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STATE AFFAIRS: Voting system could help de-polarize politics

I have a friend who is among 10 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the August primary election in Wisconsin. Political observers in cheese-head country say the winner might receive as few as 25 percent of the votes cast. In effect, the preferences of three-quarters of the voters will be disregarded.

Because of situations like this, a flurry of interest has developed around a voting system called “ranked voting.”

Some background. In Illinois, Wisconsin and most places in the U.S., you and I vote for one candidate for each office on the ballot, in both the spring primaries and November general elections. The candidate receiving the most votes, even if only 25 percent, wins.

In contrast, for the past century Australia has used a voting system that results in a winner who is preferred by a majority of voters. It is called “ranked voting” (also known as “instant run-off” and “preferential voting”). Recently, Maine used the system in its statewide primary election.

Under ranked voting, a voter ranks candidates from first to last on his ballot, if he wishes.

If no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast in the election, then the second-choices of some voters come into play.

In two statewide races in the recent Maine election, no one candidate received a majority of first-round votes. Because of that, an additional voting round came into play, without voters having to go to the polls a second time.

The second-place preferences of those supporting last place finishers were reallocated to the remaining field, and so on up the ladder of weak finishers until the two ultimate winners received a majority of the votes.

Ranked-choice voting in Maine also apparently caused some candidates to moderate their tones. The thinking was they might need the support not only of their own base but also of the voter bases of other candidates.

A little background on voting systems, which as you see can be complicated.

The most extensively used voting systems used around the world include the dominant American approach of “first-past-the-post,” where the top vote-getter wins.

Then there are run-off primary elections, as in the Deep South. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two from the primary election run in a second election.

And there is proportional representation, used extensively for parliamentary elections on the European continent. Each party is awarded seats in a legislative body somewhat proportional to its share of the overall vote.

Around the world, there are as many variations on voting systems as there are political scientists.

There is no perfect system. I was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1968 under a system called “cumulative voting,” abandoned (some would say unfortunately) in 1980.

Each House district had three seats, and each voter thus had three votes, which he could “cumulate,” that is, cast all three votes for one candidate. As a result, the minority party in each district could generally win one of the three seats, by having its partisans cumulate all three votes for one candidate.

This tended to encourage compromise. Since the Democratic House caucus, dominated by Chicago, also had members from Downstate majority-Republican districts, the caucus had to take into account rural and small-town interests.

The downside of that system was that, in practice, there was little competition in the November elections, as the majority party nominated two in the primary and the minority party only one, with three to be elected. I never had competition in the fall election.

Abraham Lincoln received just 40 percent of the popular vote in winning a four-way race in 1860, and many American presidents since have either received less than a majority of the vote or fewer votes than another candidate, or both. This is because presidents are elected via an Electoral College, which does not reflect the popular vote perfectly.

As I said, no system is perfect. Voting systems can be hard for voters to comprehend, and they can also generate results some think unfair. And voting systems can be manipulated; there have been many examples of voters raiding the primary elections of the other party to vote for candidates they felt could more easily be defeated in November.

So, do we need a new voting system or systems in American elections, maybe along the lines of ranked voting? I don’t know. Much more analysis is needed. I do like the thought of ensuring majority support for the winner and of reducing the toxicity of American elections.

I do know that—and this is really fodder for another column—Illinois will never consider such a system so long as Mike Madigan is speaker of the Illinois House. Even if 120 percent of all voters favored ranked voting, it would never get a hearing in the Illinois legislature—because Madigan would see such a change as a threat to his power and control, which is never to be challenged. After half a century in office, he must go.

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