Ranked Choice Voting: Election Savior or Wishful Thinking?

ranked choice voting
Created: 16 September, 2022
Updated: 21 September, 2022
10 min read

Editor's Note: The pieces below feature two sides to the ongoing discussion on ranked choice voting from Deb Otis of FairVote and John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke UniversityThese perspectives originally published on Divided We Fall and have been republished on IVN with permission from the publisher.


Ranked-Choice Voting Results in More Democratic Outcomes

By Deb Otis

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) is the fastest-growing election reform in the country. It is currently used by over ten million voters in two states and 53 cities and counties, while another ten regions are voting this November on whether or not to make the switch. The reasons for RCV’s growth are clear—voters are ready for more democratic elections and RCV is providing results.

How Does Ranked-Choice Voting Work?

RCV gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: first, second, third, and so forth. If a voter’s first choice does not win, their vote will go towards their second choice. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins.

If there is no majority winner after counting first choices, however, the race is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as their first choice will have their votes “transferred” to their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner.

RCV offers a series of wide-ranging benefits to individual voters, local communities, and national politics. The following examples illustrate an overview of some of the system’s most advantageous outcomes.

RCV Delivers the Will of the Majority

Traditional “choose-one” elections often elect candidates who appeal to just a small portion of the electorate. Congressional candidates, for example, can win primaries with as little as 23% support. Unfortunately, the more candidates there are in a traditional election, the easier it becomes for the winner to have a weak plurality of support.

RCV, by contrast, elects candidates who have the most support across the entire electorate. By ensuring votes are not wasted, voters under an RCV system can be sure that elections are won by candidates with the most support. Data shows that 73% of RCV voters ranked their winning candidate as one of their top three choices.

Let us examine the presidential primary to illustrate this concept. Three million voters in the 2020 Democratic primaries voted for candidates who had already dropped out. How? Many early and mail voters cast a ballot for their favorite candidate, who then dropped out before primary day. Similarly, 1.1 million Republican voters cast “wasted votes” in the 2016 primaries.

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By implementing RCV, five states solved this problem in 2020: if your favorite candidate withdraws, your vote counts for your next choice instead. While millions of Democratic votes were wasted overall, zero votes were wasted in the RCV states.

RCV Reduces the Spoiler Effect

Similarly, in “choose-one” elections, candidates who appeal to like-minded groups of voters risk splitting the vote. This not only deters qualified candidates from running, it often forces voters to vote strategically, rather than according to their true preferences.

With RCV, voters need not vote against their preferred choice in fear of splitting the vote. Rather, they simply rank their honest preferences, knowing that if their first choice doesn’t have enough support, their second choice will receive their vote. Ranking a backup choice will never harm a voter’s first choice, meaning that voters can vote for their preferred candidate without fear of potentially splitting or wasting their vote.

RCV Boosts Voter Turnout

To elect majority winners, many cities and states use some form of a two-round runoff: voters winnow the field, then return to the polls to choose between the finalists. Turnout in runoff elections, however, typically declines by about 40%, meaning fewer voters cast a ballot in the decisive round. Consequently, two-round elections can exacerbate racial disparities in voter turnout.

RCV, in comparison, acts as an “instant runoff,” achieving the same goals as runoffs while boosting turnout, thus prompting more democratic outcomes.

RCV Leads to More Issue Focused and Inclusive Campaigns

Under an RCV system, candidates must compete for second and third choices. This encourages candidates to appeal to as many voters as possible, rather than take an unproductively negative and combative stance toward their opponents. Research has shown that RCV campaigns incentivize civil discourse and discourage negative attacks against opponents, as candidates seek to reduce the risk of alienating their supporters.

Furthermore, data shows that more women and candidates of color run in RCV elections compared to traditional “one choice” elections. Women have won nearly half (48%) of municipal races in RCV cities in the last decade, compared to just 31% in municipal offices across the country. After employing RCV in the last year, New York City elected its first majority-female city council. Likewise, Minneapolis elected its first majority-minority City Council, and Salt Lake City elected its first majority-minority and majority-LGBTQ+ City Council.

Lastly, voters who use RCV overwhelmingly support it. In New York, for instance, 75% of voters want to use RCV again, and 95% reported their RCV ballot was easy to complete. Furthermore, the median percentage of voters who opt to rank multiple candidates is 72%, and in highly competitive races (such as the New York City mayoral race), these figures have risen to almost 90% of voters.

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These data points demonstrate concrete ways in which RCV is improving elections across the United States. As this reform continues to expand, we can look forward to more representative outcomes, less negative campaigning, and more honest voter expression.

