Opinion | It’s time for Michigan to join Maine with ranked-choice voting

State Rep. Jon Hoadley

State Rep. Jon Hoadley is serving his third term representing the 60th House District, which encompasses Kalamazoo (Courtesy photo)

Back in November, residents in communities throughout Michigan took part in our most important civic duty: voting. Exercising our constitutional right to vote during elections represents the very foundation of our democratic system of governance—it is both our best tool to hold our elected officials accountable and our greatest opportunity to chart a new course for the future.

Yet, for many people, Election Day is a cause for dread rather than celebration. Too often, we feel as if we’re going to the ballot box to choose the ‘lesser of two evils’ or to cast our vote against the candidate we oppose rather than for the candidate we support. With this cynical view of voting, it’s no wonder so many people disengage with the political process.

But how did we get to this point? It’s not a coincidence. It’s actually the natural conclusion of the system we use to vote.

If, for a moment, you set aside the major challenges of voter discrimination, disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, our current system of voting appears fair on the surface: We vote for a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This is called “first-past-the-post” and it’s the system that has been used in most places in America for hundreds of years. But just because this system has lasted so long does not mean that it’s fair or accurate.

For example, consider an election where there are three candidates running for the same position. After the votes are tallied, the leading candidate received 40 percent of the vote and is declared the winner. Even though that single candidate received the most votes out of the three, 60 percent of voters had actually chosen a different candidate, meaning most voters would have preferred a different winner.

Or imagine another scenario with the same three candidates seeking the same position. You go to the ballot box worried that the candidate you support won’t actually receive enough votes to win. Should you vote for your preferred candidate, even if your least favorite candidate might win as a result? Or should you vote for the candidate you’re indifferent toward, but has a better chance at winning, just to prevent that from happening?

This is the joyless calculus that modern voting has become for many Michiganders. It’s also what enables our two-party system to persist even though most Americans believe new options are needed.

The solution to this centuries-old problem isn’t actually as complicated as you might think—and it’s one that can trace some of its early roots right to Kalamazoo: ranked-choice voting.

Although Maine is currently getting a lot of attention for its statewide move to ranked-choice voting, the city of Kalamazoo was actually one of the first places in the nation to adopt it in 1918, although the practice was discontinued years later when the charter changed.

Like the name suggests, instead of choosing a single candidate at the ballot box, you rank candidates in order of your preference — first choice, second choice, and so on. Ballots are counted in rounds in which last-place candidates lose until one candidate reaches a majority and wins. It’s that simple, fair, and easy.

The benefits of this small change are enormous. First, you can be assured that the winning candidate has at least some support from the majority of the people they will represent. And second, you are free to vote for your preferred candidate without fear that the candidate you oppose will win by default.

This is a clear win-win, and that’s why I introduced a bill recently to empower our communities and local governments to use ranked-choice voting in their elections.

It’s time for us to join Maine and set the standard for free and fair elections for the rest of the nation. If we want all our residents to re-engage with the political process, we must reaffirm our commitment to ensuring every voice is heard and every vote counts.

Together, we can make voting a responsibility that brings us pride — not disappointment.

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Joe Bixler
Mon, 01/13/2020 - 10:04am

The number of "rounds' could be expensive to determine the "clear majority" winner. I don't mind the ranking order though it sounds intriguing. Can you leave a candidate off your ranking? That is to ask, if there are three candidates can you only rank two?

Tue, 01/14/2020 - 2:56pm

There are not multiple rounds of voting in this system, the second/third "round" would be reallocating second- and third-choice preferences, etc, and we would already have that information. I think you can leave people off your ballot but I imagine different places might set different rules

Peggy Bayliss
Fri, 01/17/2020 - 7:40pm

Yes, you can leave off candidates, never, NEVER, vote for anyone of whom you do not approve, or would not want in the office for which you are voting. You run the risk of having your ballot exhausted, i.e. having no more choices for rounds. In my mind, that would be better than voting for someone you do not want in an office.
The number of rounds should not be an issue. The counting is done by a computer and here in Maine each round only takes seconds. The real cost here has been getting every single ballot to and into a computer to be counted. We use optical scanners in just about 500 municipalities so only the scanner cards (like thumb drives) are sent to the state capital. For those places that have too few ballots to have a scanner, ballots are sent and scanned and then entered. The cost is in collecting the information and works out to be about $1 or less per voter. I think the cost is worth if for a better election.
I live in Maine's CD2 where the first state "upset" occurred. I don't see it as an "upset," I see it as the correct outcome for an election. I would urge people to look at that election, which did exactly what RCV is supposed to do.
I am a little bothered by the words, "clear majority." In terms of how we have always thought of a majority, that may not happen. The majority has to happen in any round to find the end point of the election. This is where the math should come in, and this concept is simple. If any candidate has 50% plus one vote, then there are not enough ballots left, no matter how they are distributed, for any other candidate to get more votes. It is a definite majority of ballots that have not been exhausted that determines the outcome, so the majority is still a real thing. The majority for an RCV round should be calculated by the number of votes the candidate receives divided by the number of actual ballots counted for that round (vs. the total number of ballots as we have done traditionally.)
RCV really does make sure every voter has a say and that no votes are ever wasted. The real wasted votes occur in plurality, where the vote may be so split that, like in Maine, a candidate can win with as little as 38%, which means that 62% of the votes were essentially wasted, as that clear majority voted for someone else.

Mon, 01/13/2020 - 11:01am

Creative candidate voting is all this is and does not have my vote! Nothing wrong with all or nothing. He did not make a convincing case to make the change. I have a better idea. Let’s let citizen vote on were they would like their tax dollars to go to.

Mon, 01/13/2020 - 3:52pm

Great idea! I think some people don’t understand how this works. You go to the polls and vote for your favorite person. You can be done, or if a second person is okay, you put them as number 2. If day s third candidate is tolerable you put them as 3. That’s it, your done. The winner wins if they get over 50% of the first pick votes. If nobody got over 50%, then it gets complicated but it doesn’t involve voting again.

Mon, 01/13/2020 - 7:36pm

Just straight-up approval voting where you can vote for any number of candidates (no ranking) is easier to tally and has pretty much the same result.

Tue, 01/14/2020 - 8:53am

Or why not let Maine run with this for a decade and see if paradise actually ensues?

My Business
Wed, 01/15/2020 - 6:20pm

No, next.