Ranked Choice Voting: An Easy Solution to Fix Our Broken Elections

Author: Fair Vote
Created: 04 January, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
7 min read

This piece, written by Rob Richie, originally appeared in Cato Unbound as the lead essay in a series on ranked choice voting in December of 2016.

American democracy today is working more poorly than it has in generations. Even as the toxic 2016 presidential campaign featured the two most unpopular major party candidates in modern history and Congress has historic lows in approval, minor party presidential challengers were marginalized, and nearly 98% of congressional incumbents won re-election. New voices are demeaned as spoilers, which suppresses debate about innovative ideas and shoehorns our diverse political views into two fiercely partisan camps. With the overwhelming majority of elections predictably going to a district or state’s partisan majority, most voters lack meaningful choice even among two candidates. In conflict with the spirit of the Constitution, our electoral rules punish representatives who seek to govern outside their party boxes, blocking sensible changes that have majority support.

Absent reform, it is a near certainty that these problems will continue. No single change can unlock voters and spark a democracy where the best ideas rise to the surface and policymakers are able to implement the will of the people with respect for all. But this year we saw a true glimmer of hope for change: with 52% of the vote, Maine voters adopted ranked choice voting (RCV) for all their elections for governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and state legislature in a campaign endorsed by the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and hundreds of major party elected officials from across the spectrum. Starting in 2018, Mainers will be able to vote for the candidates they like the most without helping elect the candidates they like the least. They will earn what we all deserve: a fair vote and a truce in the battle over whether minor party and independent candidates can have an enduring seat at the electoral table.

Ranked choice voting (sometimes called “instant runoff voting” and “preferential voting”) is a proven voting method designed to accommodate having more than two choices in our elections. When used to elect one candidate, RCV essentially simulates the math of traditional majority runoffs, but in one trip to the polls. Voters have the freedom to rank candidates in order of choice: first, second, third, and so on. Their vote is initially counted for their first choice. If a candidate wins more than half the votes, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. If no candidate has more than half the votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The votes of those who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice are then added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until the number of candidates is reduced to two or the winner earns more than half of the active votes.

RCV upholds majority rule while accommodating increased voter choice. It creates incentives for winning candidates to reach out to all voters in order to get a higher ranking and allows a voter to consider more choices with a greatly reduced likelihood of “splitting” their vote in a manner that might otherwise result in an unrepresentative outcome. Based on the context of its use, RCV can mitigate partisan inflexibility, foster greater accountability for incumbents, increase civic engagement, and reduce the impact of campaign spending. When used in multi-winner elections, RCV becomes a candidate-based form of proportional representation that expands the percentage of people who elect preferred candidates, increases competition, and provides a natural means to elect more diverse legislatures that include accurate representation of the left, right, and center, as well as representatives who break free from the two-party box.

Maine’s victory was grounded in grassroots energy, effective organizing, and a well-run campaign. RCV had been debated in the legislature for years and been widely hailed as a success in mayoral elections in the state’s largest city of Portland. In the midst of yet another campaign for governor where the winner received less than half the votes – as has been the case in all but two gubernatorial elections since 1974 – reformers seized a chance to launch an initiative campaign. With barely a week to organize, Election Day volunteers collected more than half the signatures required to put it on the 2016 ballot. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting and its allies, like the League of Women Voters of Maine and FairVote Maine, launched a two-year campaign of education and advocacy that resulted in more than 300 published letters to the editor, more than 175,000 one-on-one conversations about RCV with Mainers, nearly 3,000 donations from Mainers, and community presentations across the state. A surge of funding allowed for television and digital media that helped push the measure over the top despite being a new idea to most voters.

RCV also won in a local campaign in Benton County, Oregon. These wins and more than a dozen other victories for RCV in cities since 2000 demonstrate that RCV is politically viable and impactful in practice. Cities using RCV for mayor and other local offices include Minneapolis (MN), St. Paul (MN), Oakland (CA), San Francisco (CA), San Leandro (CA), Takoma Park (MD), Telluride (CO), and Portland (ME), while Cambridge (MA) has used RCV to elect its city council and school board for decades. Cities awaiting implementation after voter approval include Memphis (TN), Santa Fe (NM), and Sarasota (FL). Internationally, RCV has been used for years to elect Ireland’s president, Australia’s House of Representatives, and the mayors of London (UK) and Wellington (New Zealand). With recommendations by procedural guides like Robert’s Rules of Order, RCV is widely used in nongovernmental organization elections, ranging from major private associations like the American Chemical Society and American Psychiatric Association to nearly every major party in Australia, Canada, Scotland, and the United Kingdom, as well as Republican and Democratic parties in Iowa, Maine, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Young people have adopted RCV for their student elections at some 60 American colleges and universities and are the most likely to support it on the ballot.

RCV’s track record in those elections is impressive. Although still a winner-take-all system that isn’t designed to elect those with minority views, RCV gives everyone a fair shot to run. Australia typically has more than six candidates per house race, and the strongest minor parties run in every district without any fingerpointing or talk of spoilers. Instead, they can make their case, see the best of their ideas adopted by the major parties, and grow their vote such that these parties are now winning fair shares of seats in senate elections held with the multi-winner proportional representation form of RCV.

In city elections in the United States, there has been a string of open seat elections where the best-financed favorites run traditional campaigns focused on their base and lose to enterprising challengers who engage directly with more voters in grassroots campaigns designed to earn not only first choice support, but second and third choice support from backers of other challengers. The pattern seems to be that the best-financed candidates rely on traditional techniques of identifying their stronger supporters, getting them to vote, and going more negative on other candidates – and the best challengers can win by putting more effort into direct voter contact regardless of first choice support.

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Extensive data analysis from more than 125 RCV elections in the Bay Area shows that (1) every single winner has been the “Condorcet” candidate, or the one who would defeat all others in simulated head-to-head contests, even though several winners trailed in first choices and one winner initially was in third; (2) voters regularly rank more than one candidate, including close to nine in ten voters in competitive mayoral elections; (3) fewer voters now skip city elections when at the polls for president and governor; (4) voter turnout in decisive elections has on average risen sharply from prior systems with primaries and runoffs; and (5) and more than 99% of voters cast valid ballots, which is often higher than their valid ballot rate in other races with large candidate fields.

RCV’s promise and track record have helped earn notable support. American political leaders backing RCV include President Barack Obama (prime sponsor of RCV legislation as an Illinois state senator), Sen. John McCain (recorded a robo call in support of a ballot measure to implement RCV), former Vermont governor Howard Dean (author of several pro-RCV op-eds, including in the New York Times this fall), former Republican Congressman John Porter (author of a piece in a Brookings Institution report on policy proposals), Sen. Bernie Sanders (who testified on its behalf to the Vermont state legislature in 2007 on a bill that passed the legislature) and this year’s presidential nominees for the Libertarian Party (Gary Johnson) and Green Party (Jill Stein).

Read about ways to expand use of ranked choice voting, continue reading here.

Photo Credit: razihusin / shutterstock.com

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