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Escaping the Left’s electoral impasse

Ranked-choice voting and proportional representation


Howie Hawkins argues for ranked choice voting and proportional representation as part of the fight to defend and expand democratic rights.

Whether you are a socialist who believes in a clean break, a dirty break, or no break from the Democratic Party, ranked-choice voting (RCV)—especially for proportional representation on legislative bodies—should be a top priority now more than ever. These reforms are just as much a principled matter of democratic rights—i.e., the ability of voters to have our preferences reflected in our votes—as it is a strategic and tactical concern for the electoral prospects of the Left.

RCV in single-seat races eliminates the spoiler problem that powerfully discourages votes for independent Left candidates. In multi-seat races, RCV creates proportional representation and thus eliminates the winner-take-all problem that enables a single political party to elect every office and monopolize power within a given district.

As we fight back against the Republican assault on voting rights and impartial elections, it is time to expand the pro-democracy agenda to include the right to have all political viewpoints represented in proportion to their support in society.

The transformation of the Republicans from a conservative party into an extremist far-right party makes running for office harder than ever for leftist candidates. The method by which elections have been run in the U.S.—single-member-district, winner-take-all, plurality (SMP) voting—drives progressives to vote for corporate Democrats to stop Republican extremists. Replacing SMP voting with RCV would represent a democratic advance that allows the Left to have a credible voice in electoral politics. Ranked-choice voting will create spoiler-free elections for single-member district elections and proportional representation in legislative bodies through RCV in multi-member districts that replace winner-take-all, single-member districts.

In SMP elections, most progressives feel compelled to vote for centrist Democrats instead of independent Left, Socialist, or Green candidates in order to fend off far-right Republicans. With RCV, progressives can rank independent progressives before centrist Democrats without the fear of “spoiling” the election by splitting the left and center vote and enabling right-wing Republicans to win with pluralities.

The spoiler problem not only marginalizes the independent Left. It also enfeebles the political leverage of progressives inside the Democratic Party. Corporate Democrats take progressives for granted because they pose no threat of exiting to an independent left alternative. As MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell once explained drawing on his experience as a Democratic Senate staffer:

If you want to pull the major party that is closest to the way you’re thinking, to what you’re thinking, you must show them that you’re capable of not voting for them. If you don’t show them that you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen or have to listen to anything on the left while I was working in the Democratic Party because the left had nowhere to go.

Progressives inside the Democratic Party need a viable independent threat outside the Democratic Party to have political leverage on the inside.

Ranked-choice voting eliminates the spoiler problem in SMP elections for single-seat offices. It ensures that the most preferred candidate win, instead of a plurality winner who may be opposed by a majority of voters who are split among two or more alternative choices.

Multi-seat RCV for proportional representation in legislative bodies eliminates the winner-take-all problem in SMP elections. SMP elections give the party that wins a single-member district all the representation, while all other parties get no representation. Multi-seat RCV elections result in proportional representation of all political viewpoints. It ends the political marginalization of ethnic minorities as well as political minorities and renders partisan and racial gerrymandering—one of the most important tools in the suppression of democratic rights—impossible.

In RCV elections, voters simply rank their choices in order of preference. For voters, RCV is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Exit polls after RCV elections show that voters overwhelmingly understand it, find it easy to do, and prefer it to plurality voting.

For single-member offices, the ranked ballots are tallied in a series of instant runoffs until the winning candidate receives a majority of the votes. For multi-member proportional RCV, the winning candidates are those who receive the minimum number of votes needed to fill one of the available seats after ranked-choice preferences on the ballots are tallied.

Plurality Voting Suppresses the Left

The enduring power of the spoiler problem to motivate voters to support the centrist who is the “lesser of two evils,” instead of an independent progressive, is demonstrated by 180 years of independent presidential candidacies. In 46 presidential elections since the first independent left presidential campaign waged by the abolitionist Liberty Party in 1840, the vote for such candidates has exceeded 4 percent of the total popular vote only five times: 10 percent for the Free Soil Party’s Martin Van Buren in 1848, 5 percent for Free Soil’s John P. Hale in 1852, 9 percent for the People’s Party’s James Weaver in 1892, 6 percent for the Socialists’ Eugene Debs in 1912, and 17 percent for the Progressives’ Robert LaFollette in 1924. In each of those cases, the third-party candidate still finished a distant third, or, in Debs’ case, fourth.

