The CALPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group) Democracy Chapter at UCSB has for several years advocated for a reform of the campaign financing laws as well as procedural changes to the electoral process in Santa Barbara. These efforts include measures to render the democratic processes tied to local elections more transparent and, above all, more fair. The principal measure CALPIRG seeks to install is a ranked-voting system, which would mitigate one of the most detrimental flaws in our voting system: that people are in danger of “wasting” their votes.
Electoral systems are crucial for the functioning of a representative democracy. However, there are many different systems in place around the country on national, state, and local levels. According to FairVote, “plurality is the most common and best-known electoral system currently in use in America.” Indeed, this system is also used by the City of Santa Barbara.
Under this system, Santa Barbara is divided into voting districts in which one official will be elected. The candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether he or she won a majority. This so-called “first past the post” system is problematic for three main reasons.
First, it is bad for representation, which is a fundamental element of a democratic process. People will not always vote for the candidate they actually prefer because they know that whoever gets the most votes will win. Voters will thus be discouraged from supporting a candidate who is not likely to win, even though their political views might be aligned with that candidate.
Second, it is bad for voters who live in politically lopsided districts because candidates are not likely to spend time, money, or energy on campaigning in voting districts they are almost certain to win. This is especially true in plurality systems where there usually are many districts whose results are virtually predetermined. That is why Iowa and New Hampshire have attracted a lot more attention than California in the presidential elections for example.
Third, by shifting the analysis to the state or federal level, another critical flaw is that the plurality system may in fact undermine the will of the people by awarding the electoral victory to a candidate who did not win the popular vote. This has happened twice in recent presidential elections.
The ranked-voting system presents a solution to mitigate these negative aspects of the democratic process. Under this system, which CALPIRG has long advocated for, the voters will be able to rank the candidates on the ballot according to their preferences. Then, if no candidate receives over 50 percent of the total votes, the candidate with the least votes will be eliminated. Consequently, the votes of the people who put the eliminated candidate as their first choice, will now go to their second-choice candidate. As a result, voters do not have to fear that their vote will be “wasted” or insignificant. In the end, the first candidate to win over 50 percent of the total votes will win the election. Logically, this system is inherently more fair.
It has been argued, however, that the ranked-voting system in effect disenfranchises voters when a person’s vote goes toward a candidate who was not on the voter’s ballot; in other words, the ballot risks being “exhausted.” The strength of this argument is weakened when looking at the potential for “exhausted” voters instead, which is a common phenomenon in the current “first past the post” system. Essentially, voters who support candidates who are not well positioned in the race may be discouraged from voting at all. Consequently, there is a risk of lower voter turnouts under the existing system. It follows that a voter who in fact votes is by definition not disenfranchised, while a voter who is discouraged from voting at all, is.
Another concern has been that the ranked-voting system is too complicated and creates confusion. However, this argument does not hold for several reasons. First, there is a plethora of information aimed at different age groups explaining the process, this article included. As information is provided in abundance, it is the responsibility of the voter to inform himself or herself of the electoral process. Every electoral process is complex, and we must be willing to take necessary measures that will ultimately benefit the representativeness of our elections.
CALPIRG believes that the ranked-voting system in itself simply is not overly complicated. Instead of only voting for one candidate, the voter may rank the candidates by choice.
It is needless to say that no system is perfect. But the ranked-voting system offers a better solution to voters who don’t vote, unfair elections, and above all increases the representativeness of local elections. The ranked-voting system presents new opportunities and should be embraced by the Santa Barbara City Council.
This process ensures that the winning candidate in fact won the popular vote, that voters do not risk “wasting” their votes, and enhances the representativeness of the election. Therefore, CALPIRG has assembled a coalition of partners in our pursuit for more fair elections. In the months to come, we will work toward convincing the City Council that these measures make sense and should be given a thorough consideration.