A Better Way to Vote

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

December 7, 2004

Elections come and go, and every time ballots are cast large numbers of voters are left feeling demoralized or, worse yet, completely alienated. Countless numbers complain they feel trapped into voting for the lesser of evils. Many fret about whether they "wasted" their vote, while others vent anger toward "spoiler" candidates.

Instead of being resigned to so many people holding their noses while voting, can’t we build a better mousetrap?

Yes, we can.

Countries like Australia, Great Britain and Ireland already have. They use free choice voting systems that ensure a voter’s true preference is reflected when a ballot is cast. Several American communities are experimenting with such systems for their local elections, and the Utah Republican Party uses a form of free choice voting to nominate candidates for Congress.

Under free choice voting systems, voters rank candidates in order of preference. This way of voting enhances a voter’s freedom to choose, eliminates wasted votes and spoiler candidates, discourages negative campaigning, and saves taxpayer money all at the same time. Yet Wisconsin is not seriously considering it.

Legislation was introduced in the 2003-2004 session by three Republicans and three Democrats to allow the use of free choice voting – specifically preferential or instant runoff voting – for local nonpartisan races in Wisconsin. The proposal, Assembly Bill 911, did not receive so much as a public hearing.

Too bad. Free choice voting has great potential to reinvigorate democracy, reduce voter cynicism and thereby boost sagging voter confidence in elections. Wisconsin should at the very least experiment with it.

Here’s how it works:

Whenever there are three or more candidates for an office or seat to be filled at an election, voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference. In cases where there is no initial majority winner, a runoff recount can be conducted without a new election to determine which candidate is actually preferred by a majority of voters. Instead of just casting one vote for one candidate, voters rank the candidates as their first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes from these ballots are then redistributed to the other candidates. The ballots are recounted, and candidates are eliminated in this fashion until a winner emerges with a majority of the vote.

Free choice voting empowers voters and improves elections in many ways, but most importantly it:

  • Ensures the winner has the support of the majority of voters. Currently, candidates can be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, leaving doubt as to whether they have a mandate for their policies.
  • Allows more candidates, including independents and third-party candidates, to get involved in races without being accused of being "spoilers." Preferential voting not only gives voters more freedom to choose, it also eliminates the "wasted vote" dilemma many voters agonize over.
  • Discourages negative campaigning. To win, candidates need to get some second or even third place votes, as well as first place votes. They'll be less likely to attack their opponents if they need support from their opponents' voters.
  • Saves money. Preferential voting eliminates the need for primary elections. Fewer elections, less cost to taxpayers.
  • Honors the independence of Wisconsin voters. Currently, the large ranks of independent voters are not allowed to "cross over" in primary elections – that is, vote for one party’s candidate for one office and another party’s candidate in a different race – because Wisconsin does not have truly open primary elections. This limitation on a voter’s freedom to choose does not exist with preferential voting.

There is a better way to vote. What are we waiting for?

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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