Both Sides Now: Ranked Choice Voting

Advocates for ranked choice voting say it will elect candidates who truly reflect the will of the people. Are they right?

November 10, 2019

Earlier this week, voters in New York City approved sweeping changes to the way they elect candidates. Under an alternative system called ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff, New Yorkers won’t simply choose a Democrat or Republican when voting for local offices; they’ll list candidates in order of preference, and let one or more rounds of runoffs determine the winners.

Advocates for ranked choice voting say we need to reform our winner-take-all electoral system because it produces distorted outcomes. Say, for example, that a Republican, a Democrat, and an Independent are running for mayor. Under our winner-take-all system, one of those candidates could win with only 34 percent of the vote, leaving 66 percent of voters unhappy. If a majority of people voted for a candidate other than the winner, did the election really reflect the will of the people?

New York is one among many cities trying to tackle this problem. Eighteen cities– including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Takoma Park, Maryland – currently use some form of ranked choice voting. So does the state of Maine.

This video from FairVote, an organization that advocates for ranked choice voting, explains how the process works. In short, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate earns a majority of the first round vote, that person wins. If no one earns a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second-choice votes on those ballots go to the remaining candidates. The process repeats until one candidate has a majority.

So, does ranked choice voting solve our winner-take-all woes, or does it simply create different problems? Here’s what supporters say in favor of ranked choice voting:

Encourages Majority Support: In a typical winner-take-all election, a candidate wins by getting the most votes, even if those votes don’t constitute a majority. For example, before Maine’s ranked choice system went into effect in 2018, Paul LePage won the governor’s race twice without garnering a majority of votes. Using ranked choice, not everyone will get their first choice candidate, but they are more likely to get a candidate they generally support, and less likely to get a candidate that is generally unpopular.

Less Negative Campaigning: Advocates say ranked choice voting leads to less negative campaigning, and there is some limited evidence to support that claim. In one study, researchers polled voters in cities that used ranked choice, as well as in cities that used traditional elections in 2013 and 2014. They found that ranked choice voters were “more satisfied with the conduct of candidate campaigns, and perceived less candidate criticism and negative campaigning in the lead up to their local elections” than traditional election voters.

Eliminates Expensive, Exclusionary Runoff Elections: Some states conduct runoff elections when no candidate meets a certain threshold, and those extra elections cost money. One analysis by New York City’s Independent Budget Office found that the city could save $20 million in public funds by eliminating traditional runoff elections. Runoffs also require voters to come out again to the polls, and often don’t allow enough time for voters living overseas (like deployed military personnel) to receive a second ballot, consider it, and mail it back.

Critics are unconvinced that ranked choice produces better outcomes for voters. Here are their basic arguments against it:

Ballot Exhaustion: One academic study from 2014 found that ranked choice voting doesn’t ensure that the winning candidate receives a majority of all votes cast, just a majority of all valid votes in the final round. The authors attribute this outcome to what they call “ballot exhaustion.” Say a voter only marks two candidates out of five, but does not know or care enough about the others to mark them down. If their candidates are eliminated before the final round, that person’s ballot would be “exhausted.” Their vote would not count when it came to determining a winner.

Depressed Voter Turnout: Ranked choice voting requires a more complex ballot, which some experts say can alienate voters and drive down turnout. One analysis found that voter turnout declined after San Francisco adopted ranked choice in 2014, particularly among young voters and voters with lower levels of education. Advocates dispute this claim, but according to FairVote, at least, the jury is still out.

A recent Gallup poll found that only a quarter of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. That number is actually higher than it has been for much of the past few years. Could ranked choice voting give us elected officials we’d be more likely to support? We’ll have to pay close attention to local voting experiments around the country to find out.


Learn More

Confusion at the Polls: This opinion piece argues that ranked choice voting is too complicated to yield good results. If a third of voters can’t even name their party’s candidate for Congress, the author asks, do we really think they will remember five candidates in order of preference? – via New York Daily News

Wider Appeal: The head of a good government group says that a ranked choice system encourages candidates to reach out to voters beyond their typical bases – via Politico

The Importance of Vetting: One commentator makes the case that our long, dramatic presidential elections are crucial tests for candidates, allowing voters to watch them respond to questions in various situations, and observe how well they build and run a complex campaign organization – via The New York Times

Mutual Admiration: In San Francisco, which uses ranked choice voting, two mayoral candidates endorsed each other, hoping to appeal to one another’s core voters – via The Atlantic

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This article originally appeared in the November 10, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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