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Scoppe: This quirky little voting tweak could change how candidates behave. And how we behave.

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Would elections better reflect voters' opinions if South Carolina switched to ranked-choice voting? 

A national election-reform group released results of a new poll this month that showed Joe Biden leading the S.C. presidential primary.

No surprise there; he’s been leading since forever.

But while all the other polls give the former vice president the largest plurality in the crowded Democratic field, the FairVote poll put his support at 66 percent.

The difference? This poll was conducted as if South Carolina used an alternative voting system that more than half the states use in some capacity — and that we use for overseas and military voters in state, local and congressional primaries.

It got me thinking about how cool it would be if polls — and elections — did a better job of reflecting voter preference. If they got people more interested in voting. If they did something really extraordinary: change how candidates think about voters. And how the winning candidates go about governing. And how all of us think about the candidates. And each other.

All of which this voting system has the potential to do.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

Yes, that sounds like presidential-size hyperbole. But the way governments conduct our elections has had a lot to do with the disintegration of our political system — and our society. It’s contributed to the animosity that wrecks relationships, that leads parents to say that one of their greatest fears is that their children will marry someone from the OTHER political party.

Well, it hasn’t done that all by itself. Cable “news” and social media and special-interest groups that make money fomenting anger have contributed. But we can trace the coarsening of America, the hardening of political divides, to a voting system that allows candidates to select their voters rather than the other way around, turning election districts ever more reliably Republican and reliably Democratic, which leads to more elections being decided in the primaries. Which leads to the election of more far-left Democrats and far-right Republicans, who have to satisfy the most radical voters, who feed on ideological purity and angry tribalism that changes how we look at friends and family and co-workers and strangers who don’t share our blind loyalty to an ideology.

It’s possible we could change that by empowering independent commissions to draw election districts where the outcome of the general election isn’t predetermined. But the elected officials aren’t about to eliminate gerrymandering.

And maybe they won’t make this change either. But maybe they will.

The potentially magical system is called ranked-choice voting. It starts just like a regular election, but after voters select their first choice, they have the option of picking their second choice, third choice and so on.

Get a weekly recap of South Carolina opinion and analysis from The Post and Courier in your inbox on Monday evenings.


If one candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the election is over. But if no one reaches 50 percent, we move to what’s called an instant runoff, which is a lot quicker and cheaper than those two-week slugfests we have in local, state and congressional primaries, where even fewer voters bother to participate than the tiny minority who participated in the first primary.

COLUMBIA — A Tuesday runoff election has been set to determine the Democratic nominee in South Carolina’s new 7th congressional district after…

For round two, election officials remove the candidate who finished last and count the second-choice votes on those ballots. The procedure repeats until someone crosses the 50 percent threshold.

Ranked-choice voting wouldn’t change the outcome of the S.C. presidential primary, because Mr. Biden has such a commanding lead. But rather than 55 percent of the voters backing a losing candidate, as they would now, suddenly 66 percent are backing a winning candidate.

And it could make a huge difference in some primaries. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz might be our president today if S.C. Republicans had used this system in 2016, when Donald Trump carried the state with less than a third of the primary vote and probably wasn’t anybody’s second choice.

Which brings us to the truly transformative potential of this system: to penalize the most divisive and extremist candidates, and to … well … transform politics. And people.

Imagine if candidates had to win over more than just the biggest minority of dedicated voters. Imagine if they needed to be one of the top choices of at least half the voters, including those who support another candidate.

The smart ones would move back toward the political center, to appeal to more people. Particularly if more of us voted in the primaries, which we might do if candidates were trying to appeal to more of us.

Imagine if voters learned to think not just about who they like best but also who they like second-best, or third-best. If we taught ourselves to do a careful enough evaluation that we could rank all the candidates, rather than picking one and tossing out all the others. Wouldn’t that spill over into the way we think about politics and, yes, other people?

It would be a slow process, for sure. It would happen more quickly if we added in a limited-transfer or cumulative-voting system, essentially allowing voters in district elections to decide which “district” they live in. But those are radical changes. Ranked-choice voting isn’t.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @cindiscoppe.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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