09/14/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2016

The Black Box: Range Voting

Before I developed, I didn't understand First Past The Post (also called winner-take-all), Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), Proportional Representation, Ranked Choice, or Range Voting. I just assumed that my vote got handled like all votes do: one person, one vote.

The nomination process and the way our votes are calculated influences the outcome so much that it's hardly democratic at all. William Poundstone, author of Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair and What We Can Do About It, wrote "The smart operators who run the show know how easily it's rigged. Every 'paradox' of voting is an opportunity for insiders to force the outcome they desire."

Right now, we have First Past The Post. That means the winner is the person with the highest number of votes. But, is that person always whom the majority wanted? Not necessarily. A member of Congress can win with only a small 15% of the total number of votes, if everyone else just gets a little less. First Past The Post systems end up with just two parties in control; they mathematically devolve into a lesser of two evils situation. What's worse, once the two-party system is firmly in place, it creates a spoiler effect, where the third party who tries to get a toe-hold is demonized for making the worst evil win by taking votes away from the lesser evil.

So what's a better way of choosing a winner?

Ranked Choice Voting, also called Alternative Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) gives you a chance to rank the candidates from your most favored to your least, leaving blank the candidates you don't like at all. When the votes are counted, the candidate who gets the least 1st place votes is eliminated. Those who voted for the eliminated candidate give their vote to their 2nd choice. The candidate with the least votes is eliminated. And so on. Once a candidate reaches a majority of votes, they win. With Ranked Choice Voting, we have the ability to more accurately show our preferences, and it releases us from choosing the lesser of two evils or causing a spoiler effect. San Francisco began using IRV voting in 2004, but changed the name from "Instant Runoff" to "Ranked Choice" because, rather than being instantaneous, it took days to calculate the vote.

Proportional Representation would allow more parties into Congress than just Democrats and Republicans. By opening the field up to more than one winner, a candidate can earn a seat with less than 50% of the vote. Most city councils and school boards are chosen this way. Out of a field of, say, 20 candidates, the top 8 vote-getters win (for an 8-person city council).

Consolidating Congressional districts into larger areas where three to five Representatives win gives third parties the ability to represent their segment of the population. does a great job of explaining proportional representation, which they call "Fair Representation Voting." On their website, a video explains that simply fixing the gerrymandering won't change much if the two parties still retain control through the winner-takes-all system we now have.

The last system that I'll cover is the one you're probably familiar with, because you use it every time you rate a book or a movie on the Internet. It's called "Range Voting," the method recommended by Poundstone. You may have seen five- and ten-star rating systems on Amazon and IMDb (Internet Movie Database). Voters' rankings are totaled and averaged out, so a movie might have a score of 7.3 (if it's good) or 2.4 (if it's not). To use the range voting system, you would see a ballot on election day that looks like this:

Range voting eliminates spoilers and splitting the vote between two good candidates. It gives voters a chance to show how much they dislike someone, rather than just being silent. For these reasons, Range Voting is superior to Instant Runoff Voting.1

Today's post is part five of a six-part series on voting, found in Chapter 30 of In Search of the Next POTUS: One Woman's Quest to Fix Washington, a True Story. Follow this blog to receive the last segment of this article.

1. Poundstone, William. Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do about It). New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. 171. Print.