Before diving into the topic of this month’s edition, I wanted to share two important items.

1. If you are eligible and have not yet done so, register to vote.  Ballotpedia, a respected non-partisan resource, offers helpful information about how to register in your state.

2. Consult reputable resources to learn more about candidates and issues. Check out the options on the Issues and Elections tab of Messiah University’s Murray Library Civics Resources Guide.


(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

In 2016, the United States again faced a situation where the overall national popular vote for president produced an outcome that was different from the electoral vote total.  As in 2000, 1888 and 1876, questions over the legitimacy of the outcome arose.  In addition, several states had very close votes (i.e. Wisconsin and Michigan), which involved the impact of minor party candidates who received more votes than the difference between the two main contenders.  Individuals may look at the votes for other candidates in several ways.  Those who see it as a spoiled vote think that only possible winners should receive a vote.  On the other hand, voters may not cast a sincere ballot for a preferred candidate for fear of having a “wasted vote”.  Regardless, 2016 again prompted debate calling for changes to the Electoral College – although a wholesale change may be highly unlikely, significant chance can, and has, occurred. (For overview of the mechanics of the Electoral College, see this official resource by  Maine offers one more example of such revisions, a number of which have occurred at the state level.

Clearly, individuals wishing to cast out the Electoral College face an uphill battle due to the intentional design of the constitutional amendment process.  Since the ratification of the Constitution in the late 18th century, thousands of potential amendments have entered the public square, only a fraction have been adopted.  However, under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, to even be considered an officially proposed amendment, the measure must secure 2/3 support of both houses of Congress or of a national convention (the latter method has yet to be used. Only 33 have made it that far.  In order to be ratified – officially adopted as part of the Constitution – ¾ of state legislatures (or state conventions) must approve.  27 have cleared that hurdle.  The founders intended that changes occurred only when the country had overwhelming support for them – even before our current level of political discord, that level of support was extremely rare.  (Though our current time is not the only one in which political conflict has existed.) That said, the Electoral College can and has changed in a number of ways.

The Constitution seats the power to manage elections with the states in Article I Section 4, which allows experimentation with approaches for everything from promoting voter turnout to mechanisms for counting votes.  In earlier years, the state legislatures surrendered their power to determine the electoral vote choices for their states, as part of democratic trends.  States have determined methods of voter registration and ballot casting methods (see more information in this prior Civic Mind post). In more recent years, some states have made further reforms for the tallying of their electoral votes that have been designed to break the “winner take all” outcome in state elections; Maine and Nebraska adopted models that left the two votes based on the number of senators determined on the state-wide outcome but divided the others (based on the number of representatives) by congressional district.  Known as the “district system”, it became possible for multiple candidates to win votes based on the geographic concentration of supporters for candidates within different areas of these states.  Maine has now taken its innovative history further by adopting the ranked-choice ballot.

In an initiative that came from citizens rather than the legislature, Maine voters approved the use of a different system than used in other states during the 2016 election.  Initially adopted for state-level contests, 2020 will mark its first use of ranked-choice voting in a U.S. presidential election.  Most states (except Louisiana and now Maine) use what we call single-member plurality (SMP) systems – the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they only receive 35%. Unlike the SMP system, where voters have to discern not only their favored candidate but also how to vote if their preferred candidate has no likely chance of winning, ranked-choice voting allows for a more nuanced choice.

As indicated by the name, voters indicate their preference order of candidates on their ballot.  In each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the vote summed again based on the next preference of voters who supported the candidate no longer in contention. The votes are reallocated based on established voter preferences until one candidate has a majority. (For more details on the logic of this system and its history in the US, see this helpful summary by Ballotpedia.  As with the change from “winner take all” allocation of electoral votes, this reform has the potential to shape electoral outcomes, especially as it interacts with the previous reform that breaks up the winner-take-all system. We can’t know how it might have changed past elections because we do not know what people’s preferences were aside from their votes – we do not know who else they might have supported if they had been able to cast alternate votes.  But the adoption at the state level provides concrete experience for other states to evaluate.

Although ranked-choice voting at the federal level is new in the United States, a handful of other countries have used this approach, such as Australia and Northern Ireland.  However, the lessons are only partially transferable, at least when it comes to presidential elections; those countries that do use the process at the national level have a parliamentary system in which the executive is determined based on which party gains the most seats.  In addition, a small number of states and localities have adopted its use for more localized elections, though not all that have done so have yet implemented it.

In principle, ranked-choice voting appears to be primarily a good option for voters, but it is not without its challenges.  Certainly, ranked-choice voting allows individuals to cast their first vote for their first preference (sincere voting), as opposed to trying to calculate which of the candidates are most competitive in order to avoid that wasted vote (strategic voting).  However, one of the primary concerns with ranked-choice voting is the issue of ballot exhaustion.  Because voters must not only select their first choice but multiple alternatives, individuals may not complete their ranking across available candidates; moreover, less educated voters may not understand the process of ranking, even as voter education advocates launch information campaigns.

Regardless of the valid critiques of the electoral college, even in these contested outcomes, it has functioned correctly; that is, it has been mathematically accurate because equal representation in the Senate means that electoral votes are not distributed proportionally among the states.  Unless there is pervasive and sustained opposition that can propel a constitutional change, reform-minded citizens should look closer to home based on the nature of our federalist system.  Currently, the changes both breaking apart electoral votes at the state level and allowing for ranking of sincere candidate preferences have a modest impact; Maine has only four electoral votes and Nebraska six. However, both cases illustrate the power that voters have to promote change at the state level.  In addition, some states have joined a compact to allocate their electoral votes based on the popular vote winner, which would not require a change to the electoral system implemented in each state. If you are interested in having your state evaluate these options, use these suggested tips in this prior Civic Mind post about contacting your elected officials.




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