If he ever had it in the first place, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has lost control of the House of Representatives. For weeks, he has been unable to pass procedural legislation designed to keep the government open, much less move our annual bipartisan spending bills. This impasse has created the serious prospect of the first government shutdown since 2019. Despite the shockingly reckless conduct of the empowered MAGA faction, we are not surprised at McCarthy’s chronic inability to govern, after he embarrassingly failed not once but 14 times to win the speaker’s gavel at the beginning of this Congress.
McCarthy’s electoral humiliation in January unfolded when a group of extremist pro-Trump Republicans refused to vote for him. Working with a thin four-vote majority after House Republicans underperformed in the 2022 midterms, McCarthy paid the political ransom demanded by these "rule-or-ruin" holdouts in the GOP Conference to win a majority of the vote. This tiny sect of Trump loyalists has used its stranglehold over the speaker to extort the country through an unnecessary debt ceiling fight in the spring and launch a ludicrous impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
There is a far better way to choose the speaker (and other key House leaders).
There is a far better way to choose the speaker (and other key House leaders) than a series of simple majority ballots that can easily lead to capitulation to extremists. The alternative is ranked-choice voting, which enables an instant runoff and certifies the winner who has the widest and deepest support.
In a ranked-choice election, voters are able to rank the entire field of candidates in order of preference, from first to last. If a candidate wins 50% of the first-choice vote, the person wins, just like in any election. But if no one earns a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the ballots of voters who ranked that candidate first are tallied again based on those voters’ second choices. That process continues until there is a winner.
Let’s say every member had to name a second choice in the speaker’s race. McCarthy’s GOP opponents could have protested against him by choosing another candidate as their first choice. But the hard-liners would have been highly incentivized to put McCarthy as their second choice, forfeiting their leverage, in order to prevent a Democrat or a more moderate Republican from winning with second-choice votes.
Ranked-choice voting incentivizes leaders to govern responsibly and makes our elections more democratic. It would help ensure that future speakers — regardless of party — are structurally accountable to the mainstream majority, instead of the extortionist few.
Ranked-choice voting is already in use in many states and localities, and more states are considering adopting it. Indeed, all our elections would benefit from ranked-choice voting, not just the speaker’s race. Thanks to gerrymandering, the vast majority of House districts are safely red or blue — 364 of 435 districts were won by a double-digit landslide in 2022 — so most of the real competition for congressional seats actually happens in primaries with low voter turnout and a wide field of candidates. Those fields are often so fractured that the winner might have collected as little as 20% of the vote. Ranked-choice voting would restore the will of the majority in crowded primaries and infuse competition back into gerrymandered districts, ensuring that candidates must reach beyond their base in case no candidate reaches more than 50% of the first-choice vote.
Most of the 20 members who shook down McCarthy and caused the chaos in January represent some of the most skewed and lopsided districts in the nation.
Consider the district held by Rep. Byron Donalds, the MAGA insurgent put forth in opposition to McCarthy on multiple ballots in January. Donalds won his GOP primary in 2020 with just 22.6% of the vote, or a total of 23,492 votes, then cruised to victory in the gerrymandered general election. In a district of 834,988 people, a remarkable 2.8% of all residents effectively selected the winner.
Most of the 20 members who shook down McCarthy and caused the chaos in January represent some of the most skewed and lopsided districts in the nation. Almost all of them owe their seats to some combination of partisan redistricting and low-turnout primary elections that place extreme fringe candidates in uncompetitive general elections they can’t lose. This undemocratic process creates the gridlock that is keeping us from funding our government and is threatening public services and the livelihood of our federal employees. Ranked-choice voting would go a long way toward fixing the problem.
As McCarthy and the MAGA Republicans continue to march us toward an absurd Republican shutdown that even Senate Republicans want to avoid, it is time to recognize the price we all pay for structurally empowered political extremism. Fortunately, this dangerous scenario has an excellent, practical solution with ranked-choice voting.