“My vote doesn’t matter.” “They’re two sides of the same coin.” “If I vote my conscience I risk wasting my vote.” These are just some of the sentiments we hear when talking to people across the country about voting. According to a recent Ipsos survey, 53% of non-voters and 24% of voters in 2020 agreed that “it makes no difference who is elected president—things go on just as they did before.” This isn’t just a new concern either. In a 2016 Pew Research poll, as many as 15% of nationally registered voters said they didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election because they didn’t believe their vote would make a difference. When a trend like this arises, we have to ask ourselves: How did our representative democracy get to the point where it no longer feels representative or democratic, and how can we fix that?
One key answer lies in our voting method: plurality or “choose one” voting. This type of voting, used predominantly in the U.S., often suffers from vote-splitting and the spoiler effect, allowing candidates to win with far less than a majority of the vote. This leaves voters hesitant to vote for their favorite candidate out of fear that they could be helping their least favorite win.
So how can we fix this? One widely discussed alternative—instant runoff voting or ranked choice voting (RCV)—has been hailed by many reformists as a panacea to our electoral issues. The system, however, has drawn concern among electoral scientists for some time, and after being implemented in Maine and Alaska, real-world evidence is starting to show that it falls short in several notable areas. For instance, a closer look at the ballot data in the recent special election in Alaska shows that the system actually failed to elect the candidate who was preferred over all others. This should give us pause.
When discussing a right as fundamental as representation, we need to be careful to choose a method that works best for voters, not because it is preferred by one party or because it has momentum. Fortunately, there are promising alternatives to plurality voting and RCV, including approval voting and STAR voting.