The special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district just set a troubling new political record: It’s the most costly U.S. House election in American history. More than $80 million has been spent already by Democrat Jon Ossoff, Republican Karen Handel, and an explosion of special interest groups and Super PACs from all sides.
Politicians can buy a lot of negative ads for $80 million. One Atlanta station had so much demand that they cancelled syndicated programming and expanded local newscasts so they could sell more time to the candidates and other operatives. Atlanta is the city that birthed CNN; now the political news is toxic, around the clock — and there’s still almost four weeks to go before the runoff election.
It’s been a similar story in Kansas and Montana, where Republicans won two expensive special elections earlier this spring, as well as South Carolina, where voters in the 5th congressional district will soon head to the polls for the third time since May 2nd to replace Mick Mulvaney.
There’s no reason why our elections should cost so much — and be fueled by so many deep-pocketed special interests. Yet while candidates continue to put forth platitudes about limiting the influence of Big Money each election cycle, voters are still looking for concrete ways to decrease the amount of money in our political process and strengthen the power of their vote.
Pie-in-the-sky solutions like a constitutional amendment or a landmark Supreme Court decision might be admirable long-term goals for those concerned about the amount that wealthy individuals can give to politicians. However, it’s time for reformers to start thinking more creatively about ways to limit the demand for money in the first place. Ranked choice voting is a good place to start.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a simple change to our elections that can make a powerful difference for voters. RCV gives voters the freedom to rank their choices on Election Day, rather than picking just one. All first choices are counted, and if one candidate has a majority of the vote (50% +1), then they win. However, if no candidate receives a majority, the candidate in last place is eliminated, and those voters have their vote count for the next choice on their ballot. This process continues until a candidate wins with a majority of the vote.
While the idea might be new to some, ranked choice voting is actually already used in almost a dozen cities across the U.S., including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland, Maine. In fact this past November, Maine voters passed a ballot question to adopt ranked choice voting for all statewide elections by a margin of 52%-48%.
Historically, RCV has been championed by voters because it gives them a stronger voice in elections where more than two candidates are running. By allowing voters to rank their choices, the system ensures that election outcomes are grounded in the principle of majority rule, and voters can vote for their favorite candidate without fear of wasting their vote. However recent research indicates that there may be another reason to adopt RCV: it has the potential to limit the insatiable demand for money in politics.
A recent report published by FairVote demonstrates that ranked choice voting can change incentives for candidates in a way that decreases the effectiveness of campaign cash. The report suggests that adopting RCV can impact campaign spending by encouraging different campaign strategies. When candidates need to reach out and be a voter’s second or third choice, they are much less likely to go all-negative. Rather than spend copious amounts of money to depress turnout among a rival’s base, candidates are incentivized to get out and knock on doors to find common ground with voters. In other words, RCV rewards hustle over spending.
While further research is needed, this dynamic seems to have played out in cities that use ranked choice voting. In Oakland, for example, voters in 2010 elected the first woman and first Asian-American mayor in the city’s history, who beat a heavily favored opponent that outspent her $850,000 to $280,000. In 2012, an African-American woman ran and won an open Oakland Council seat despite being heavily outspent. She didn’t start her campaign until August — that is, two months after the date of Oakland’s old primary system. Both candidates did the groundwork of connecting with voters and earning their second choices, rather than berating their opponents with negative advertisements.
Another obvious opportunity to decrease the demand for campaign money is to eliminate runoff elections by using ranked choice voting. Look no further than the runoff in Georgia’s 6th. Before the first-round election that took place on April 18th, independent expenditures had totalled a stunning $9 million. Even more concerning is the fact that almost all of that money came from out of state. In fact the election attracted about one penny from Georgia for every $10 in out-of-state money. However since no candidate garnered a majority last month, the two Democratic and Republican candidates left in the race have embarked on a nine-week mudslinging contest to decide the winner in a runoff election that is attracting millions more in outside money. If Georgia had decided this election with RCV, there would have been no need for this — and the people of Georgia’s sixth would already have a voice in Congress.
In many of the cities in which RCV has been adopted, voters have done so primarily to elect a majority winner in a single election and avoid the high costs and low turnout associated with a runoff election. In those cities, RCV has assuredly reduced the amount of campaign dollars spent and the weeks of campaigning (often negative in nature) that come with holding a second election. In FairVote’s research, “a contest that was decided over two rounds was associated with $3.05 more per capita total candidate spending than a contest decided in one round.” In a city like San Francisco, that adds up to about $1.8 million less in spending by candidates.
Ranked choice voting isn’t a panacea, and more research and experience with RCV is needed to come to more concrete conclusions regarding its impact on the demand for money in our electoral process. That said, we know where the current road leads: More negativity and even more money. Campaign finance reformers that want to see immediate progress should embrace this innovative approach to elections. Otherwise, we’re headed for a 2018 election season that could shatter even these infamous new spending records.