The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The results of our national election may tell a story of division. Ballot measures tell a different tale.

A ballot in Ridgeland, Miss., on Tuesday. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

This column has been updated.

The results of our national election may tell a story of division, but state ballot propositions tell a different tale. They show Americans agreeing about significant priorities, including a fundamental remaking of our justice system. There is much to be grateful for here, and something to build on.

The American people — step by step, in red states and blue — are ending the war on drugs. With strong majorities, ballot measures in four states — Arizona (59.8 percent of the vote at the time of this writing), Montana (56.6 percent), New Jersey (66.9 percent) and South Dakota (54.2 percent) — legalized recreational marijuana. This brings to 15 the number of states that have done so. In Mississippi, a supermajority of 74 percent legalized medical marijuana.

Oregon, which legalized marijuana in 1973, passed a measure (58.8 percent) to decriminalize even so-called hard drugs, following a successful example in Portugal. Possession of small amounts of drugs including heroin and cocaine will still be illegal but as a civil violation, carrying a small fine, not a criminal violation bringing prison time. Funds saved from changed enforcement practice will support addiction recovery centers. ​Among other things, these measures will reduce prison populations.

Not making the effort to say someone's name correctly is a sign of disrespect. When it's done intentionally, it's downright racist. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara, photographer; Danielle Kunitz, designer/The Washington Post)

In another blow against the injustices of mass incarceration, ​59.1 percent of California voters supported Proposition 17 to restore the vote to parolees. In this they joined Florida’s voters, who in 2018 (with a near-supermajority of 65 percent) amended their state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences, except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

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The people of Mississippi successfully replaced a state flag that had included emblems of the Confederacy with a new one decorated with a magnolia, stars and the phrase “In God We Trust.” ​In Rhode Island, citizens removed the words “Providence Plantations” from the official state name. We do have the capacity to grapple with our past of racial domination and develop new narratives for who we are and what we want to be.

Why do our national electoral politics look so different? The problem is not with the American people or our choices per se but with the rules we use for organizing our elections. In general, we use a plurality system, sometimes confusingly referred to as “first past the post”: Whichever candidate has the most votes wins the election. When there are only two candidates in the race, this means one of the candidates will almost certainly earn a majority. Indeed, the Founders expected that the requirement to break 50 percent would define the goal post of electoral politics. But when there are more than two candidates for an office, as is often true in primaries, a candidate can win with something less than a majority — that is, the goal post implicitly moves below 50 percent for the candidate who is said to finish first. In Massachusetts, the recent winner of the Democratic primary in the state’s 4th Congressional District won with just 22.4 percent of the vote.

Pursuing a true majority inevitably requires cobbling together coalitions and campaigning toward an electoral center of gravity. A plurality system, in contrast, incentivizes candidates to drive wedges in order to secure a sufficiently larger portion of the electorate than their rivals. They are also incentivized to use negative campaigning to try to keep their opponents’ voters from turning out to vote. Plurality voting mechanisms are a recipe for divisive, highly factionalized politics.

There is an alternative, known as ranked-choice voting. Ranked-choice voting is like making an instant runoff part of the initial vote. When you vote, you select not just your first choice but also your second, third and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the lowest vote-getter in the race is eliminated, and their voters’ votes are then assigned to whomever those voters selected as a second choice. If no one still has a majority, the next-lowest person is eliminated and their voters’ third-choice votes are added to the tallies of the higher vote- getters. Whoever gets past the 50 percent mark of voter support first wins.

Maine now uses this electoral system, as do several municipalities. New York City will use it in its upcoming mayoral election. A ballot proposition for ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts failed this year, but it had robust early-stage support.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting (of whom I am one) should take heart from the drug-reform measures. They have been decades in the making. Success in democratic life follows slow, labor-intensive work of citizens talking to each other, sharing stories and ideas, and ultimately persuading one another. We can and should reclaim our shared narratives from politicians who base their campaigns on the politics of division. We can most efficiently reclaim our own power to forge agreement and common purpose by adopting ranked-choice voting.

Danielle Allen, a Post contributing columnist, is the author of “Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.”

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