Why We Love to Hate Our Voting Options, and How We Can Improve Them
If you look at the only two viable presidential tickets and wish you had more options, I know how you feel because I actively campaigned for other candidates not on the ballot. But instead of surrendering America to corruption and mass deaths, we need to understand how we got here and work together to advance systemic reforms — namely Ranked-Choice Voting — to democratize future elections.
How Our Current System Rewards Negativity and Restricts Choices
When we’re only allowed one vote in a crowded primary, it’s easier to focus on a few imperfections for each candidate in order to eliminate them from consideration, rather than comparing their qualifications as a whole. When one of twenty candidates earns the nomination, the others’ supporters are inevitably disappointed.
In the general election, our choices are realistically limited to the two major parties. Non-voters or third-party supporters should absolutely take issue with feeling “shamed” or “guilted” into voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils. But their issue is really with the unfortunate reality of the current system, in which withholding a vote from the best viable option risks helping the worst candidate.
A logical response is to focus on defeating the most imminent threat to democracy in the short term and expanding the number of candidates by working toward Ranked-Choice Voting in the long term. But with civics education decimated in the U.S. and most undecided voters unfamiliar with or uninterested in the functions of government and elections, the real political fault line isn’t between left and right — it’s between progress and apathy.
Citizens who see the good in candidates and help lift them up in order to avoid disaster shouldn’t be shamed or guilted either. It’s far easier to tear any candidate down by poking at imperfections than it is to maintain a positive narrative to build an inclusive, winning coalition. Basic human psychology makes us averse to losses, so we not only tend to prefer the status quo to taking risks, but we also focus on where we perceive a candidate to fall short rather than all the ways they could move us forward. When we’re primed to make snap judgments that weigh negatives more than positives, we’re easy to manipulate into giving up on our choices.
We bemoan political attack ads, but campaigns use them because negative partisanship is an effective way to take support from your competitor instead of building your own support. And social media has made negative campaigning more insidious with the help of foreign interference, dark money, and fake news profiteers all aiding a party that consciously weaponizes disinfo to depress voter turnout.
How Negative Biases and Limited Choices Affect 2020
You only need to look at the reactions to Kamala Harris’s selection as Joe Biden’s running-mate to see how our winner-takes-all system fuels resentment and polarization. Even as women from the African American and Asian American communities in particular began to celebrate such historic representation, the attacks came swiftly from both the right and left, boxing Harris and Biden into a seemingly lose-lose situation.
Trump released an ad just minutes after the announcement accusing Biden of “handing over the reins to Kamala while they jointly embrace the radical left.” Conservatives painted Harris as a “radical threat” because of her liberal voting record and previous support for variations of the New Green Deal and Medicare for All, as well as her opposition to tax cuts for the rich — attacks that read like would-be endorsements from Bernie supporters.
However, some self-identified leftists rushed to damper enthusiasm by ignoring Kamala’s progressive credentials and cherry-picking reasons to complain about her. Rather than claiming victory for Biden choosing the most progressive of the rumored finalists and rewarding the ticket’s very real leftward shift, some leftists seemed determined to snub Biden/Harris with comparisons to fantasy candidates who lost in the primary or otherwise won’t be viable in November. Such negativity contributes to false equivalencies that encourage voters to waste their ballots instead of trying to understand the very real and consequential differences between Biden and Trump.
I’m not saying Biden/Harris or any candidate should be immune from criticism. On the contrary, we should hold them accountable to a high standard, especially if and when they get into office. But given the alternative and Trump’s attempts to cheat his way to victory again, we need to ask what we’re doing to help Biden/Harris get into office first: Couldn’t we at least constructively criticize in ways that contextualize our choice and the consequences if Trump wins again? Ask ourselves if a critique is relevant and accurate based on their recent actions and current policy stances? Balance criticisms with positive reasons to vote for Biden/Harris over Trump?
Both the right and far-left have amplified disinfo about Biden/Harris in desperate attempt to assassinate their candidacies. Hours of Biden footage are cut to seconds in which his life-long stutter is portrayed as dementia, a smear used against Hillary in 2016. Attempts to “otherize” Harris went viral in recent days, including Trump reviving the types of birther conspiracies he used against Obama. Such attacks may seem silly to the well-informed, but based on my thousands of conversations with voters in swing states over the years, including door-to-door in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, we cannot underestimate the effectiveness of misinformation to depress and suppress turnout.
With recent polls in battleground states showing Trump running ahead of this point in 2016, and with Republicans trying to destroy our democratic institutions to rig the election, we cannot be complacent about 2020. If you’re still committed to helping the better (non-fascist) ticket, thanks for being a patriot. But we also need to work toward solving the systemic problems that created our current dilemma, and the most promising reform is Ranked-Choice Voting.
How Ranked-Choice Voting Could Improve Our Elections
Shouldn’t a candidate have to win support from a majority of voters to actually win, rather than simply attacking and dividing opponents in order to scrape by with a plurality? Our current system incentivizes bizarre strategies in which one party tries to siphon votes from its main opponent by helping doomed alternatives, such as Republican attempts to push left-leaning voters toward the Green Party or to help Kanye get his name on ballots in order to pull votes from Democrats. This puts third parties in an even trickier position, like when the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate asked his supporters in swing states to vote for Hillary instead of himself in attempt to stop 2016’s most anti-liberty candidate.
If third party supporters like Greens, Libertarians, or Socialists truly cared about advancing their agendas or growing large enough to compete, they would be organizing to pass Ranked-Choice Voting and build parties with wins at local levels, rather than serving as sacrificial spoilers with long-shot presidential bids.
With Ranked-Choice Voting, a form of Instant-Runoff Elections, candidates are forced to make more positive arguments for themselves and be more transparent about their positions relative to other candidates because even if they can’t be their opponents’ first choice, they at least want to be the second choice in order to inherit votes from candidates who aren’t viable.
By improving our options and removing the spoiler effect, Ranked-Choice Voting empowers us to vote based on our values without wasting our ballots and without inadvertently helping our least favorite candidate. Democratizing our elections with more choices would encourage higher voter turnout and increase representation for women and minorities. So rather than simply throwing away our shot, can we unite to save our democracy from Trump now and improve our options with Ranked-Choice Voting in the future?