What Is a Runoff Vote? It Could Change Presidential Elections For The Better

There's been a lot of talk this election cycle about the need to change our political systems — from the complaint that a two-party system is too restrictive to that the campaign season is too long to that the primary field is over-saturated. When it comes to actually casting our ballots, our method seems pretty straight forward. But it can actually be drastically improved, some experts say, by runoff voting in the election.

In our current election system, whoever nets the most votes wins the nomination. But in a Newsweek article this week, some mathematical analysts said our elections could be improved, and more people would be happier with the results if we adopted runoff voting, or ranked-choice voting, as the method for tallying our votes.

In this system, rather than voting for one candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If the person with the most first-place votes does not win by a majority, the vote is not conclusive. The lowest scoring candidate is dropped, and for the people who voted for that candidate as their first choice, their second choice moves to the top of their ballot, and the results are tallied again. This continues until a candidate receives a majority of the first-place votes.

In the case of the 2016 Republican primary, Donald Trump won the most votes, but never reached a true majority of votes. In a field with 17 candidates, Trump's opponents had too many options, and their votes were split among too many other candidates to ever help any of them achieve a majority. Had we used ranked-choice voting, Trump may not have clinched the nomination. The results of the 2000 presidential election could've also been drastically different under this voting method.

Howard Dean wrote a op-ed about this for the New York Times earlier this month, in which he made the argument that ranked-choice voting allows our election system to effectively respond to the increase in candidate choices, with the growing prevalence of third-party options:

I believe ranked-choice voting represents what democracy will be. It’s a solution to the problem of how to uphold majority rule and give more voice to voters by presenting them with more than two options.

Runoff voting also solves the issue of what happens if a candidate leaves the race before the election, but after early voting has begun. In this scenario, it would be far easier to determine where that candidate's votes would go, because everyone's second choice has already been noted.

It would take a lot to overhaul the presidential election system. But after as unorthodox of an election as 2016, this might just be the catalyst that gets us there.