Smile Politely

Talking election reform with Ben Chapman

Ben Chapman graduated from University of Illinois just last year after studying nutrition. During that time he became interested in politics, and has already run for office, twice. Now, he’s taken what he’s learned and set aside that initial career path to focus on electoral politics, more specifically, reforming the voting process.

As I said before, he’s had a bit of experience in this arena, having started a run for State Senator, opposing incumbent Chapin Rose (I say started because he ultimately decided to pull out of the race); and he more recently ran for Champaign County Board District 1, against Jim Goss. Both tough races for a young Dem candidate opposing a Republican incumbent to represent the very red Mahomet. However, those experiences have given him some insight into the electoral process, ultimately leading him to his current role as a consultant for FairVote, an organization that is working toward election reform. As Chapman says, “you shouldn’t try to reform a system until you know what that system looks like.” That reform is  ranked choice voting, and Chapman has been talking to people throughout Illinois about why this is something they should support. 

Those words — ranked choice voting —have been floating around more frequently lately. In fact, in Tuesday’s election, voters in New York City approved a ballot initiative that would implement ranked choice voting in local primary and special elections, beginning in 2021. Maine just passed a bill that will make it the first state to hold a presidential election in this manner. 

So, what exactly is it?

Here is Chapman’s elevator pitch: “It’s a new system of voting. It is, from the voter’s perspective, just what it sounds like. Instead of going in and voting for one candidate, you can rank your candidates. The way the votes are counted can get a little bit confusing, but it’s pretty simple. All of first choices of voters are tallied up, and the lowest performing candidate is eliminated. Then, those voters see their votes go to their second favorite choice. Voters are basically saying: ‘I want this candidate, but if I can’t have this one then I prefer this one.’ The idea is to get as many people as possible their first, second, or third choice.”

Of course, the goal here is to give voters more choices when they go to the ballot box. But, what Chapman and others who are lobbying for this change are also hoping for is a shift in campaign discourse. As he explains, the way campaigns currently operate are inherently negative. “It’s not about proving that your policy stances are good, it’s about proving that the other candidates aren’t worthy of your vote or aren’t performing well enough in the polls.” With RCV, you aren’t just courting your potential voters, you also want to campaign with the notion that you want to be a possible second ballot choice. So, in a primary, you don’t want to go out of your way to offend those that are supporters of another candidate, because you are hoping that even if they don’t put you down as a first choice, they may list you as a second choice. Candidates are forced to focus more on their platforms and policies. Chapman says our current system is counterintuitive. The more candidates positions are aligned, “the more they have to go at each other’s throats….ranked choice voting encourages coalition building rather than divisiveness.”

In the general election, RCV brings more validity to third party candidacy. Currently, we tend to call them “third party spoilers,” says Chapman, “When in reality it’s not their fault, we have this system where if you run and say what you believe in you’re not really part of the system, you’re just ruining the election.” In 2016, if someone was all about voting for Jill Stein, they could do so without taking a potential vote away from say, Hillary Clinton, provided they put her down as their second choice. We’re just going assume that would be the case, and not acknowledge that some ass would’ve put Trump as any sort of choice though I’m sure some would do just that because they “just couldn’t vote for Hillary.” But I digress. Then if Stein was eliminated as a candidate, those voters who put her first would ultimately have their votes go to their second choice, therefore no election spoiling.

This all sounds great; more choice for voters and more civility. I asked Chapman if there’s a downside here. “This works differently in different places, but if we were to use it here in Illinois for the primary and the general, it would be more expensive. It would put more strain on election workers. So I want to be very clear that if we’re going to have an election bill like this, we’re going to have to give our election administrators more resources.” It can also be a hard sell to ask legislators to take up this cause and sponsor a bill that would implement RCV. “We’re asking people who got into power one way, and who know that path very well: “Hey look we have a better way, but it’s going to mean you have to find a new path.”

Ranked choice voting activists in Illinois have just come one step closer to making this a reality for presidential elections with the RCV for POTUS Act, SB 2267, sponsored by Senator Laura Murphy, a Democrat from Des Plaines. This would put RCV in place for the 2024 presidential election. There are a few states that are planning to use it for the 2020 primaries, which you can read more about here

So, Smile Politely readers, what are your thoughts? Change is hard, but there are certainly aspects of this that sound intriguing. If you would like to learn more about this proposed system or the work being done by FairVote, check out their website. If this is something you’d like to see pass here in Illinois, here’s a way to let your representatives know.

Photo by Ben Theobald

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