David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, February 25, 2022
Ranked-choice voting should come to Columbia when the April 5 mayoral race goes the way I expect, and we elect a candidate with less than majority support.
That race could be another data point showing that simple voting is simply not giving voters the most preferred candidates. This is one of those “academic” ideas that has been around for decades but doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It matters.
It’s likely Bill Clinton would not have been elected president in 1992, nor George W. Bush in 2000, if we had ranked-choice voting. This is not a partisan idea.
Most elections in America are determined by which candidate gets the most votes. That’s fine if there are just two candidates because the top candidate will have a majority of the vote — 50% plus 1. If there are three or more candidates, things get interesting with the winner receiving only a plurality of the vote. It’s possible that the “most preferred” candidate does not win. In a democratic election, the candidate with the strongest preference should be elected, not the candidate who slips by because the other candidates split the vote.
Let’s say there are two alternatives for deciding a school, or retirement center, song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and a short version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Pretend the sophisticated student body is learning toward Beethoven, with 60% to 40%. But I, a devoted Springsteen fan, convince the principal that Beethoven’s Fifth should also be on the ballot. The Beethoven devotees might split their votes with 30% for the Ninth Symphony and 30% for the Fifth and Bruce wins with 40% of the vote. Good for Bruce fans, but the majority of the school preferred Beethoven over Bruce 60 to 40.
Often people realize this situation in organizations to which they belong. I realized it in eighth grade when I persuaded a student to run for student council president because the two acknowledged favorites, who were cousins, would split the vote and “my candidate” would win. That’s what happened.
When I shared this story in my Mizzou political science classes over the years, heads nod and students say, “We did that, too.” I told them “Yep, it happens all the time.” Often in schools it’s a gender thing — two boys running against one girl in junior high increases the odds for the girl.
A solution is “ranked-choice voting,” where, rather than just selecting one option, voters rank all the candidates in order of most preferred to least preferred.
If no candidate wins a majority, the candidate who finishes last is eliminated and their votes are distributed according to the voters’ preference. In my silly Beethoven-Springsteen contest, it’s likely that Beethoven devotees would rank the Fifth and the Ninth symphonies their top two choices and Springsteen in third place. Springsteen would be eliminated and the votes he received would then be distributed according to his voters’ next preference.
Ranked-choice voting is a better alternative than a runoff election because it requires only one election, saving administrative and campaign costs, and maintains voter interest.
I’m not the first Missourian columnist to write about this. Last August, Joshua Holzer asked: is it time for Missouri to adopt rank-choice voting and in 2016, Steve Spellman argued that reform in city elections could solve a number of voter dilemmas.
Back more than 20 years ago, a local resident, Henry Lane, conducted his own campaign for “instant runoff voting.” He often set up a table at the Earth Day festival and other local events asking citizens to fill out a sample ballot and demonstrated how to drop the least favorite candidate and distribute that last place candidate’s vote to the remaining candidates in order of the voter’s preference.
Lane did his demonstration with pencil and paper but now, of course, computer programs can do the job in a jiffy.
This idea for voting reform is catching on across the nation. Ranked-choice voting was used in the recent New York City mayoral race and has been adopted in 50 jurisdictions, including Alaska, Maine, and Washington, D.C.
There is now a national organization, Fair Vote, that is having a free online webinar, “How will we win in 2022” at 4 p.m. CT this Monday.
This gets us back to Columbia’s April 5 mayoral election. There are five candidates on the ballot: Barbara Buffaloe, Tanya Heath, Randy Minchew, Maria Oropallo and David Seamon. With five nonincumbent candidates, the chances of a majority winner is slight.
Moreover, based on the 2020 presidential vote in Columbia, the city is about 60% Democrat and 40% Republican. To the extent that at least three, and probably four, of the mayoral candidates seem to lean Democratic, it’s likely they will split the 60% Democratic vote.
My hunch is that no candidate will receive 40%, probably not even 35%. As this is a nonpartisan election, there is no party primary and no political party official endorsement to rank these five candidates. I have seen no voter survey, but my hunch is this is a wide-open race. That may be good for NCAA’s March Madness or a horse race, but “good government” requires a little more thoughtfulness and order and less chance.
The most immediate implication of having five candidates for mayor is that whoever is elected will likely start as a minority mayor with more votes against than for. That leads to more criticism, more distrust and more cynicism.
We should have a voting system where the most preferred candidate wins, not one where the number of candidates affects the outcome. It’s the electoral system, not the candidates, that is the problem.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.