By Howie Hawkins
Whether you are a socialist who believes in a clean break, a dirty break, or no break from the Democratic Party, ranked-choice voting (RCV)—especially for proportional representation on legislative bodies—should be a top priority now more than ever. These reforms are just as much a principled matter of democratic rights—i.e., the ability of voters to have our preferences reflected in our votes—as it is a strategic and tactical concern for the electoral prospects of the Left.
RCV in single-seat races eliminates the spoiler problem that powerfully discourages votes for independent Left candidates. In multi-seat races, RCV creates proportional representation and thus eliminates the winner-take-all problem that enables a single political party to elect every office and monopolize power within a given district.
As we fight back against the Republican assault on voting rights and impartial elections, it is time to expand the pro-democracy agenda to include the right to have all political viewpoints represented in proportion to their support in society.
The transformation of the Republicans from a conservative party into an extremist far-right party makes running for office harder than ever for leftist candidates. The method by which elections have been run in the U.S.—single-member-district, winner-take-all, plurality (SMP) voting—drives progressives to vote for corporate Democrats to stop Republican extremists. Replacing SMP voting with RCV would represent a democratic advance that allows the Left to have a credible voice in electoral politics. Ranked-choice voting will create spoiler-free elections for single-member executive offices and proportional representation in legislative bodies through RCV in multi-member districts tht replace winner-take-all single-member districts.
In SMP elections, most progressives feel compelled to vote for centrist Democrats instead of independent progressives like the Greens in order to fend off far-right Republicans. With RCV, progressives can rank independent progressives before centrist Democrats without the fear of “spoiling” the election by splitting the left and center vote and enabling rightwing Republicans to win with pluralities.
The spoiler problem not only marginalizes the independent left. It also enfeebles the political leverage of progressives inside the Democratic Party. Corporate Democrats take progressives for granted because they pose no threat of exiting to an independent left alternative. As MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell once explained drawing on his experience as a Democratic Senate staffer:
If you want to pull the major party that is closest to the way you’re thinking, to what you’re thinking, you must show them that you’re capable of not voting for them. If you don’t show them that you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen or have to listen to anything on the left while I was working in the Democratic Party because the left had nowhere to go.
Progressives inside the Democratic Party need a strong independent left party outside the Democratic Party to have political leverage on the inside.
Ranked-choice voting eliminates the spoiler problem in SMP elections for executive offices. It ensures that the most preferred candidate wins instead of a plurality winner who may be opposed by a majority of voters who are split among two or more alternative choices.
Multi-seat RCV for proportional representation in legislative bodies eliminates the winner-take-all problem in SMP elections. SMP elections give the party that wins a single-member district all the representation, while all other parties get no representation. Multi-seat RCV elections result in proportional representation of all political viewpoints. It ends the political marginalization of ethnic minorities as well as political minorities and renders partisan and racial gerrymandering—one of the most important tools in the suppression of democratic rights—impossible.
How RCV Works
In RCV elections, voters simply rank their choices in order of preference. For voters, RCV is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Exit polls after RCV elections show that voters overwhelmingly understand it, find it easy to do, and prefer it to plurality voting.
The winning threshold in RCV is the smallest number of votes that guarantees that no more candidates can reach the threshold than the number of seats to be filled. The mathematical formula for the winning threshold is [Votes/(Seats+1)] +1. This works out to 50% of votes cast plus 1 vote for a single-seat election, 25% plus 1 for a three-seat election, 10% plus 1 for a nine-seat election, and so forth.
In a single-seat RCV election, if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the last place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are transferred to the candidate ranked next on those ballots. These rounds of instant-runoff voting continue until a candidate reaches a 50%-plus-one majority.
In a multi-seat RCV election, the surplus votes of candidates who exceed the winning threshold are transferred to their ballots’ next ranked choices. As we just saw, that winning threshold would be 25% plus one when electing three, 10% plus one when electing nine, and so forth. After the surplus votes are transferred, the last place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are transferred to the candidate ranked next on those ballots. These rounds of counting and transferring continue until all the seats are filled.
