OPINION: Ranked-choice voting leads to cooperative, empathetic leadership

Assemblymember Ron Kim. Photo courtesy of Ron Kim’s office

Assemblymember Ron Kim. Photo courtesy of Ron Kim’s office

By Ron Kim

In a recent online poll, I asked the public whether people are intrinsically competitive and aggressive or cooperative and caring. 68% said the latter. Studies and developments in neuroscience appear to confirm this, suggesting that our natural capacity for empathy and compassion are far greater than our inclinations towards violence and aggression.

And yet, popular meta-myths and slogans like “greed is good” and “the selfish gene” saturate our culture, shaping and validating an egocentric, “me-first” mentality that pervades our society, our economic system and yes, our politics. 

It should be no surprise that our political system produces leaders who excel at top-down hierarchies and tit-for-that or quid pro quo methods of campaigning and governing. For the sake of political success at all costs, aggression and even ruthlessness are seen as “virtues” of “strong leaders”, while traits like caring and compassion are viewed as “weak.”

 The zero-sum, winner-take-all mentality of such a system fundamentally discourages efforts to seek common ground and devalues our collective humanity. Our major political parties are incentivized by self-preservation to choke the pipeline so tightly that access to any alternatives or fresh ideas is highly restricted, hindering the potential awakening of any new political consciousness.

 But we know that, by and large, people are not innately selfish or lacking in empathy for others. And our political system must transform itself to reflect that.

 To develop a new generation of cooperative, empathetic leaders, we must change our electoral process to one of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), or instant runoff voting. At its core, RCV incentivizes consensus building and seeking common ground. Voters will rank their top five choices in order of preference, and the full list of choices by all voters must be tallied, counted, and re-tallied until there is a majority agreement on one candidate. If voters still want to vote for just one candidate they can.

This will attract the leaders who reflect our naturally prevailing compassion and humanity, but filter out those whose instincts reflect the worst of us.

Opponents will argue that people are more cut throat and hosting aggressive style elections are the best way to select worthy political candidates. This is an outdated mindset based entirely on domination over others. 

If given the choice, I believe the public would rather see their political leaders adopt a win-win mindset. They would prefer representatives that favor a truly cooperative approach, especially on issues that appeal to the widest section of voters.

The data backs this up. In 2013, the Democracy Fund conducted a two-year study on the positive effects of Ranked Choice Voting. The study surveyed 2,400 voters in ten cities, three where Ranked Choice Voting is in use -- Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN and Cambridge, MA -- and seven where it is not. Voters were more satisfied with campaign conduct, and perceived less negative campaigning in the cities that use Ranked Choice Voting. A 2014 study surveyed voters in four California cities that use Ranked Choice Voting, and seven that don’t, and found that a majority of those voters supported adopting it in their local elections to curb negative campaigning. 

That’s because RCV incentivizes candidates to seek far more voters than just those who will rank them first. That’s particularly good for demographic minorities and under-represented groups who mainstream politicians often ignore, like Asian Americans. And it means that more candidates from those communities can run without forcing voters to worry about a “spoiler effect.” That same study of California cities found that candidates of color increased from 17.2% to 25.6%. The logic applies to gender parity as well. Let’s say you want to see more women in office and there are 3 running. If you rank them in your top 5 they all have a better shot of winning.

And the voters would be motivated to readjust to a win-win outlook, as they must consider all of their top choices and deliberate on the values and issues most important to them, instead of simply voting for one person. When people feel like they have to vote for the lesser of two evils rather than the candidate who actually inspires them, it drives down participation. With RCV, voters get to follow their hearts and set gamesmanship aside. The final result is a candidate who represents real consensus, validating the process.

I am a strong proponent of Ranked Choice Voting and its potential to create a slate of candidates that transition us away from a system of zero-sum domination and old-school paradigms. With its implementation, we can reinforce our natural collaborative tendencies, positively re-shaping how we choose our leaders and as well as how they govern.

Campaigning should be focused on building partnerships and putting the full range of our ideas on display. That is what energizes voters, not negative campaigning and personal attacks which normalize and glorify toxic traits and habits. By doing this, we can form coalitions of excited voters truly vested in the election process and ready to help reinvigorate our democracy.

Assemblymember Ron Kim represents the 40th District, which includes Flushing, Whitestone and Murray Hill.