Neighboring Maine became the first state in the country to pass ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, when a referendum passed on Election Day. Ahead of the vote, a nonpartisan organization conducted an informal poll and found majority support for such a system in New Hampshire.
Here’s how it works: Instead of only voting for one candidate in a given race like the race for governor, for example, voters will be asked to rank multiple candidates. So, if there are three candidates, the voters who cast first-choice votes that went to a losing third candidate still have a voice. After that last-place candidate is eliminated, the second-choice votes get assigned to the remaining two candidates to determine a winner.
“It lowers the cost for voting for a third party candidate,” said St. Anselm College political science professor Chris Galdieri.
In essence, it eliminates third-party spoilers or vote-splitting. Galdieri said if it had been the way we voted for president in 2000, voters could have felt more free to vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. And if Nader still got the least votes, the theory goes, they would have likely gone to Al Gore. Instead, Nader went down in history as possibly contributing to Bush’s success in the swing state of Florida, which determined the election.
Ranked-choice voting proved a popular idea in Maine because of the state’s track record electing governors with only a plurality of the vote. With RCV, the winner always has a true majority.
Curious how such a system might play in the Granite State, Citizens Count, NH’s Live Free or Die Alliance — an organization that provides objective election information and engages residents to test the waters on political issues — started the conversation online.
“We posted the question, ‘Should New Hampshire adopt ranked-choice voting?’” Citizens Count Editor Jacquelyn Benson said.
Of the 113 participants (a small, nonscientific sample) who responded, 54 percent were in favor of instituting RCV in New Hampshire and 46 percent were opposed.
Benson said those against it feared the new system would be too confusing for voters, causing them to vote incorrectly, and expressed concerns that it might be open to fraud. Those in favor generally expressed an interest in how the system tends to give third-party candidates a greater chance of winning.
“There were definitely a lot of people … on the ‘yes’ side that were looking at the system that we have now, which is admittedly dominated by two major parties, and they were expressing dissatisfaction with that,” Benson said.
Short of giving third parties a slight edge, it may have also been seen as a way of voting one’s conscience more freely, instead of resorting to the kind of strategic voting some feel forced into with the current two-party system.
In New Hampshire, such a change to how we vote could upset the balance of power.
“I think it might benefit libertarians. I think it might encourage more people to run as independents,” Galdieri said.
The reign of the two party system would be weakest in the legislature, since New Hampshire has one of the largest citizen legislatures in the English speaking world. If third parties and independents take up a significant share of the lawmakers, that would sometimes require coalitions be formed to create majorities — the likes of which are seen more commonly in European parliaments.
“As we saw in Britain in 2010, the junior partner does not come out of those deals with a whole lot of self respect,” Galdieri said, referring to the coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.
While it’s impossible to know if RCV’s apparent popularity would have been any different in the past, Benson said this year’s presidential election — featuring two historically unpopular candidates — may have played a role in people’s thoughts about it.
“You can’t separate the answers that we got from the climate in which the discussion was taking place,” Benson said.
There are some critics of the system who say the spoiler effect by third parties can still take place in a more gradual and delayed sense, but that view was not a popular one in the online discussion.
While RCV provides a system where the winner always has a majority vote, it’s possible still for cases where the winner was most voters’ second choice.
“I think a lot of voters might look askance at that,” Galdieri said.
Observers in New Hampshire and other states will now have their first statewide test case in Maine, and how future elections unfold there will be of great interest to those considering RCV elsewhere.
New Hampshire would not be able to follow in Maine’s footsteps through a ballot measure; it would require a legislative act.