On Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska) became the first Republican senator to call on President Trump to resign. “I want him out,” Murkowksi told a reporter. “He has caused enough damage.”
In the same interview, Murkowksi also raised doubts about whether she would remain in the Republican Party. “I will tell you, if the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me,” she said.
Similar thoughts may be going through the heads of quite a few elected Republicans right now. But unlike every other elected Republican up for reelection in 2022, Sen. Murkowski comes from a state that uses ranked-choice voting. That means she is in a rare position. She can leave the Republican Party without taking a big risk that she won’t be reelected. That’s because under ranked-choice voting, third-party or independent candidates can compete without being dismissed as spoilers.
What is ranked-choice voting?
First, a quick primer on ranked-choice voting: Ranked-choice voting lets voters mark their first-choice candidate first, their second-choice candidate second, their third-choice candidate third, and so on. Each voter has only one vote but can indicate their backup choices.
If one candidate has an outright majority (more than 50 percent) of first-place rankings, that candidate wins, just like a traditional election. But if no candidate has a majority in the first round, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Voters who had ranked that candidate first have their votes transferred to their backup — that is, the candidate they ranked second.
In a single-winner election (now used in Maine, Alaska, San Francisco and the Australian House, among other places), the ranking transfer process continues until a single candidate gathers a majority.
In other words, Murkowski has the option of running as an independent in 2022 or forming her own party. She can then attract votes from Democrats and Republicans, while allowing her Democratic and Republican supporters to still have a backup vote for a Democrat or Republican, ensuring the vote won’t be wasted if Murkowski finishes third in the initial round.
This is very different from the simple plurality-winner elections held in many other parts of the United States. Ranked-choice voting encourages candidates to focus on more than just their base. Candidates campaign for second- and third-choice votes as well as first round votes. This rewards less polarizing and more moderate candidates. It also encourages more candidates to run without being spoilers, giving voters more plausible choices.
Most of what we know about ranked-choice voting in national-level politics comes from Australia, which has used it since 1918, when the “alternative vote” emerged as the solution to vote-splitting. Australian political scientists often attribute Australia’s generally moderate politics to ranked-choice voting. That’s because RCV rewards parties with broad moderate appeal, while simultaneously allowing dissatisfied voters to vent their frustration and support minor parties. If anything, some have criticized Australia’s politics as too moderate.
How does it work in practice?
Several large cities in the United States — including San Francisco, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Santa Fe — have also adopted single-winner ranked-choice voting in recent years. Voters report being more satisfied, and campaigns have been less negative. Again, ranked-choice voting alters campaign incentives. If candidates compete to be voters’ second and third choices, they have incentives to play nicer with each other, since they don’t want to alienate each other’s supporters. Sometimes they even campaign together.
Ranked-choice voting is also often used in a multi-winner election. This is how it is used in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Australian Senate and a few other places. In this case, the process continues until all the district seats have been filled. This allows for elections to be truly proportional. Only the multi-winner form of ranked-choice voting would truly open space for more than two parties to be competitive.
Many democracy scholars see ranked-choice voting as bridging political gaps in divided societies. The kinds of vote-pooling that ranked-choice voting encourages builds electoral coalitions across competing groups and encourages candidates to seek broader support beyond their most loyal supporters. Northern Ireland, for example, instituted a form of multi-winner ranked-choice voting as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and some credit the voting system with encouraging cross-ethnic coalitions that have helped maintain the political peace.
Last November, Alaska became the second state in the United States after Maine to approve ranked-choice voting for its general elections; it is used in primaries in several states. This happened when Alaska voted in support of Proposition 2, which combines ranked-choice voting with a new top-four nonpartisan open primary system. You can think of it as a kind of two-round system in which the first round narrows the field to four and then the second round narrows it to one using ranked-choice voting.
Alaska will be the first state to use a system like this, so it’s uncertain how it will work. The evidence on top-two primaries in California and Washington has been mixed, with some studies finding some of the anticipated moderating effects, but others not.
Ranked choice voting may attract anti-Trump Republicans
Other Republicans than Murkowski may feel increasingly out of a place in a Republican Party that still seems attracted to Trump. However, if they try to form a third party, they are likely to struggle in the current plurality winner, or first-past-the-post system. They might do better if more states in the United States implemented ranked-choice voting, particularly if Congress approves the Fair Representation Act, which would create multi-winner districts with ranked-choice voting for the House. Under this system, a new center-right party could win elections while leaving the shrinking remains of a damaged Republican Party.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America and author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Image: (cc) U.S. Pacific Fleet
Updated Oct. 9, 2023