With RCV, wasted votes are minimized. Voters can vote for who they want most without worrying that their vote will be “wasted” on a losing candidate. In single-seat RCV for executive offices, the ranked preferences indicated on your ballot ensure that your vote continues to count and reflect your preferences through the rounds of instant-runoff voting even if your more preferred candidates are eliminated. In multi-seat RCV for legislative bodies, every vote counts toward electing the proportional share of representation for your political viewpoint.
Plurality Voting Suppresses the Left
The enduring power of the spoiler problem to motivate progressives to vote for the centrist who is the “lesser of two evils,” instead of an independent progressive, is demonstrated by 180 years of independent left presidential candidacies. In 46 presidential elections since the first independent left presidential campaign waged by the abolitionist Liberty Party in 1840, the vote for such candidates has exceeded 4% of the total popular vote only five times: 10% for the Free Soil Party’s Martin Van Buren in 1848, 5% for Free Soil’s John P. Hale in 1852, 9% for the People’s Party’s James Weaver in 1892, 6% for the Socialists’ Eugene Debs in 1912, and 17% for the Progressives’ Robert LaFollette in 1924. In each of those cases, the left third-party candidate still finished a distant third, or, in Debs’ case, fourth.
The last time an independent progressive exceeded 4% was a nearly century ago, indicating a strengthening of the lockhold of the two major parties on political choices. The best result since then was Ralph Nader in 2000. An accomplished progressive reformer with high name recognition (60%) and high approval ratings (66% of those familiar with him), Nader received only 2.7% of the vote running for an open seat against Al Gore, who as the sitting Vice President embodied Bill Clinton’s corporatist record, and George W. Bush, running as a moderate “compassionate conservative.” Polling evidence suggests that Nader was the most preferred candidate in the field and would have won a ranked-choice vote. But over 90% of people who rated Nader as their first preference did not vote for him. About half voted strategically for their lesser evil and the other half stayed home because polling indicated he had no chance of winning.
The spoiler problem pushes progressives to vote for centrists inside Democratic primaries as well. We saw this dynamic play out in the 2020 presidential primaries. When the party establishment and its allied corporate media closed ranks behind centrist Joe Biden against the front-running progressive, Bernie Sanders, the message to primary voters was that a progressive like Sanders was “unelectable” against the right-winger Trump. When the Democrats underperformed against expectations for House, Senate, and state legislative races in 2020, the centrists blamed the progressives. It wasn’t true that the progressive messaging hurt the Democrats’ election results, as Sanders countered with the facts. But that “progressives are spoilers” message still resonates with center-left voters.
The lesser-evil dynamic has played out inside Democratic Party politics for decades. It enabled corporate New Democrats to displace liberal New Deal Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s as the Democrats moved right to accommodate the neoliberal turn pushed by economic elites and there was no viable independent left to push back against this right turn. This lesser-evil dynamic has led to greater evils. It has driven a relentless march to the right in which Democrats chase Republicans rightward in pursuit of swing voters.
The lesser-evil dynamic plays out up and down the ballot. It has fortified the power of corporate Democrats who remain firmly in control of their party, notwithstanding all the recent attention given to Sanders and The Squad. The post-election balance of forces between the progressive and corporate Democrats was quantified last December when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked for an open seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with two of her top priorities—Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Democratic leaders recruited Kathleen Rice of the corporate New Democrat Coalition to run against AOC. The leadership body of the House Democratic Caucus, the Steering and Policy Committee, voted to seat Rice over AOC by 46-13.
Lesser Evil Voting Reinforces Republican Extremism
The force of SMP’s lesser-evil dynamic on progressives is stronger today than ever because the Republican Party is no longer a traditional conservative party. It has become an extremist far-right party. It mobilizes its base around racism, nativism, and irrationalist conspiracy mongering that portrays Covid, climate change, evolution, and Biden’s election victory as hoaxes perpetrated by self-serving liberal elites.
Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the GOP has become a rule-or-ruin party at the federal and state levels. It steamrolls its own legislation and judicial picks through when it can and sabotages governance when it can’t. It has an authoritarian contempt for democracy because it knows that the progressive, urban, multiracial vote is a permanent majority over the conservative, rural, white vote. The Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, only winning with incumbent George W. Bush in the post-9/11 wartime election of 2004. Rather than accept election results, a January 2021 survey found that 56% of Republicans support the use of force and 39% support “violent actions” to protect the “traditional [white male supremacist] American way of life,” an autocratic approach to politics that Trump has constantly encouraged since announcing his campaign in 2015.
As a long-term political minority, the GOP has decided to double down on its white identity politics of fear and scapegoating knowing that SMP voting protects its power monopoly in its rural, white-majority districts and states. It knows that the only way it can have more power than its popular support merits is to take advantage of the political system’s counter-majoritarian features, including disproportionate over-representation of the rural vote in the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, partisan gerrymandering of single-member districts in order to over-represent Republicans in state legislatures and the House of Representatives, and the ability to legislate voter suppression of likely Democratic voters in the absence of a constitutional right to vote.
Progressives’ reasonable fear of extremist Republican rule pushes their votes into the pockets of corporate Democrats more than ever. Subject to the lesser-evil incentives of SMP voting, the independent left receives far fewer votes and representation than the majoritarian support many of its policies have. The left appears much smaller than it is. That distortion of reality by the electoral system becomes the conventional wisdom.
Meanwhile, the corporate Democrats’ promotion of neoliberal austerity and a meritocratic formal equality instead of substantive equality continues to fertilize the soil of reaction. In the absence of a viable progressive-populist or socialist political alternative to the corporate Democrats, many working class and lower-middle class people, particularly white people but not only white people, whose lives have been dislocated by deindustrialization and rising economic inequality have latched on to the Republicans’ politics of resentment, scapegoating, and phony economic populism. The Republican right has been winning over more and more white Democrats with these politics since Goldwater and Reagan, but it has reached a new extreme level of racism, irrationalism, and authoritarianism with today’s Trump Republicans.
RCV in the USA
Every voter in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Northern Ireland, and Scotland uses RCV, often in its multi-winner, proportional form. RCV is also used for some elections in England, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. RCV elections have also been held some U.S. jurisdictions for more than a century.
Ranked-choice voting for proportional representation (RCV/PR) was invented in the 1850s in England as a way to combine majority rule with fair minority representation in legislatures by Thomas Hare, a lawyer and Member of Parliament. His colleague, John Stuart Mill, the noted philosopher, political economist, and Member of Parliament, wrote extensively about RCV/PR in his Considerations on Representative Government. In 1871, William Ware, an MIT architect and proponent of RCV/PR, advocated that RCV also be applied to single-winner races.
RCV/PR was adopted first in English-speaking countries in the early 20th century, including Australia, Ireland, Malta, and the United States. Between the 1910s and 1940s, 24 U.S. cities adopted RCV/PR, including Boulder, Cambridge, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York City, Sacramento, Toledo, Worcester, and Yonkers. In other countries, it is known as the single transferable vote. In the U.S., it is more commonly called ranked-choice voting.
Multi-seat RCV for proportional representation was being adopted by an increasing number of cities in the Progressive Era before being repealed in all but two cities in the retrogressive McCarthy Era. Ranked-choice voting has revived in the 2000s. Fifty-three local jurisdictions and two states, Maine and Alaska, have approved RCV. The RCV movement is gaining momentum, with five cities and Alaska having adopted it in the 2020 elections. Burlington, Austin, and 23 Utah cities and towns have adopted it since that election. Campaigns to implement RCV are now active in almost every state. These are campaigns in which the Left should engage.