Image by Laurel L. Russwurm

The spoiler problem pushes voters to support centrists inside Democratic primaries as well. We saw this dynamic play out in the 2020 presidential primaries. When the party establishment closed ranks behind centrist Joe Biden against the front-running Bernie Sanders, the message to primary voters was that a progressive like Sanders was “unelectable” against the right-winger Trump. When the Democrats underperformed against expectations for House, Senate, and state legislative races in 2020, the centrists blamed the progressives. It wasn’t true that the progressive messaging hurt the Democrats’ election results, as Sanders countered with the facts. But that “progressives are spoilers” message still resonates with center-left voters.

The lesser-evil dynamic has played out inside Democratic Party politics for decades. It enabled corporate New Democrats to displace liberal New Deal Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Democrats moved right to accommodate the neoliberal turn pushed by economic elites, and there was no viable independent left to push back against this right turn. This lesser-evil dynamic has led to greater evils. It has driven a relentless march to the right in which Democrats chase Republicans rightward in pursuit of swing voters.

The lesser-evil dynamic plays out up and down the ballot. It has fortified the power of corporate Democrats who remain firmly in control of their party, notwithstanding all the recent attention given to Sanders and the Squad. The post-election balance of forces between the progressive and corporate Democrats was quantified last December when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked for an open seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with two of her top priorities—Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Democratic leaders recruited Kathleen Rice of the corporate New Democrat Coalition to run against AOC. The leadership body of the House Democratic Caucus, the Steering and Policy Committee, voted to seat Rice over AOC by 46-13.

Progressives’ reasonable fear of extremist Republican rule pushes their votes into the pockets of corporate Democrats more than ever. Subject to the lesser-evil incentives of SMP voting, the independent left receives far fewer votes and representation than the majoritarian support many of its policies have. The Left appears much smaller than it is. That distortion of reality by the electoral system becomes the conventional wisdom.

Reality Distortion Field by Mr. Nixter

RCV in the USA

Proportional RCV was adopted first in English-speaking countries in the early twentieth century, including by Australia, Ireland, and Malta nationally and by 24 cities in the United States in the Progressive Era. Between the 1910s and 1940s, Boulder, Cambridge, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York City, Sacramento, Toledo, Worcester, and Yonkers were among the cities to adopt proportional RCV. However, proportional RCV was repealed in all but two cities in the regressive McCarthy Era.

Ranked-choice voting has revived in the 2000s. Fifty-three local jurisdictions and two states, Maine and Alaska, have approved RCV. The RCV movement is gaining momentum, with five cities and Alaska having adopted it in the 2020 elections. Burlington, Austin, and 23 Utah cities and towns have adopted it since that election. Campaigns to implement RCV are now active in almost every state. These are campaigns in which the Left should engage.

The motivation for RCV for proportional representation in the Progressive Era was to break up the usually Democratic and sometimes Republican machines that monopolized power in many cities through SMP voting and ruled with a good measure of bribery, kickbacks, favoritism, and voting fraud. Good-government progressives, the minority major party in a city, ethnic minority groups, and independent socialist, labor, and progressive parties combined to push through proportional representation.

Proportional representation worked as intended. More parties were represented on city councils. In New York City, where Democrats had long held nearly all the seats, four or five parties had representation after each of the five city council elections under proportional representation from 1937 to 1945, including the American Labor, Communist, and Liberal parties to the left of the Democrats.

Proportional representation also enabled previously excluded ethnic minorities to elect representatives: the first Irish Catholics in Ashtabula, the first Polish-Americans in Toledo, and the first African Americans in Cincinnati, Toledo, and other cities. The first African American elected to the New York City council was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1941 as a third-party candidate of the American Labor Party.

