In recent years, American politics has become increasingly polarized, and campaigns have become more negative. In response, American frustration with the U.S.’s electoral system has risen. The way that some states have combatted this frustration is through electoral reform, specifically by abolishing the current plurality system and implementing a ranked choice voting system. Ranked choice voting is a system where voters rank the candidates in order of their preferences. If a specific candidate receives more than 50% of the first-choice votes, that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated, and for the people who voted for that candidate as their first choice, their votes count towards their second-choice candidate. This process continues until a candidate wins more than 50% of the overall votes (Simmons et al.). Tennessee should adopt a ranked choice voting electoral system because: first, with Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with the two-party system, it would increase third-party candidates’ chances of being elected; second, ranked choice voting systems have been shown to be less hostile, which in turn has been shown to increase voter satisfaction; and third, ranked choice voting opens the door for broader representation in the candidates that run for office, specifically for women.
Partisan polarization has increased dramatically over recent election cycles. Instead of just viewing the opposing party in a negative light, partisan individuals now view other people in opposing parties negatively (“As Partisan Hostility Grows”). Due to these growing hostilities, there are signs that other Americans that are instead more partisan-leaning feel frustrated with the two-party system and the choices they have within that system (“As Partisan Hostility Grows”). According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 39% of the overall public said that their views were described extremely well with the statement: “I often wish there were more political parties to choose from in this country.” Furthermore, 32% said the previous statement described their opinions somewhat well, while 28% said it did not describe their views well at all. Therefore, 71% of the public overall said that they at least somewhat wished that there were more political parties to choose from in the U.S. (“As Partisan Hostility Grows”). However, if Americans want third-party representation, why do they not vote them into office?
Despite Americans desiring a viable third-party candidate, a big reason why third-party candidates continue to lose in states with plurality electoral systems in place is because of the difference between “sincere” and “strategic” voting. Sincere voting is when individuals cast their vote solely based on who they want to be elected; political context plays no role in their decision. Strategic voting is when one votes for a candidate that is not their preferred candidate because “the electoral circumstances produce incentives for voting in favor of a less preferred candidate, normally one the voter believes has a better chance of winning,” (Simmons et al. 368). For example, if one were to choose to vote for a Democrat or Republican candidate over a preferred third-party candidate in fear of “wasting” one’s vote, that would be an example of strategic voting. Therefore, since strategic voting is very common in most states’ current single-winner plurality systems, third-party candidates are unlikely to get votes unless electoral reform occurs, especially in the form of a switch to ranked choice voting (Simmons et al.).
Ranked choice voting provides the best opportunity for third-party candidates to be elected because it eliminates the fear that one is going to “waste” their vote by voting for a third-party candidate. Instead, in ranked choice voting, minor party voters can engage in sincere voting because they know that if their preferred candidate loses, their votes will still get counted towards their next-preferred candidate (Simmons et al.). In 2020, Alan James Simmons et al. conducted an experiment where they had two groups hypothetically vote for their preferred 2020 presidential candidate; one control group voted using a plurality system (they voted for one candidate instead of ranking them) and the other control group voted using a ranked choice voting system. The authors found in their study that ranked choice voting had a significant positive correlation with heightened support for third-party candidates. Therefore, if Tennessee was to switch from a single-choice plurality system to a ranked choice voting system, voters who support third-party candidates or who wish a third-party candidate could win, would be able to vote for their preferred candidate without fear of “splitting” the vote (Simmons et al.).
Another much needed and positive outcome of implementing ranked choice voting in Tennessee would be an increase in civility during campaigns. In the current plurality system, candidates have high incentives to campaign negatively because they are trying to pull undecided voters away from their competitors. Candidates are aware that if a voter is resolute on voting for their competitor, it is unlikely that a positive campaign could sway that voter anyway. Therefore, in a plurality system, candidates have less concern about running a negative campaign, because their competitor’s supporters have little to offer them. However, under a ranked choice voting system, there is much more incentive for candidates to run a positive campaign, because even if they are not a voter’s first choice, they could be their second or third choice. Thus, a candidate would not wish to alienate their competitor’s supporters by running negative campaigns. In preferential voting systems, like ranked choice voting, candidates have a lot to gain from keeping their campaigns positive (Donovan et al., “Campaign civility”).
In 2016, Todd Donovan et al. published a study about whether voters perceived campaigns in a preferential system of voting as less negative than in a single-vote plurality system. The authors surveyed voters’ perceptions of 2013 local elections in preferential and plurality cities; a total of 2,432 respondents took part in the study. Although there were certain groups that were less likely to perceive elections in a ranked choice voting system as more positive, overall, “respondents living in cities using preferential voting were significantly more likely to express higher levels of satisfaction with the conduct of local campaigns, they were less likely to say that local candidates criticized each other frequently, and they perceived their local campaigns as less negative,” (Donovan et al., “Campaign civility” 160). Furthermore, the overall support of ranked choice voting is indicative of the satisfaction that voters have in states where it is utilized. For example, 62% of respondents in a preferential voting system in the same 2013 election season stated that they supported the continued use of ranked choice voting in their respective states (John and Douglas). In cities that had not already implemented preferential voting, 49% of respondents reported that they would support it. Finally, the percentage of those who opposed ranked choice voting in their cities never exceeded 48% (John and Douglas).
