Nick Oxford / REUTERS

Donald Trump deserves his first-place poll numbers. He has intuitively understood something in America the other candidates failed to see coming.

But you can’t give him the same credit for actually winning elections, which are a totally different animal. And truth be told, that is largely due to the American voting system. There’s no other way to square the fact that Trump, a man most Republicans don’t support, has won the majority of states and delegates; his challengers are now relying on a contested convention as their only chance of beating him.

That’s the natural consequence of a pluralistic voting system. And in a crowded race, strong factional support defeats widely distributed support. A candidate who turns out a bloc of like-minded voters will nearly always beat his mushier competitors, who may be more broadly palatable but who don’t have enough oomph to drag votes away from the rest of the names on the ballot.

So Trump keeps winning, with an ardent fan base that has handed him plurality after plurality in primary states—though rarely a majority. It’s the unified few versus the dispirited many.

Could a different system of voting change this?

A number of academics and activists think so. Their ideas aim to empower moderates whose base of support is shallower—but ultimately far wider—than more extreme candidates.

“I think we essentially have a deep problem with plurality voting—it doesn’t fit a multiple-options society,” said Rob Richie, executive director of Fairvote, a voting-reform organization. “Ultimately, it’s a bubble waiting to burst. It can’t be sustained. We’ve sustained it longer than we should have.”

Richie’s organization would opt for a very specific alternative: “ranked-choice voting,” otherwise known as an “instant runoff.” Instead of choosing a single candidate, voters would rank the field, naming their first choice, their second choice, and so on. If no single candidate could get a majority of first-choice votes, ballot tabulators would drop the least successful contender and reallocate support, continuing until a winner emerges.

Confused? Consider a fictional election with Candidate Underwood, Candidate Durant, Candidate Baker, and Candidate Nobody. Underwood and Baker are diametrically opposed ideologically; Durant is more moderate but less popular. Nobody is just that, a nobody.

●      On the force of his personality, Underwood can get 35 percent of the electorate to vote for him, while Baker only gets 30 percent. Durant ends up with 25 percent, and Nobody somehow gets 10 percent. Under the current system, Underwood would win the election.

Durant Nobody
VOTER 1 1 2 3 4
VOTER 2 1 4 2 3
VOTER 3 1 4 2 3
VOTER 4 1 4 2 3
VOTER 5 1 4 2 3
VOTER 6 1 4 2 3
VOTER 7 1 4 2 3
VOTER 8 3 1 2 4
VOTER 9 4 1 2 3
VOTER 10 4 1 2 3
VOTER 11 4 1 2 3
VOTER 12 4 1 2 3
VOTER 13 4 1 2 3
VOTER 14 2 3 1 4
VOTER 15 2 3 1 4
VOTER 16 3 2 1 4
VOTER 17 3 2 1 4
VOTER 18 3 2 1 4
VOTER 19 3 4 2 1
VOTER 20 3 4 2 1
Total in 1st 35% 30% 25% 10%
Emoji by EmojiOne

●      Under ranked-choice, however, the vote isn’t over. Since there’s no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated—sorry, Nobody—and his share of the vote is redistributed. Since Nobody’s two voters named Durant as their No. 2 pick, she gains 10 percentage points. Add that to her 25 percent support from round one, and all of the sudden, she’s tied with Underwood at 35 percent.

VOTER 1 1 2 3
VOTER 2 1 3 2
VOTER 3 1 3 2
VOTER 4 1 3 2
VOTER 5 1 3 2
VOTER 6 1 3 2
VOTER 7 1 3 2
VOTER 8 3 1 2
VOTER 9 3 1 2
VOTER 10 3 1 2
VOTER 11 3 1 2
VOTER 12 3 1 2
VOTER 13 3 1 2
VOTER 14 2 3 1
VOTER 15 2 3 1
VOTER 16 3 2 1
VOTER 17 3 2 1
VOTER 18 3 2 1
VOTER 19 2 3 1
VOTER 20 2 3 1
Total in 1st 35% 30% 35%

●      Different ballgame! In the next round, with three candidates left, Baker’s 30 percent support can’t catch Underwood’s and Durant’s 35 percent. So Baker is kicked out. His voters overwhelmingly picked Durant as their second choice (they hate Underwood, remember?), and Baker’s support falls to her.

VOTER 1 1 2
VOTER 2 1 2
VOTER 3 1 2
VOTER 4 1 2
VOTER 5 1 2
VOTER 6 1 2
VOTER 7 1 2
VOTER 8 3 1
VOTER 9 3 1
VOTER 10 3 1
VOTER 11 3 1
VOTER 12 3 1
VOTER 13 3 1
VOTER 14 2 1
VOTER 15 2 1
VOTER 16 2 1
VOTER 17 2 1
VOTER 18 2 1
VOTER 19 2 1
VOTER 20 2 1
Total in 1st 35% 65%

●      Durant ends up winning with 65 percent of the vote. Underwood never gets more than his original 35 percent.

It’s counterintuitive: How could a third-place candidate end up winning the election? But that’s the beauty of it, Richie says: The system moves beyond a winner-take-all mentality to show the unseen consensus that lies beneath every vote. And, he contends, candidates would campaign more moderately if they knew they were fighting not only for votes, but for second- and third-place positions as well.

“When you don’t really need to be the second choice of people, you can be pretty tough,” Richie said. “[Trump] had a whole tactic of being tough on people as they rose—and therefore alienating their supporters. But if he had known, ‘I might need to depend on Cruz [voters] for second choices’ … it’s sort of hard to know.” (Richie’s organization has projected what would happen in the current presidential contest if ranked voting were in play. The conclusion: Cruz would narrowly beat Trump, according to national polls conducted around the Iowa caucuses.)

In theory, it sounds great: a cure for extremist politics, or at least a step toward it. But ranked voting appears to have marked downsides when actually put into practice. Jason McDaniel, a political-science professor at San Francisco State University, has an up-close-and-personal relationship with the alternative ranked system: San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkley all use it in their municipal elections. His research shows moving to ranked voting can actually suppress voter turnout, turning away people who are confused by the lack of a simple yes-or-no choice. And while most political scientists could rattle off the policy differences between every candidate at the drop of a hat, he has found that many voters cannot. So they leave ranking slots blank.

“There’s not a lot of, ‘Well, I have all these well-ordered choices.’ That just doesn’t happen very much,” he said. “History tells us there are a lot of unintended consequences of these things, and they tend to make voting harder. And when you make voting harder, fewer people vote.”

Others fault instant runoffs for not being innovative enough. New York University Professor Steven Brams, who has no love for the current system—“It may elect extremists on occasion, [and] it tends to keep out centrists,” he said—is equally troubled by ranked voting, saying it can be gamed. He prefers “approval voting,” a system he devised that encourages voters to select every candidate they find suitable, totaling the results to find a winner. As you might expect, the folks at Fairvote take a dim view of this method, which they say can still be easily manipulated.

But ranked voting’s biggest weakness might be the very feature advocates like Fairvote portray as a strength: conciliation. Consider the fictional example above. Few people named Durant as their first choice, and yet she eventually won. As president, would a consensus candidate buoyed by second- and third-place voting really have much of a mandate to lead? If the “bubble” of plurality-induced partisanship does burst—and Trump’s success would certainly indicate it is inflating rapidly—Americans may soon want to find out.

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