The motivation for RCV for proportional representation in the Progressive Era was to break up the usually Democratic and sometimes Republicans machines that monopolized power in many cities through SMP voting and that ruled with a good measure of bribery, kickbacks, favoritism, and voting fraud. Good government progressives, the minority major party in a city, ethnic minority groups, and independent socialist, labor, and progressive parties combined to push through proportional representation. Ashtabula was the first city in 1915 and a steady stream of cities adopted it in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Proportional representation worked as intended. More parties were represented on city councils. In New York City, where Democrats had long held nearly all the seats, four or five parties had representation after each of the five city council elections under proportional representation from 1937 to 1945, including the American Labor, Communist, and Liberal parties to the left of the Democrats.
Proportional representation also enabled previously excluded ethnic minorities to elect representatives: the first Irish Catholics in Ashtabula, the first Polish-Americans in Toledo, and the first African-Americans in Cincinnati, Toledo, and other cities. The first African-American elected to the New York City council was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1941 as a third-party candidate of the American Labor Party.
The success of RCV proportional representation in creating multi-party, multi-racial municipal democracies was used against it in the reactionary McCarthy years. The election of American Labor and Communist candidates to the New York City council was used to mobilize an anti-communist crusade against proportional representation. In the context of the rising post-war Civil Rights Movement, the election of African-Americans was used in cities like Cincinnati to mobilize a white backlash against proportional representation. By the 1960s, only Cambridge, Massachusetts and Arden, Delaware retained proportional representation and continue using it to this day.
It varies by state and local jurisdiction whether enacting RCV requires simply passing a law, requires state approval for local jurisdictions, and/or requires an amendment to a local charter or state constitution. At the federal level, proportional RCV for the House of Representatives and single-seat RCV for Senate elections could be established simply by passing a law such as the proposed Fair Representation Act. Electing the president by a ranked-choice national popular vote requires either eliminating or regulating the Electoral College.
The Electoral College makes U.S. presidential elections a ridiculous farce. Since the popular vote for president was first tallied in 1824, the Electoral College has elected a candidate who received less than a majority of the popular vote in 19 of 50 presidential elections, including five who lost the popular vote. The mean-spirited, majority-disfavored, popular-vote loser Donald Trump was installed by the Electoral College in 2016—and nearly again in 2020. If as few as 21,462 votes had gone to Trump instead of Biden across Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, the Electoral College vote would have been tied 269-269. Under the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives would have voted for president in a one-state, one-vote election. With Republican majorities in 26 of the 50 state delegations, Trump would have been anointed again by the Electoral College even though he lost the popular vote by 4.1% and 7.1 million votes.
An amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be required to eliminate the Electoral College and replace it with a ranked-choice national popular vote.
A more politically feasible alternative may be for Congress to regulate the Electoral College under its independent constitutional authority to regulate presidential elections in Article II, Section 1 and the 12th Amendment. A Ranked-Choice Vote in Presidential Elections Act has been proposed that would require states to use the same ranked-choice ballot for president. The federal Elections Assistance Commission would receive and tabulate each state’s ranked-choice vote to certify the results of the ranked-choice national popular vote.
An interim step toward congressional legislation for a ranked-choice national popular vote for president would be for states to join an Interstate RCV Compact in addition to the existing National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). In the NPVIC, states have pledged their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote once states accounting for a 270 or more electoral vote majority have joined. To date, fifteen states and the District of Columbia have joined the NPVIC, accounting for 195 electoral votes, which is 72.2% of the 270 votes needed before the compact takes legal force. States in the Interstate RCV Compact would run their state’s RCV tally down to two and report the top two candidates’ vote totals in that final round for the purpose of the national popular vote.
For discussion of the Ranked-Choice Vote in Presidential Elections Act and the Interstate RCV Compact, see Rob Richie et al., “Toward a More Perfect Union: Integrating Ranked Choice Voting with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” Harvard Law & Policy Review, forthcoming.
