The Second Choice, and the Right One

August 22, 2016

This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.

This election season, I have spent a lot of time looking into innovations to make politics better represent us. From using technology to make voting more accessible, to apps that make us more politically aware, to campaigns to bring in new voices, I am encouraged that there is a groundswell to change politics as we know it. This summer I got to test out ranked choice voting to see firsthand whether it really does result in a better choice for the majority of voters. Here’s what I found.

downloadAt our week-long political leadership program in June, Running Start held a campaign simulation. Our 60 high school young women from across the country divided into six teams and choose from a hat to see which campaign positions they would hold, including who would be the candidate. Normally in these simulations, the participants volunteer to be the candidate and they tend to be who you would expect: confident, extroverted and practiced at public speaking. But in ours the candidates were thrust into the spotlight, which took some of them far out of their comfort zones.

This is how Nen Mai, a quiet Kachin girl from Houston ended up being one of our six candidates. Nen is a passionate young woman who emigrated a few years ago from the Kachin State in Burma without knowing a word of English. The first day of the program I never heard her say a word. When she finally did speak to me her voice was so quiet that I had to lean in to hear her. Definitely not the typical candidate. But Nen was at Running Start for a reason. She was an ethnic Kachin and her family had suffered back in Burma. She was granted asylum in America and felt lucky to be here. But she quickly learned that no one in America had ever heard of the Kachin people or had any idea of the persecution they were suffering. She came to Running Start to learn how to be a voice for her community.

Running Start attracts many students like Nen. They have something they want to say, but they don’t know how to be the messenger. They are quiet, shy, unsure of their voice. These people don’t usually get much of a chance to influence others. Especially in politics, we tend to favor the natural extroverts – people who are comfortable in their own skin, socially gifted, and who can speak with a loud, clear voice. These are not always the best people to elect, but just like in high school, politics can be a popularity contest where the captain of the football team is the most likely choice.

So during our campaign simulation I watched Nen struggle. Making a campaign video, speaking in public and networking to support her candidacy were all hard for her. She was not a natural. But she learned some things. If you have a quiet voice, a microphone can make all the difference. Owning your shyness can be incredibly endearing to people. And persistently advocating for your cause will get people to listen to you, if not the first time then certainly by the fourth.

Nen made a big impression on all of us, but I didn’t expect her to win the overall race. The other candidates were strong and confident. Their videos were more polished, their social media campaigns cooler with better graphics, and they were master networkers. The final day the candidates gave speeches. Nen’s was not the conventional best – she was awkward and halting in her speech – but she spoke passionately about her Kachin identity and her mission to educate the world about their struggle. People roared when she was done – in part because they knew how hard it was for her to be up there.

When it came time for voting we gave the students a choice: they could vote to elect their first choice (winner takes all) or they could try ranked choice voting where voters rank candidates in their order of choice, with an instant runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent. They overwhelmingly chose to use ranked choice voting. Then we voted twice. First, everyone cast one vote for their first choice. Next we voted again and had them rank the candidates in order of preference, one through six.

Here is what we learned: While the traditional vote yielded a great choice, she only got 30 percent of the total votes. 70 percent of the voters had chosen someone else and were disappointed. With ranked choice voting, no one got over 50 percent of the vote and so the instant runoff was triggered. The result was that everyone’s second choice won with huge support. And, no surprise, it was Nen. Everyone was happy that Nen had won – they all supported her almost as much as their first choice candidate. Ranked choice voting gave the group a consensus winner – as well as allowing someone decidedly non-mainstream to prevail. Maybe it is time to look at new voting systems so that we are all happier with who we elect.


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Susannah Wellford
founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.

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