Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, made an unusual charge last week. While Democrats have vocally protested voter ID bills and surprise precinct closures in Republican states, the House minority leader turned the tables and suggested that it’s actually Democrats who are manipulating elections. “They can’t win in a fair fight,” McCarthy told Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business.
McCarthy cited Democratic presidential candidate proposals to abolish the Electoral College and add Supreme Court seats as examples. He also cited Maine’s new ranked choice voting (RCV) system, which eliminates plurality winners and establishes an “instant runoff” any time all candidates fall short of 50 percent of the votes.
Mainers turned to RCV last year in order to protect the state’s long, proud tradition of independent politics, while also guarding against victorious candidates that most voters opposed. Nine of the state’s last 11 governors, for example, stretching back to the 1970s, took office despite large majorities preferring someone else.
RCV is a neutral and deeply non-partisan reform designed to produce a winner who balances both strong support and wide support, while allowing voters to back the candidate they like most without worrying about electing the person they like least. It puts a permanent end to “spoiler” candidates and ensures a winner with majority support.
McCarthy, however, is still fuming over the outcome in Maine’s second congressional district last year, where the ranked ballot elevated Democrat Jared Golden past Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin. While it’s true that Democrats captured that individual race, quite often it’s the Republican candidate who would benefit.
Poliquin led Golden by less than a percentage point—46.2 percent to 45.5 percent—after the first round of ballots were counted. But because no one managed a majority, a runoff kicked in. Independent candidates were eliminated, and their back-up choices activated. When that happened, and the race was narrowed down to just the two candidates, a narrow majority favored Golden, 50.5 percent to 49.5. While the result must have been dispiriting for Republicans, a majority of voters were able to have their say.
McCarthy, however, sees it differently. “You know what they did in Maine?” charged McCarthy. Poliquin, he said, won his re-election bid, “but at the end of the day he lost because he didn’t get to 50 percent. The person who came in fourth, their number dropped off and whoever they voted for second got the extra vote. … There’s a member of Congress sitting today who came in second,” but he charged, “got to go through” because he’s a Democrat.
McCarthy’s critique may also be tied to the fact that Maine’s legislature didn’t fund implementation of RCV. As a result, the RCV tally took time. More than a week went by before it was clear that Golden had actually won the race. Meanwhile, in McCarthy’s home state of California, it took just as long for mail-in ballots to be totaled in several congressional elections, overturning Election Night leads by Republican candidates. McCarthy’s chance to become speaker got a lot harder with these late-breaking outcomes.
It’s easy to understand McCarthy’s frustration, and perhaps even his unease, with a new system and a surprising result. But RCV doesn’t work for or against either party. It gives voters more power, eliminates spoilers, and ensures a winner that the broadest number of people might support. That’s good for democracy—and quite often good for Republicans, too.
After all, Democrats won four gubernatorial races in 2018 with a plurality—Wisconsin, Nevada, Kansas, and Connecticut. Only one Republican winner (Ron DeSantis in Florida) was held beneath 50 percent. With RCV, all of those Democratic winners would have been pushed into a second round, where Republicans may well have collected enough Libertarian and independent votes to win. Democrats also won plurality victories in North Carolina and West Virginia’s governor races in 2016. In North Carolina, votes for the Libertarian totaled enough to re-elect Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in a runoff had he received more second-choice ballots.
Ranked choice voting might have also boosted Republicans in the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton won six states—Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Mexico—while being held under 50 percent, and with a margin of victory smaller than the number of votes received in each state by Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and former Republican CIA officer Evan McMullin running as an independent. No one knows how those votes might have been allocated in a ranked choice runoff. But if we were to assign the Libertarian and McMullin votes to the Republican and the Green Party votes to the Democrat, Trump would have likely defeated Clinton in those six states. (For as much blame as Democrats assign to Green candidate Jill Stein, remember that Johnson won three times her support in the most competitive battlegrounds.) Republicans would also likely hold a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire where a Libertarian candidate helped deliver a plurality win to Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan.
Republicans have no reason to fear RCV. Indeed, a confident party that knows its ideas prevail in a “fair fight” would embrace it. Republicans perform perfectly well when voter turnout is strong. Right now, however, it’s Democrats who are proposing the most far-reaching electoral reforms aimed at expanding voting rights, removing barriers, and making it easier for Americans to register to vote and cast their ballot. Republicans have had a more restrictive and defensive approach; their agenda has centered around voter ID. If Republicans want to promote more positive and ambitious ideas to improve democracy and make certain that every vote counts, if they want to assemble a broad coalition and ensure a bright future in a changing America, ranked choice voting would make perfect sense.
Kevin McCarthy, once an avid proponent of redistricting reform as a young state legislator in California, should take another look. RCV actually guarantees the “fair fight” he wants—and it’s one that his own party, quite often, would win. Most importantly, our democracy would win too.