What is different about the revival of RCV in the 2000s is that it has not been used in most jurisdictions to create proportional representation in legislative bodies through multi-seat RCV as it was in the Progressive Era. Most jurisdictions adopting RCV in recent years have retained the single-member-district, winner-take-all system for electing legislators as well as executive officers. Single-winner RCV fails to remove the barriers to multi-party, multi-racial democracy that are inherent in winner-take-all single-member-district elections, whether the voting is ranked-choice or plurality. The votes of political and ethnic minorities remain diluted and marginalized by these winner-take-all elections.
Only five of 52 jurisdictions that have established or authorized RCV since 2000 have adopted proportional RCV: Albany, California for city council and school board; Palm Desert, California for city council; Davis, California for city council; Eastpointe, Michigan for city council; and Minneapolis for at-large park board commissioners. Three of these cities adopted proportional RCV under pressure from civil rights activists. They enacted proportional RCV as a remedy for racial discrimination in the face of civil rights litigation and activism by ethnic minorities who were excluded or grossly under-represented under SMP voting: African-Americans in Eastpointe, Latinos in Palm Desert, and Asian-Americans in Albany.
Proportional representation as a remedy for the racism institutionalized by plurality voting has been part of voting rights litigation for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, the semi-proportional methods of limited voting and cumulative voting were applied as the remedy for the exclusion of African-Americans from representation in 24 Alabama and 15 North Carolina jurisdictions, of Mexican-Americans in 57 Texas jurisdictions, and of Indigenous people in three South Dakota jurisdictions, among others.
Lani Guinier was the most prominent voice in the civil rights community in this period arguing for proportional voting systems as the best remedy for black under-representation and political marginalization rather than race-conscious districting of majority-minority districts. She had argued in essays collected in Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy (1994) that majority-minority districting “isolates blacks from potential white allies,” “suppresses the potential development of issue-based campaigning and cross-racial coalitions,” minimizes the policy influence of blacks in white-majority districts, and discourages the debate about alternative policy platforms in black-majority districts because more than one black candidate can split the black vote in a plurality election and result in the election of a white conservative.
Guinier was nominated by Bill Clinton in 1993 to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, but he suddenly withdrew her nomination, saying her support for proportional representation was “anti-democratic.” Clinton caved in the face of conservative smears by The Wall Street Journal that labeled Guinier the “Quota Queen,” which were repeated in the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and other media. In fact, Guinier had argued against the “quota” ceilings on black empowerment structured into gerrymandered majority-minority districts.
The recent resolutions of the civil rights cases in three cities show that Guinier’s proportional representation remedies remain relevant. Racial justice activists continue to organize for proportional RCV as a voting rights remedy for the racial discrimination of minority disempowerment and under-representation that is inherent in plurality voting.
Single-member-district elections tend to produce governments dominated by two major parties, whether plurality or ranked-choice voting is used. Australian elections are a living laboratory that demonstrates the radically different outcomes in party representation between single-seat RCV and multi-seat RCV.
In Australia, the House of Representatives is elected by single-seat RCV while the Senate is elected by multi-seat RCV. In the 2019 elections, the Green Party received 10.4% of the first-choice votes for the House nationwide but only 1 of 151 seats under single-seat RCV. In the Senate under multi-seat RCV, the Greens won 9 of 76 seats, which was 11.8% of the seats and close to their 10.2% of first-choice votes. The vote percentages were nearly the same and seat numbers exactly the same in both houses for the Greens in the 2016 elections.
The two major parties in Australia, on the other hand, had their popular vote magnified into over-representation by the single-member-district, winner-take-all system in the House. In 2019, the Liberal/National Coalition received 42% of the vote and 51% of the seats, while Labor received 35% of the vote and 45% of the seats. Under the single-member-district, winner-take-all system, grossly disproportional representation is the result, whether the voting is plurality or ranked-choice.
