By Brittany Stalsburg on December 22, 2016
By Representation2020 board member Brittany Stalsburg
While voters and political pundits alike are still hashing out what exactly happened on November 8, there is one conclusion about the election that most cannot deny: many voters felt they didn’t have adequate choices.
In fact, this conclusion could have been drawn early on, in the months leading up to the election.. In July, before the major parties even declared their nominees, a solid majority (58 percent) of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll.
Dissatisfaction with the names on the ballot persisted up until Election Day, when even among those who voted, only 41 percent strongly favored the candidate they voted for —32 percent had reservations about their candidate, and 25 percent said they voted that way because they disliked their chosen candidate’s opponents (CNN exit polls).
Connecticut voters were not immune to the national wave of ennui about their choices. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in June showed that 55 percent and 61 percent of voters felt unfavorable toward Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, mirroring national distaste toward both candidates.
As someone who collects public opinion from voters for a living, I have sat in countless focus groups over the years listening to voters lament their lack of good choices in elections. The resounding wish I’ve heard from voters around the country is to walk into the voting booth excited to cast a ballot for a candidate they believe in and that they feel confident will represent them in government — a wish that increasingly seems like a distant dream for many.
But rather than wait for “good choices” to pop out of the nether regions, there is something we can do now to make sure elections like 2016 do not happen again. A potential cure to the ailment of bad choices is in reforming the way in which we elect our leaders, through a system called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).
The system works like this: instead of voting for a single candidate, the voter ranks the candidates by their preference — their first choice, second choice, third choice, etc., for a given office. If no candidate wins a majority after the first round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the contest. If that candidate was your first choice, then your second choice will be applied to the second round of counting and so on until a candidate wins a majority of votes.
The system offers many advantages: first, it ensures that only a candidate with majority support can win the election. This also changes how candidates campaign, since they must reach out beyond their core base in order to win. Secondly, RCV allows more candidates to compete, thus giving voters more choice. Voters also don’t have to worry about casting a “spoiler” vote for a third party candidate, and thus are free to express their support for the candidate they truly think is the best. This allows more diverse candidates with new, fresh viewpoints to emerge in addition to more traditional candidates.
The electorate in Maine just voted to approve a measure that would institute RCV into all elections across the state except for presidential contents. RCV is already used in 11 cities across America, and many other cities and states are considering this change.
Data on the effect of RCV is limited, but some research (Rutgers Eagleton Poll) conducted among voters in cities that have used the system in local elections found that voters were more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns and perceived less campaign negativity (a natural consequence of candidates having to reach out to a broad swath of voters rather than rely on riling up their base).
Connecticut could be a pioneer state to adopt this type of reform to give voters more choice and make sure that the people who get elected to office truly represent the will of the voters. While not a panacea to the disease of apathy toward politics that our current system produces, it’s a move that may help assuage voters’ desire for more, and better, choice.
As we move forward from November 8 with a list of priorities and to-do’s, I hope that structural reforms like RCV are near the top.
Brittany L. Stalsburg is Principal of BLS Research & Consulting in East Haven.