally. 

Elections in major cities across the country also demonstrate positive results after implementing ranked-choice elections. Of the 28 top-100 largest cities in the US that employ ranked-choice mayoral elections, 43% of the winners were women, bringing gender parity in government closer to reality. 

New York City's 2021 City Council election, the first using ranked-choice primaries, saw the number of women on the council more than double, taking the majority of the Council seats for the first time. This is the city's most diverse council in history. A single municipality's adoption of RCV can be hugely successful in representing their community better while encouraging other municipalities to implement.

Toeing the path toward state implementation, there are patterns showing that incremental growth is happening across communities. This might significantly influence the statewide adoption of RCV. For example, Utah's RCV pilot program grew from two communities using ranked-choice municipal elections in 2019 to over twenty in 2021, with state renewal of the program. This incremental pattern holds promise— more municipalities may be inclined to adopt RCV when they have more visibility and support for widespread use, encouraging state officials to make the change.  

As seen in Maine's implementation, Mainers' protection of the process is a prime indication that grassroots activism for RCV can succeed at the state level, as well. Voters approved RCV in 2016 but the legislature delayed it a year later. Mainers organized and protected ranked-choice elections through the 'People's Veto,' ensuring that RCV would be implemented as passed initially. The dedication displayed in Maine is a promising instance of grassroots activism successfully carrying out the people's will to use RCV. 

Now for the federal route. The Fair Representation Act has become a focal point of national electoral activism. Its passage would ensure the implementation of ranked voting in federal Congressional elections and other electoral reforms. Such an impactful reform bill will take time to gain traction and pass. However, organizations like FairVote and RepresentWomen are working to promote the Act and its wide-ranging benefits. 

Why is Federal support the white whale of reforming democracy? We've seen examples of massive structural change before, with Title IX, the Voting Rights Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.. These reforms put the pressure to change on the system and not on those whom they marginalize. Suppose we wish to see a genuinely refined and representative democracy in our lifetimes. In that case, it's time to think bigger and think toward national RCV adoption.  

However, the key to running through all of these strategies is getting officials to understand and believe in the process. Getting that first receptive member of Congress, State Assemblyman, or City Councilwoman on board with ranked-choice elections is crucial to the success of an adoption movement. With the growth of this movement currently happening at local and state levels across the country, there is a budding hope that the same can happen federally. Until the FRA is made law, activism is vital at all levels of government, from the grassroots to the grasstops. 


Alyssa Toppi is a former RepresentWomen Communications Intern and Student at American University 

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