The success of RCV proportional representation in creating multi-party, multiracial municipal democracies was used against it in the reactionary McCarthy years. The election of American Labor and Communist candidates to the New York City council was used to mobilize an anti-communist crusade against proportional representation. In the context of the rising postwar civil rights movement, the election of African Americans was used in cities like Cincinnati to mobilize a white backlash against proportional representation.

In the growing movement for RCV, the Left should insist on multi-seat RCV for proportional representation and discourage settling for single-seat RCV for legislative elections. Single-member-district elections tend to produce governments dominated by two major parties, whether plurality or ranked-choice voting is used.

The 2019 elections in Australia demonstrate the radically different outcomes in party representation between single-seat RCV and multi-seat RCV. In Australia, the House of Representatives is elected by single-seat RCV while the Senate is elected by multi-seat RCV. In the 2019 elections, the Green Party received 10.4 percent of the first-choice votes for the House nationwide but only 1 of 151 seats under single-seat RCV. In the Senate under multi-seat RCV, the Greens won 9 of 76 seats, which was 11.8 percent of the seats and close to their 10.2 percent of first-choice votes. The vote percentages were nearly the same and seat numbers exactly the same in both houses for the Greens in the 2016 elections. The two major parties in Australia, on the other hand, had their popular vote magnified into over-representation by the single-member-district, winner-take-all system in the House. In 2019, the Liberal/National Coalition received 42 percent of the vote and 51 percent of the seats, while Labor received 35 percent of the vote and 45 percent of the seats. Under the single-member-district, winner-take-all system, the two major parties are over-represented, whether the voting is by plurality or ranked-choice.

Implementation

It varies by state and local jurisdiction whether enacting RCV requires simply passing a law, state approval for local jurisdictions, and/or an amendment to a local charter or state constitution. At the federal level, proportional RCV for the House of Representatives could be established simply by passing a law such as the proposed Fair Representation Act.

The Electoral College makes U.S. presidential elections a ridiculous farce. Since the popular vote for president was first tallied in 1824, the Electoral College has elected a candidate who received less than a majority of the popular vote in 19 of 50 presidential elections, including five presidents who lost the popular vote. The mean-spirited, majority-disfavored, popular-vote loser Donald Trump was installed by the Electoral College in 2016—and nearly again in 2020. If as few as 21,462 votes had gone to Trump instead of Biden across Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, the Electoral College vote would have been tied 269-269. Under the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives would have voted for president in a one-state, one-vote election. With Republican majorities in 26 of the 50 state delegations, Trump would have been anointed again, even though he lost the popular vote by 4.1 percent and 7.1 million votes.

The Electoral College could effectively be replaced by a ranked-choice national popular vote for president without the political difficulties of amending the U.S. Constitution. Congress has the power under its independent constitutional authority to regulate presidential elections in Article II, Section 1, and the Twelfth Amendment. A Ranked-Choice Vote in Presidential Elections Act has been proposed that would require states to use the same ranked-choice ballot for president. The federal Elections Assistance Commission would receive and tabulate each state’s ranked-choice vote to certify the results of the ranked-choice national popular vote. For discussion of this proposal, see Rob Richie, et al., “Toward a More Perfect Union: Integrating Ranked Choice Voting with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” Harvard Law & Policy Review, forthcoming.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Ranked-choice voting is gaining support for many reasons. More people than ever—62 percent—want a third major party, according to Gallup polling. RCV is seen as a way to level the playing field for third parties.

The recent elections of popular vote losers George W. Bush and Donald Trump by a combination of the Electoral College and the alleged “spoiler” roles of Green Party candidates Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 has generated a high level of interest in replacing the Electoral College with a popular vote for president. This interest was further heightened after the 2020 election when the Electoral College again nearly gave the presidency to the loser, Donald Trump.

The attack on democratic voting rights is the response of the right to the growing support for socialist and progressive ideas. As previously noted, partisan gerrymandering is a major tool in the reactionary toolbox, and we face redistricting following the 2020 census with Republicans in control of both legislative houses of 30 states. Multi-seat RCV for proportional representation eliminates the gerrymandering problem. Redistricting can game single-member district lines for partisan gain, but not for multi-member districts using RCV because every political viewpoint gets its proportional share of representation within those districts.

