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Ranked choice voting is the best road forward to save democracy

Peter Ackerman, Douglas Schoen :: The Hill

After the first presidential debate, there was one conclusion that almost everyone came to, which is that it was the worst debate in modern history. After a disastrous debate and in the midst of a heated partisan campaign, a critical issue arises. What can we do to change this?

From our view, the answer lies with opening up the process to unaffiliated participants. Does anyone believe such raucousness would exist if a third party candidate was there? Just look at the 1992 debates between George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. We need to reform our voting system to make a level playing field for unaffiliated voters. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of all Americans along with about 80 percent of Americans under the age of 40 want unaffiliated candidates elected to office.

Our current system of “first past the post” voting allows two parties to dominate our elections by denoting unaffiliated candidates who run as spoilers. This hurts our democracy by shutting out independents. It has corrupted debates as it gives the two major parties absolute power. The two major parties can block third party candidates from participating by creating rules for entry that only their candidates can meet, like the rule that candidates must each have at least 15 percent support in national polls in September of a presidential election year.

Our firms previously challenged the Federal Election Commission on this rule and worked to reform the selection criteria for presidential debates. We calculated that an independent candidate needs to spend more than $260 million to run a viable campaign that can reach 15 percent support in national polls, an amount that is impossible for all but the major party candidates. Under the current system for the debates, there are inherent biases against third party candidates in national polls.

A threshold effectively makes the Democratic and Republican candidates the only options. Any third party candidate who is excluded from debates loses the opportunity to demonstrate that they are a better alternative, the media does not cover the candidate, and the candidate does not have the public exposure necessary to compete in debates. So beyond opening up our process to give a place for third party candidates, the previous several presidential elections have also made clear that we have to transition from “first past the post” voting to a much better alternative.

Ranked choice voting is a fairer system that provides voters with more options, and allows independent and unaffiliated candidates to run for office without being denoted as spoilers. Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in the election rather than vote for one. The candidate with a majority of those first choice votes is the winner. If no candidate has a majority, the one with the fewest votes gets eliminated, and ballots for that candidate then go to the next choice of voters, and the process continues until a candidate has a majority.

With this system, almost every race would be competitive, and elections would no longer be decided on just a few swing states. Officials must be accountable to a broad coalition, not just their party or a sliver of voters, because candidates who are opposed by a majority cannot win. In terms of the presidential debates, this system would pave the way for multiple participants, instead of only two figures from each major party who were chosen in the traditional primary nomination process.

Further, ranked choice voting would improve the tone of our politics, as candidates would show more restraint in speaking of their opponents so that more voters rank them higher. This allows for a more civil discussion of ideas, unlike what we saw with the first debate. Ranked choice voting would allow the full scope of our ideological views to be reflected in our government and debates, instead of just the radical extremes of the two major parties. Most Americans reject extreme candidates with extreme policies understand that both sides lost the first debate.

With Trump testing positive for the coronavirus, hopefully he will make a swift recovery in time for the rest of the debates. However, those in charge of the debates would be wise to acknowledge that the issue is not about turning microphones on or off, but instead about shifting how we run our debates and our electoral system. We must open our debates and examine some fundamental changes, such as ranked choice voting, otherwise we may not have a system left in our country.

Peter Ackerman is the founder for Americans Elect. Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as adviser to Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg.

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