This post is a response to this Facebook comment, in which a friend and fellow Democrat asked me to expand on an earlier comment of mine about ranked-choice voting. A group in Seattle is currently gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would introduce ranked-choice voting in Seattle elections, and one of the proponents had posted this statement:

When I talk to you about ranked-choice voting, if your first question is “how does it get more people from my party elected?”, you don’t understand how voting in a democratic republic is supposed to work. Your first question should be, “how does this make the outcomes of Elections better represent the will of the electorate?”

I replied that a partial, local implementation of ranked choice might make it more likely that Democrats (and other progressives) get divided and conquered at the state and national level, and suggested that supporters of ranked-choice voting and the ballot measure (myself included) might want to have a better answer than “you don’t understand” for any concerns raised along those lines.

I was then asked to explain further, and so I started to post this as a reply on the Facebook thread… but it quickly became too long, and I haven’t had time to make it shorter. So, here are a few thoughts on why a partial implementation of ranked-choice voting might be bad for the Democratic Party, and why that in turn might be bad, period.

  1. The two-party system is an inevitable consequence of “first past the post” voting, in which the candidate with the most votes wins and all the other candidates get nothing. This creates a powerful incentive to build one big coalition that gets 51% of the vote, and encourages groups with compatible beliefs (environmentalists and civil rights advocates, say) to band together and form a “big tent” party rather than each going off on their own.
  2. Politics is not a zero-sum game, but elections are: for my candidate or party to win, yours has to lose. Anything that hurts the Democratic Party’s chances helps the Republican Party, and vice versa. For example, WA and other blue states appoint bipartisan commissions to do redistricting, which minimizes gerrymandering… in the blue states. Meanwhile, the GOP is busy drawing screw-you maps in TX, WI, NC and other red states, so one side effect of partial, voluntary, blue-state-only gerrymandering reforms is that it helps the Republicans maintain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  3. Under the two-party system, voting for a third-party candidate has the same effect as not voting at all, and also amounts to a declaration that you don’t understand (or have chosen to ignore) #1 and #2 above. In the 43rd the top two parties are the Democrats and the Socialists, but the principle is the same: if you vote Republican in the 43rd, you’re wasting a stamp and letting other people decide who wins the election. In general, though, and outside of places like the 43rd, it would help the GOP win first-past-the-post elections if the rest of us divided our votes among several smaller parties.
  4. The right wing of American politics has internalized #1-#3 far better than the left. Right-wing extremists will loudly, publicly denounce GOP candidates as sellouts and RINOs, and then go into the voting booth and pull the red lever anyway. The so-called “Tea Party” is a movement within the GOP rather than being an actual third party, and has been much more effective as a result. On the left, though, we have lots of people who can be swayed into voting for third-party candidates—which, as described above, amounts to voter self-suppression—or who refuse to get their hands dirty by voting for a less-than-perfect Democrat.
  5. Some leftists believe they are “sending a message” to Democratic candidates (or the party in general) by withholding their votes or giving them to third-party candidates. These voters are indeed sending a message, but the message is “We throw away our votes! Please ignore us and move to the center if you want to get elected.” The reason why Republican candidates embrace their base is because their base turns out and consistently votes R over D, even if the GOP candidate is literally a sociopath. Our base is constantly threatening to stay home in a fit of pique, which is why our candidates pivot to the center more often. They need the votes.
  6. It’s easy to form a smaller, purer political party relative to the big two, but the key word in that sentence is “smaller.” Because of the two-party system, third parties can’t scale or even expand beyond areas like the 43rd without losing the purity that makes them attractive. At best a third party can serve as a sort of lookout, informing one of the major parties that there’s an opportunity to enlarge itself by moving left or right, which the major party then does. This is how third-party movements have played out at every point in American history except 1860, when one of the top two parties disintegrated and a new party emerged from the rubble.
  7. Viable candidates at the state and national level tend to be people who’ve held office at the local level, gained experience, and then moved up. Democrats like Bob Ferguson and Pramila Jayapal worked their way up from representing part of Seattle to their current offices, and rising stars like Lorena Gonzalez are likely to move up in the future. There are only a limited number of local elected offices, though, so third-party victories in Seattle translate into fewer rising stars for Washington Democrats, and into Democratic candidates with lighter résumés at the state and federal levels.
  8. Meanwhile, third-party candidates are usually shut out of elections, and those who do win have no path to higher office. Kshama Sawant caught a “meh” incumbent napping in 2013, and barely squeaked past him in a close race; the power of incumbency has kept her on the City Council, but she can’t successfully leverage that seat into a bid for higher office. As a candidate of the newly formed People’s Party, Nikkita Oliver didn’t make it out of the primary (and would have been crushed if they had); if they’d run as a Democrat, they’d have easily finished in the top two. Bernie Sanders was only relevant because he ran for the Democratic nomination: if he had run for the Socialist nomination, everyone would have shrugged and gone back to watching the Clinton-O’Malley debates. And so on.
  9. Changing Seattle’s voting system to ranked choice would make it easier for third-party candidates to win Seattle elections, and it could move coalition-building from being an intra-party exercise to an inter-party one. But, if the rest of the voting system remains first-past-the-post, then implementing ranked choice in Seattle might only change things from “third party = blind alley” to “third party = slightly longer blind alley.” It would also mean implementing voting reform in a way that weakens the Democratic Party, and only the Democratic Party, and that means it strengthens the GOP for the same reasons that gerrymandering reform did.
  10. Also, most of the local third parties we’ve seen to date are shockingly bad at building coalitions with Democrats, in part because anyone who wants to play nice with Democrats (or who understands that third parties are doomed to fail in a two-party system) is free to just join the Democratic Party instead. In the short term, voting reforms that encourage third parties may create more division than unity, and may elect candidates who are more focused on jockeying for position on the left (and building up their own party at the Democrats’ expense) than on making common cause against the Republicans.

My personal take would be that we should implement ranked choice voting in Seattle anyway. The Democratic Party has a proud history of doing things that hurt the party in the short term but are good for the country in the long run, and I think we can survive having fewer rising Democratic stars in Seattle if it means that we get more progressive voters off the sidelines (and even more so if we’re trading “moderate” Democratic candidates for firebrand Greens or Socialists). In the long run, we might end up with ranked choice at the state and national level, a thriving multi-party system, and inter-party coalitions, and then your party affiliation wouldn’t matter so much as long as we’re working together to achieve progressive goals.

But we’re also in the middle of a major national emergency, the Democratic Party is the last thing preventing our country from sliding into fascism, and it’s going to get much, much worse if Democrats don’t win big in 2018 and 2020. Even if it were possible to build a better party than the Democrats, we don’t have that much time. At best we have three years, and at worst we have three minutes. Given these conditions, we have got to work as best we can with the tools we have, and that means using the Democratic Party as our vehicle.

So, I think there’s a reasonable argument that ranked-choice voting is a Good Thing in the abstract, but an implementation of ranked-choice that weakens the Democratic Party—and only the Democratic Party—is a bad thing. In any case, I wouldn’t just declare that people who raise this concern doesn’t “get” the benefits of ranked-choice voting, or that they’re too focused on party politics to see the bigger picture.