The New Voting System that Gave Democrats a GOP House Seat is Dangerous. Here’s Why
Alaska’s sole congressional seat, which had been in GOP hands for 49 years, was recently captured by Democrat Mary Peltola.
The victory has been touted by liberals as either vindication of their agenda or as portending the end of the career of Sarah Palin, Peltola’s most high-profile opponent. Yet the result, which took weeks to finalize, was easily explainable:
It was a function of Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting (RCV) and Top-four Primary (TFP) system — a system electoral engineers would like to institute nationwide.
In essence, this system created a situation in which Palin and another Republican, Nick Begich, were both running against Peltola in the general election and divided up the GOP vote.
Before explaining the real problem with RCV and TFP, let’s review what they are. Per Ballotpedia:
A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he...is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the next-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.
Then there’s the TFP, or, Top Four Primary, which “is a type of primary election in which all candidates are listed on the same primary ballot,” Ballotpedia also explains. “The top four vote-getters, regardless of their partisan affiliations, advance to the general election. Consequently, it is possible for four candidates belonging to the same political party to win in a top-four primary and face off in the general election.”
Proponents say this system gives citizens more choices and reduces the chances a “radical” will be elected because not only can everyone vote in the primary, but no one can win by capturing just a plurality (e.g., 37 percent) of the vote. Opponents assert that this merely favors the most politician-like of politicians, people who don’t take firm stands on hot-button issues and remain “inoffensive” enough to be everyone’s second choice. Yet the most significant problem with this system is different: It’s completely incompatible with our larger system.
To grasp why, realize that contrary to popular belief, you’re voting in the general election for the party and not the person. How?
Consider: Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is thought to be perhaps the most conservative high-profile Democrat in America. Yet as of June 2, 2021, he’d voted with Joe Biden 100 percent of the time.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is despised by the GOP base for being a quintessential liberal anti-Trumper. Yet she voted with President Trump 93 percent of the time. In other words, she voted very much as Marjorie Taylor Greene does today.
These individuals aren’t exceptions, either, but the norm. No matter what politicians say while campaigning, they’ll vote with their party the vast majority of the time. The point?
In practice, we have a binary system in which one of two major parties will wield power.
So essentially, the question put to voters at general election time is always this: Do you want to provide another vote to advance the Democrat agenda or another vote to advance the Republican agenda? Most Americans aren’t aware of this, of course, and thus often focus on personalities (e.g., the Walker vs. Warnock race in Georgia), on “voting for the person.”
(Note: We vote for the person and not the party in traditional primaries, because then we’re voting within a party.)
Our traditional closed primary system, yielding two major-party general-election candidates, mitigates this problem. After all, it presents the voter in our de facto binary system with something entirely congruent: a binary choice.
In contrast, RCV/TFP contravenes this system. Not only does it tacitly advance the fallacy that general elections are about the person and not the party by de-emphasizing parties, but it actually reduces the chances that an area will be represented by the party more closely reflecting its values. Alaska is a case in point: Palin and Begich would have voted similarly in Congress. But because they were both forced to run alongside each other in the general election and split the GOP vote, their district will be represented by someone who’ll vote contrary to most of its residents’ wishes.
To cement the point, imagine that a large group of people must choose an operating system for a computer and, though many OS’s exist, the only two on everyone’s radar screen are Apple and Microsoft Windows. But now imagine that instead of being presented with just this choice, the “voters” are given a third option: a copy of Apple called Candy Apple. Sure, they should realize the two are functionally identical but, people being people, many Apple adherents split their vote.
The result is that while it seemed the voters were being given more of a choice, they essentially were robbed of choice by a system that ensured Windows would emerge victorious.
So it often is with RCV/TFP. Since R’s tend to vote like other R’s and D’s like other D’s, it’s instructive here to view every general election candidate as simply an R or a D. How does it make sense to create a situation in which an R or D “copy” could run alongside another R or D and divide the vote? For that matter, how does it improve our country to give voters the option of choosing a second choice candidate who’s a negation of their first choice? What does this accomplish?
RCV/TFP treats candidates as if they’re free agents when they’re actually beholden to a team; it treats parties as if they’re irrelevant during the election process despite their being everything after a candidate is elected. RCV/TFP might make sense if we could somehow scrap the party system altogether so that every candidate just ran as an individual — then you really would be voting for the person, not the party. But whatever such an idea’s merits, that’s not the system we currently have.
A few more points: Some will say Alaska’s GOP voters could have chosen their less-desired Republican as their second choice and thus ensured a GOP victory, or that either Palin or Begich should have stepped aside for the good of party and country. Yes, and if “wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Like it or not, most voters are neither possessed of great political knowledge nor are constrained by reason. And candidates are humans with egos, ambitions, frailties and, sometimes, ulterior motives. Man’s nature is what it is and won’t change. What we can do is devise systems that minimize that nature’s negative effects. In a de facto binary political system, this means presenting voters with corresponding binary choices, not muddying the water by exacerbating the voting-by-personality phenomenon.
And what of the point that candidates should have to win a majority of the vote before attaining power? If this is a concern, a better idea is having run-off elections, as Georgia does. RCV/TFP, however, is software wholly incompatible with our system and a really, really bad idea.