The retreat from RCV for proportional representation is particularly problematic in New York City. In 2019, a Charter Revision Commission proposed, and 75% of voters approved, single-seat RCV—but only for party primaries and special elections. Reflecting the interests of a Democratic-Party-dominated city government where 14 of 15 charter commission members were appointed by Democrats, 48 of the 51 city councilors are Democrats, and all citywide offices are held by Democrats, RCV will not be used in general elections—either in its single-seat form where Greens and/or other left independents would compete with Democrats without the burden of the spoiler problem, or in its multi-seat proportional form where Greens and/or other left independents would elect their proportional share of candidates to the city council.
The principal organization that pushed this politically-biased form of RCV falsely claims on its website under the tab reading “History of RCV in NYC” that the 2021 elections are the “First RCV elections!” The truth is that New York City (1937-1945)—as well as nearby Yonkers (1940-1948) and Long Beach (1943-1947)—held many multi-seat RCV elections for proportional representation on their city councils and school boards. Community School Board members in New York City were elected to three-year terms from 32 nine-member districts using proportional RCV from 1969 until 2002, when a bipartisan coalition in state government—acting on behalf of Mayor Michael Bloomberg—replaced elected Community School Boards with the top-down business model of mayoral control of the schools. Proportional RCV for Community School Boards had led to the election of more ethnic minorities, including East Asians, South Asians, and Dominicans who been previously had little or no representation in the city’s elected offices. In 1998, when a new state law would have eliminated proportional RCV for Community School Boards, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened to strike down the law under the Section 5 preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, which covered Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan where there was a history of racial discrimination in elections.
Ranked-choice voting certainly improved the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary in New York City. With the leaders in pre-election polls rarely and barely breaking 20%, RCV’s instant runoffs resulted in the most preferred candidate receiving the nomination instead somebody with a small plurality. If this primary was conducted under the old system of a second runoff election if no candidate won over 40%, the top two candidates going to the runoff could have been the most-preferred candidates of less than a third of the voters and it might have eliminated the actual most-preferred candidate. It is a shame that New York City voters in 2021 won’t have RCV in the general election in any race, let alone for proportional representation on the city council
The left needs to engage the growing RCV movement to insist that multi-seat RCV for proportional representation is not forgotten and suppressed, but rather becomes the central goal of the movement. Eliminating the spoiler problem with single-seat RCV for executive offices is an advance. But eliminating the winner-take-all problem with multi-seat proportional RCV for legislatures is a game changer. If the RCV movement settles for single-seat RCV for legislative as well as executive office elections, the two capitalist parties will remain the two governing parties and the left will remain marginalized.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Ranked-choice voting is gaining support for many reasons. More people than ever—62%—want a third major party, according to Gallup polling. RCV is seen as a way to level the playing field for third parties.
The recent elections of popular vote losers George W. Bush and Donald Trump by a combination of the Electoral College and the alleged “spoiler” roles of Green Party candidates Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 has generated a high level of interest in replacing the Electoral College with a ranked-choice national popular vote for president. This interest was further heightened after the 2020 election when the Electoral College again nearly gave the presidency to the loser, Donald Trump.
The attack on democratic voting rights is the response of the right to the growing support for socialist and progressive ideas. As previously noted, partisan gerrymandering is a major tool in the reactionary toolbox that is a big issue today as we face redistricting following the 2020 census with Republicans in control of both legislative houses of 30 states. Multi-seat RCV for proportional representation eliminates the gerrymandering problem. Redistricting can game single-member district lines for partisan gain, but not for multi-member districts using RCV because every political viewpoint gets its proportional share of representation within those districts. Multi-seat RCV will not be adopted in time to stop partisan gerrymandering for the 2022 elections, but it will stop gerrymandered partisan bias as soon as it is adopted.
