The right to vote is considered one of our fundamental rights as citizens of a representative democracy or constitutional republic; however we prefer to call it. Although the country shares a universal representation system as a republic, our federalist system of governance allows for various voting methods dependent on the will of the people. Therefore, electoral processes can vary state by state, depending on the state constitutions and subject to change by state legislatures.
For the most part, federal and state-level elections are decided by single-winner plurality elections, also known as first past the post voting systems. In this system, the candidate with the highest number of votes –called a plurality – wins the election. Many consider this form of voting antiquated and a system that contributes to political polarization. Critics have argued that first past the post voting systems make many feel that votes for third party candidates are wasted since those votes typically never result in the candidates winning a plurality of the vote. Another criticism of this system on a local level is that it makes it impossible for political minorities to secure representation in hard-left or hard-right areas in states like California or Wyoming.
Under Article II of the Constitution, the President of the United States is elected by the Electoral College via majority vote in a single-winner election. The Electoral College votes come from state electors selected by their states’ political parties, who vote for the presidential candidate that wins the state’s popular vote. Electors that don’t vote according to the results are known as faithless electors and can be criminally punished by their state governments for not voting according to the popular vote. Some states even split electoral votes based on the vote totals in congressional districts, which is why Nebraska and Maine have had split delegate votes in past presidential elections.
Ranked-choice voting is a form of election voting that requires voters to rank their choice of candidates on a ballot. This form of voting is typically paired with runoff voting in local elections. First-choice candidates with the least vote totals are eliminated one by one until one candidate has more than 50% of the total votes and is declared the winner. Georgia uses runoff voting for congressional party primary elections. In the past, states like Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, and Wisconsin had used ranked choice voting for party primaries, though it would eventually be phased out by 1930. Other states would temporarily use ranked choice voting before finally adopting first past the post voting.
More recently, during the 2020 Democratic Party primaries, Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming used ranked-choice voting during their party primary elections but did not include a runoff process to eliminate lower-ranked candidates. In the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Maine will become the first state to use ranked choice voting in a presidential election.
Washington and California have unique voting systems during primaries where all candidates, regardless of political party, appear together on the ballot. The two candidates with the highest share of the votes then run against each other in the general election. This system is known as a nonpartisan blanket primary. In Louisiana, if one candidate manages to win more than 50% of the vote, they are ruled the complete winner of the election. This notable distinction sets Louisiana aside from the rest of the country.
It is crucial to recognize why so many different electoral systems exist in our country. Our federalist system of government makes it a necessity for states to legislate based on the will of its people. What works in California will not work in Oklahoma, and it is naïve to suggest that one form of voting would work better throughout all the country, regardless of how confusing the different systems appear to the average spectator.