Ranked-choice voting also appeals to many because it discourages the negative campaigning that so many Americans are so sick of. Ranked-choice voting candidates want to be the second or third choices of their opponents’ supporters, so it doesn’t pay to make ad hominem attacks on opponents. Ranked-choice voting focuses campaigns on issues and sharpens the differences between candidates around policy positions. With RCV, it does pay for candidates to positively advance their own programs to distinguish themselves from the other candidates.

This more policy-focused campaign debate continues in multi-party proportional legislatures between elections. A multi-party legislature resulting from proportional representation makes counterproductive the attacks and obstruction of the other side characteristic of two-party legislatures. In a multi-party legislature, it pays to work with other parties to build majority coalitions to pass legislation. The coalitions will shift around different issues. Greens, Socialists, progressive Democrats, and Libertarians will support military spending cuts while corporate Democrats and Republicans will oppose them. On Medicare for All, different coalitions will form.

In the two-party SMP system, progressives Democrats have incentives to muffle their differences with the corporate leadership in order to receive benefits and avoid sanctions on campaign funding, staff support, committee assignments, and legislative priorities. It was while she was supporting Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that AOC frankly declared, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” That was before she lined up behind Biden after Sanders was defeated. Proportional representation would allow progressive like AOC to avoid unprincipled tactics like running on the same party ticket with and supporting the election of a neoliberal imperialist like Joe Biden.

Greens have long advocated for RCV and proportional representation. They have been at the center of successful campaigns to get RCV adopted in cities like San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Fe, and Minneapolis. Recently, calls for proportional representation have been coming from within the camp of progressive Democrats. Contemplating how hard it will be to advance a progressive agenda in a political conjuncture where centrist Biden Democrats seem to be all that stand in the way of reactionary Trump Republicans, progressive Democrats like Kate Aronoff in The New Republic and Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats and Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party in Crooked have argued that proportional representation is the way out of this quandary for the Left.

SMP elections force progressive voters to choose between Bidenism or Trumpism, when the Left would be stronger on the offensive, posing the choice of socialism or Bidenism. Even more so in this time of Republican extremism, SMP elections shield the corporate center from a left challenge. The forthright case for socialism dissolves into dispiriting apologetics for the Democrats’ centrism.

Ranked-choice voting in the New York City elections was national news in June 2021. While right-wing think tanks and some corporate media commentators painted the election as complicated and confusing, an exit poll found that 95 percent of voters said the ballots were simple to complete and 77 percent want ranked-choice voting in future elections. Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley said, “I lost the NYC mayoral race, but women and minorities win with ranked-choice voting.”

The delays and mistakes in reporting the vote were not due to the nature of ranked-choice voting but to an incompetent New York City Board of Elections with a long history of ineptitude and election fiascos rooted in patronage and nepotism. The New York City RCV law should be improved. It should be extended to cover general elections as well as primaries. It should return city council elections to multi-seat RCV for proportional representation.

A cautionary note for the Left was also revealed in the New York City RCV elections. The Left in New York City did not run its own candidate for mayor and take advantage of RCV’s elimination of the spoiler problem. RCV will not call forth a Left on its own. It is not a substitute for organizing in our workplaces, communities, and schools that lays the foundation for viable Left candidacies. RCV and particularly proportional RCV only give the Left the opportunity to win its fair share of representation and power.

The fight for ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—as part of a broader fight in defense of democratic rights—is where socialists and progressives both inside and outside the Democratic party ought to unite. Replacing plurality voting with RCV is a reform we have been winning. We can multiply these wins in the near future for local and state elections and, based on that political momentum, for federal elections. Changing the rules of electoral politics from SMP voting to RCV and proportional representation is the fastest way to open the political system and give the Left the power to make a real difference on the pressing problems of climate, poverty, racism, and peace on which the two governing parties are utterly failing.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at editors@tempestmag.org.

Howie Hawkins View All

Howie Hawkins, a retired Teamster in Syracuse, New York, was the 2020 presidential candidate of the Green and Socialist parties.

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