City Council’s recent decision to study ranked choice voting is commendable. I want to humbly suggest an alternative that’s easier on voters and election officials and has a much better track record. Even better, it’s native to Philly.
By now, many people know how ranked choice voting (RCV) works. The voter, if they want, may rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has a majority outright, the last-placed contender is eliminated, and ballots in their pile transfer to next-ranked picks. The process repeats until someone has a majority of active ballots.
This type of RCV works for any kind of election that picks one winner. But it works less well for elections to several seats, such as those that fill the seven seats of City Council’s at-large members. So if Philly wants to join other cities in using RCV, it will need to consider alternatives.
One option is to use block-preferential RCV, also called “sequential” or “multi-pass” RCV. The rules are a bit confusing, but the basic idea is to award every seat to the majority grouping. Hence it could eliminate candidates that represent a minority of the electorate, even if that minority is sizable.
Another option is to eliminate the at-large seats entirely, then move to a council of 17 single-seat districts. Again, this could eliminate minority representation, depending on how groups were distributed among the newly drawn districts. For instance, there might be even less representation of Republicans and the Working Families Party.
A third option now goes by “proportional RCV.” Again, the voter ranks candidates in order of preference. But instead of requiring a majority, each candidate would need roughly 12.5% of votes to win. (Or, if there were nine seats, that figure would be 10%.) But in America, “proportional RCV” made city councils ungovernable, as voters began ranking candidates from opposing parties, so politicians did not know which voters they represented.
There are other reasons to second-guess RCV systems. Last year, a series of studies by the D.C.-based think tank New America found mostly mixed, null, or negative effects — on policy outcomes, minority representation, and voter satisfaction. Ultimately, most voters preferred just to “choose one.” Further, according to FairVote, which promotes RCV, 96% of outcomes would not have been different in a system where the winner is the person with the most votes.
The alternative I suggest is the “one-vote system,” based on an 1844 invention by Philadelphian Thomas Gilpin. As part of this system, each voter gets one vote, which counts for both the person and their party. Parties then earn seats in proportion to their vote shares. And those seats go to the candidates with the most votes within their parties, which lets voters choose which candidates represent each party.
Systems like one-vote (technically called open-list) are common around the world — much more common than versions of RCV. There is no need for voter education. Results are known immediately. More importantly, politicians are clear about which voters they represent.
Election reform has become a hot issue. People are unhappy with the state of democracy, and they want to try out new electoral systems in cities. Philly has a model to offer the nation, and reformers should give it more thought.
Jack Santucci is an assistant teaching professor of politics at Drexel University and an expert on ranked choice voting. He is the author of “More Parties or No Parties: The Politics of Electoral Reform in America” (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).