A Conservative Election Reform: Ranked-Choice Voting

“[T]he thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”

When Russell Kirk penned his famous “Ten Conservative Principles” in 1993, he was not writing specifically about reforming the modern electoral system. But with the recent political frenzy over laws to address “voter fraud” and subsequent charges of “voter suppression,” the need for prudential election reforms that balance permanence and change is greater than ever.

Barry Fagin of the Independence Institute takes on this topic in his new white paper “The Conservative Case for Ranked Choice Voting.” In this piece, Fagin highlights the problems with our ubiquitous “winner-take-all” voting system, known as first-past-the-post (“FPTP”), which incentivizes mudslinging and “lesser of two evils” campaigning. FPTP, according to Fagin, inevitably leads to a “political duopoly” that is inconsistent with a conservative worldview.

In place of FPTP, Fagin argues in favor of ranked-choice voting (“RCV”). He highlights the ways in which RCV promotes conservative principles such as reducing barriers to entry, encouraging incremental reforms over sweeping changes, and allowing space for pluralism and intellectual diversity. Further, Fagin argues that RCV is a more moral voting system that leads to increased voter participation, greater competition between parties and ideas, and more positive campaigning.

Separate from the merits of the process itself, Fagin notes that the FPTP system has not benefitted conservative outcomes. Through both Republican and Democratic administrations, the federal budget grows, free trade continues to lose favor and the executive branch expands its reach. Fagin points out that each of these results may be linked to short-term incentives and wild swings in power created by the FPTP system.

To be clear, Fagin’s “conservative case” is not one that “makes conservatives more likely to win.” Conservative philosophy emphasizes procedural justice, and therefore implementing a tilted system would be antithetical to conservatism. And yet, RCV might lead to more a more conservative approach to lawmaking by incentivizing reasoned discussion and compromise as opposed to the “grand social engineering projects” seen under FPTP.

In recognition of what Kirk identifies as the conservative preference for “custom, convention, and continuity,” Fagin also addresses conservative arguments in favor of the status quo. In doing so, he explains how each one comes from either a misunderstanding of how RCV operates or a mistaken belief that the American political system benefits from binary choices. Instead, he argues that “RCV is exactly the type of prudent reform and improvement” Kirk had in mind when writing his Ten Principles.

A conservative, according to Kirk, “acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences.” In “The Conservative Case for Ranked Choice Voting,” Fagin reflects, weighs the consequences and finds RCV to be a worthwhile reform that conforms well to conservative principles.

For more on ranked-choice voting from Barry Fagin, be sure to read “Comparing Approval Voting and Ranked Choice Voting.”

Matt Germer
Matt Germer is an elections fellow for the Governance Program at R Street Institute. Before joining R Street, Matt was a policy counsel and strateg...

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