Moreover, candidates themselves have been shown to view preferential voting campaigns (including ranked choice) as more positive than plurality campaigns. In another study conducted by Todd Donovan, 40% of the candidates in his survey that ran for office in states with plurality systems stated that their rival portrayed them in a negative light. However, only 29% of candidates running in preferential systems reported the same thing. Additionally, 37% of candidates in plurality elections stated that part of their campaign involved describing their competitor negatively; in contrast, only 21% of candidates in a ranked choice voting setting echoed this. Candidates in Donovan’s study were also asked to compare the level of negativity in their most recent campaign versus previous campaigns. 47% of candidates running in ranked choice voting elections said that their election was less negative than past elections. This percentage was 10 points higher than those running in plurality contests (Donovan, “Candidate Perceptions”). While more research must be done before findings on this topic are definitive, Todd Donovan’s studies demonstrate that many voters and candidates find ranked choice voting campaigns to be less negative and more civil than campaigns in most states’ current plurality systems.
Along with the fact that ranked choice voting elections are likely to improve third-party candidates’ chances of being taken seriously and that voters and candidates are more satisfied with the civil nature of ranked choice voting elections, preferential voting systems are also more likely to open the door for more diverse representation in elected offices. There are currently only 2 women serving in Congress that represent Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn in the Senate and Diana Harshbarger in the House (“Tennessee”). Further, Tennessee is in the bottom 10 states for the percentage of total state legislators that are women, and it has never had a woman be elected as governor (“Tennessee”). As far as Tennessee’s racial representation in Congress, it fares even worse. Over a quarter of Tennessee’s population are people of color; however, strikingly, there are currently no people of color in the top 28 staffers in the House and Senate who represent Tennessee (McCray et al.). How then could ranked choice voting in Tennessee help to eliminate this problem?
Many women and people of color vying for office are often unable to run for similar reasons as third-party candidates. Parties view them in terms of their “perceived lack of electability,” (Terrell et al. 336). Therefore, women and POC are unable to run due to a fear of splitting the vote, also known as the spoiler effect. However, in ranked choice voting systems, no candidate wins the election unless they have received 50% or more of the votes. Consequently, parties do not have to worry that by allowing more women and people of color to run as members of their party in conservative states, like Tennessee, they’ll lose the election due to the spoiler effect (Terrell et al.).
Studies conducted in California Bay Area cities that implemented ranked choice voting demonstrated that preferential voting systems do improve women’s outcomes in elections. In the studies, the number of female candidates decreased in both the ranked choice voting cities and the plurality cities. The decrease was less in ranked choice voting cities, however, which suggests that there was simply a negative trend in the California Bay Area, and that without ranked choice voting, the problem could have been worse in the preferential cities. In addition to these findings, the authors found that women won electoral races more often under ranked choice voting systems – a 2% increase in the number of winning women in ranked choice voting elections versus a 4.5% decrease in plurality elections (Terrell et al.). While studies have not been conducted on how ranked choice voting may affect the electoral representation of people of color, scholars believe that it is likely that the same positive effects would be seen for people of color running for office (Terrell et al.).
Overall, the current plurality voting system in Tennessee needs electoral reform, specifically in the form of a change to a ranked choice voting system. Americans around the country have voiced that they wish there were more political parties to choose from and that they are unhappy with the current two-party system (“As Partisan Hostility Grows”). Ranked choice voting systems increase the likelihood that third-party candidates will be taken seriously because voters no longer face the threat of splitting their vote (Simmons et al.). Additionally, many voters and candidates view current plurality elections in states around the U.S. as negative and uncivil. A switch to a ranked choice voting system would likely increase voter satisfaction by decreasing campaign incivility (Donovan et al., “Campaign Civility”). Finally, Tennessee’s electoral representation for both women and people of color is alarmingly low (“Tennessee”; McCray et al.). Implementing ranked choice voting in Tennessee would allow parties to consider women for candidacy more often because there would be less fear that they would split the vote; similar findings are also expected to occur for people of color if ranked choice voting were to be implemented (Terrell et al.).
“As Partisan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration with the Two-Party System.” Pew Research Center, 9 Aug. 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/08/09/as-partisan-hostility-grows-signs-of-frustration-with-the-two-party-system/?utm_source=AdaptiveMailer&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=8-9-22%20Parties%20and%20Partisanship%20GEN%20DISTRO&org=982&lvl=100&ite=10316&lea=2168337&ctr=0&par=1&trk=a0D3j000011cufqEAA. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
Donovan, Todd. “Candidate Perceptions of Campaigns Under Preferential and Plurality Voting.” Western Washington University, 2014, https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/todd-donovan.pdf. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
Donovan, Todd, et al. “Campaign Civility Under Preferential and Plurality Voting.” Electoral Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2016, pp. 157-163, DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2016.02.009. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
John, Sarah, and Andrew Douglas. “Candidate Civility and Voter Engagement in Seven Cities with Ranked Choice Voting.” National Civic Review, vol. 106, no. 1, 2017, pp. 25-29, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1002/naticivirevi.106.1.0025. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
McCray, Karra W., et al. “Racial Diversity Among Top Staff of the Tennessee Congressional Delegation.” Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2018, https://jointcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Tennessee-Diversity-Report-11-14-18-710-pm.pdf. Accessed 20 Sept. 2022.
Simmons, Alan James, et al. “Ranked-Choice Voting and the Potential for Improved Electoral Performance of Third-Party Candidates in America.” American Politics Research, vol. 50, no. 3, 2022, pp. 366-378, DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211072388. Accessed 16. Sept. 2022.
“Tennessee.” Center for American Women and Politics, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/facts/state-state-information/tennessee. Accessed 20 Sept. 2022.
Terrell, Cynthia Richie, et al. “Election Reform and Women’s Representation: Ranked Choice Voting in the U.S.” Politics and Governance, vol. 9, no. 2, 2021, pp. 332-343, DOI: 10.17645/pag.v9i2.3924. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
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