Fighting Polarization in American Politics—through Ranked-Choice Voting

Polarization in the United States is nearing crisis levels and Ranked-Choice Voting presents an intriguing solution.

Although Republican and Democratic leaders have been at partisan odds for years, hostility recently has grown within each party toward anyone willing to make a deal with the other side. And research now shows that bitter partisan divides reach into state and local politics as well. 1/   More and more people feel politically homeless, alienated from both parties and without any say in how the country is run.

Polarization is worsened by the way the United States runs elections – as winner-take-all contests, district-by-district, state-by-state. By just needing to win more votes than the other person, each candidate has incentives to paint their main rival in the worst possible light and do the same thing to any other competitor who might appeal to their voter base.

The good news, as David Brooks argues, is that we don’t have to live with this system. Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to fight gerrymandering, a reform that would have only a marginal effect on our politics. But now the attention seems to be shifting to ranked-choice voting (RCV), a change that would have much bigger and better effects.

A recent Economist article explains that while RCV may be unable to force liberals and conservatives to like each other, it could at least blunt the electoral effects of hyperpartisanship.

In an RCV election, voters rank the field by preference, from first to last (though they can always choose to vote for just one candidate). If one candidate gathers a majority of first-place votes when all votes are in, he or she wins. If not, the candidate with the smallest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and his/her secondary, tertiary and so forth votes are redistributed. That process continues until one candidate eventually has a majority.

As the Economist article explains, RCV boosters say it changes campaigns and elections in three laudable ways. First, it encourages voter turnout. A study of 79 elections in 26 American cities found that RCV was associated with a 10% increase in turnout compared with non-RCV primary and run-off elections. Voters turned off by the front-runners have less incentive to stay home.

Second, it shifts incentives away from negative campaigning. Candidates try not just to turn out their base, but also to win as many second- and third-choice votes as possible. Finally, boosters argue that introducing RCV limits the efficacy, and therefore the amount, of money spent by single-issue campaign groups, because they often finance negative ads.

In theory, RCV elections will more often be won by candidates broadly acceptable to most voters.

On June 12th Maine conducted the first-ever statewide election using ranked-choice voting, and a ballot to retain RCV was approved.

Ranked-Choice Voting makes a lot of sense (and there’s nothing in the Constitution that says there have to be only two parties. There’s nothing in the Constitution about parties at all.) If you want to learn more about RCV, check out the Scholars Strategy Network, a one-stop resource that connects journalists, policymakers, and civic leaders to America’s top scholars and their research.

Consider supporting efforts to approve Ranked-Choice Voting nationally as well as in your state and municipality. One organization actively supporting the RCV approach is FairVote, a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms. FairVote has a proven record since 1992 advancing and winning electoral reforms at the local, state, and national level through strategic research, communications and collaboration.

1/ The Scholars Strategy Network (

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