Ranked-choice voting also appeals to many because it discourages the negative campaigning that so many Americans are so sick of. Ranked-choice voting candidates want to be the second or third choices of their opponents’ supporters, so it doesn’t pay to go ad hominem on opponents. Ranked-choice voting focuses campaigns on issues and sharpens the differences between candidates around policy positions. With RCV, it does pay for candidates to positively advance their own programs to distinguish themselves from the other candidates.
This more policy-focused campaign debate continues in multi-party proportional legislatures between elections. A multi-party legislature resulting from proportional representation makes counterproductive the attacks and obstruction of the other side characteristic of two-party legislatures. In a multi-party legislature, it pays to work with other parties to build majority coalitions to pass legislation. The coalitions will shift around different issues. Greens, Socialists, progressive Democrats, and Libertarians will support military spending cuts while corporate Democrats and Republicans will oppose them. On Medicare for All, different coalitions will form. It will be Greens, Socialist, and progressive Democrats aligned against corporate Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians.
In the two-party SMP system, progressives Democrats have incentives to muffle their differences with the corporate leadership in order to receive benefits and avoid sanctions on campaign funding, staff support, committee assignments, and legislative priorities. It was while she was supporting Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that AOC frankly declared, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” That was before she lined up behind Biden after Sanders was defeated. Proportional representation would allow progressive like AOC to avoid unprincipled tactics like running on the same party ticket with and supporting the election of a neoliberal imperialist like Joe Biden.
Greens have long advocated for RCV and proportional representation. They have been at the center of successful campaigns to get RCV adopted in cities like San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Fe, and Minneapolis. Recently calls for proportional representation have been coming from within the camp of progressive Democrats. Contemplating how hard it will be to advance a progressive agenda in a political conjuncture where centrist Biden Democrats seem to be all that stand in the way of reactionary Trump Republicans, progressive Democrats like Kate Aronoff in The New Republic and Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats and Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party in Crooked have argued that proportional representation is the way out of this quandary for the left.
SMP elections force progressive voters to choose between Bidenism or Trumpism when the left would be stronger on the offensive posing the choice of Socialism or Bidenism. Even more so in this time of Republican extremism, SMP elections shield the corporate center from a left challenge. The forthright case for socialism dissolves into dispiriting apologetics for Democratic centrism.
Ranked-choice voting in the New York City primaries was national news in June 2021. While right-wing think tanks and some corporate media commentators painted the election as complicated and confusing, an exit poll found that 95 percent of voters said the ballots were simple to complete and 77 percent want ranked-choice voting in future elections. Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley said, “I lost the NYC mayoral race, but women and minorities win with ranked-choice voting.”
The delays and mistakes in reporting the vote were not due to the nature of ranked-choice voting but to an incompetent New York City Board of Elections with a long history of ineptitude and election fiascos rooted in patronage and nepotism. The New York City RCV law should be improved. It should be extended to cover general elections as well as primaries. It should return city council elections to multi-seat RCV for proportional representation.
A cautionary note for the Left was also revealed in the New York City RCV elections. The Left in New York City did not run its own candidate for mayor and take advantage of RCV’s elimination of the spoiler problem. RCV will not call forth a Left on its own. It is not a substitute for organizing in our workplaces, communities, and schools that lays the foundation for viable Left candidacies. RCV and particularly proportional RCV only give the Left the opportunity to win its fair share of representation and power.
The fight for ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—as part of a broader fight in defense of democratic rights—is where socialists and progressives both inside and outside the Democratic party ought to unite. Replacing plurality voting with RCV is a reform we have been winning. We can multiply these wins in the near future for local and state elections and, based on that political momentum, for federal elections. Changing the rules of electoral politics from SMP voting to RCV and proportional representation is fastest way to open the political system and give the left the power to make a real difference on the pressing problems of climate, poverty, racism, and peace on which the two governing parties are utterly failing.
Howie Hawkins, a retired Teamster in Syracuse, New York, was the 2020 presidential candidate of the Green and Socialist parties.
Published in a shorter version at https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/07/escaping-the-lefts-electoral-impasse/