Ranked-Choice Voting is Not Enough

By John Aldrich – Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke University

Ranked-choice voting is an increasingly popular option used in a small but growing number of elections across the U.S. It does have many positive virtues, as Ms. Otis makes clear. I argue, however, that it is not a panacea, and that relying on this or any rule to correct the ills of our democracy is not sufficient to solve our current woes. Rather, we must go further and undertake broader changes to make the rules work as reformers hope, let alone make a more perfect union.

Ranked-Choice Voting Proposals Can Overpromise and Underdeliver

Ranked-choice works easily when there are only a few candidates, but when there is a large number of candidates, such as the 26 (or perhaps 27) who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, the procedure raises concerns. How many contenders need to be ranked for the vote to be used, for example? Or consider those who rank fewer than the full set of contenders. At some point, their vote—and voice—will be eliminated. This is most strongly exemplified in cases where rankings are not considered if voters fail to rank every candidate. Either way, the least educated and least informed will be affected, reducing their influence on the outcome.

Ranked-Choice Voting is Susceptible to Strategic Manipulation

The bigger problem with ranked-choice voting is one common to all rules—interested parties manipulate them to their advantage. Consider the case of so-called “jungle primaries” with runoff elections. After the Supreme Court ruled whites-only primaries to be unconstitutional, most southern states adopted runoff procedures (it should be noted that ranked-choice is sometimes called “instant runoff”). For different reasons, this system was also adopted by California for the 2012 elections.

Louisiana, one of the southern states that adopted runoff procedures, employed a version quite like California’s. In both cases, voters chose among all candidates running in the primary, regardless of party, and the top two advanced to the general election. The justification in California was to encourage moderation, not unlike ranked-choice voting. The decade of experience suggests it works at least to some extent. Louisiana, however, adopted this procedure to ensure that, even if an African-American candidate did run and achieved success, there would still be at least one white candidate for the general election. The idea was to try to preserve white supremacy in office in the absence of whites-only primaries, and it worked in the Jim Crow era. Same rule, different effects – due to different circumstances.

Let us further examine how these rules could be manipulated by self-interested parties. Imagine, if you will, that there is a well-known political figure who endorses candidates who support him or herself, and this endorsement is backed by organizations, money, and activists. Now imagine that these groups collectively tell adoring supporters of this figure how to rank their choices, doing so in such a way that maximizes the chances of their favored candidates winning while reducing the chances of the more moderate contenders who are perhaps disparaged as DINOs or RINOs.

Context Matters

The point is that the same rules under some circumstances can lead to desirable and democracy-supporting outcomes, but in different contexts can reinforce everything up to and including white supremacy, as in the Jim Crow era. One specific set of institutional features may be helpful to effectuate normatively desirable outcomes, but no such set is anywhere near sufficient.

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Today’s bitter negativity in the electorate, and the contempt with which politicians and many in the public alike hold their opposition, threatens to overwhelm moderating tendencies of those rules. As such, outcomes like those in Louisiana under Jim Crow, rather than like California in the past decade, remain plausible and within reach.

In summation, the problem with relying on any voting rule is that every voting rule has its own weaknesses. Even more importantly, ranked-choice voting, like any voting rule, is vulnerable to strategic manipulation by the political parties, candidates, and financial donors, as well as the voters. Plurality rule may be especially easy to manipulate, but ranked-choice voting, like all others, is so as well.

Ranked-Choice Voting Should Be the Top Priority for Reformers

By Deb Otis

Mr. Aldrich posits that ranked-choice voting (RCV) is not a panacea, but he overlooks that progress on RCV can accelerate progress on other issues. RCV doesn’t address every issue facing our politics, such as gerrymandering or money in politics, so it is just one important component to a reform agenda. But RCV should be at the top of that agenda. First, it has meaningful, positive impacts and is feasible in the short term. Second, it elects leaders who are more accountable to voters, enabling progress on other issues currently stuck in political gridlock.

Research has shown that voters like RCV and want to keep using it. Voters of all demographic backgrounds engage with the ranked ballot on an equal level, dispelling any concerns about disenfranchising some groups.

Mr. Aldrich also wonders whether endorsements and money can allow insiders to manipulate RCV to their advantage. Quite the opposite: RCV is harder to manipulate than our current “choose-one” elections and lets new or lesser-known candidates get equal footing. For example, it increases representation for women and people of color, and it is not biased in favor of incumbents.

It also has the added feature of allowing coalition-building between like-minded candidates. In cities like Cambridge, MA, where local elections have used a form of RCV for decades, candidates sometimes run as part of slates, and community organizations may endorse multiple candidates. This is a way for like-minded voters to ensure their voice is heard, rather than risk “splitting the vote.” Ultimately, special interests don’t decide; the voters decide.

Ranked-Choice Voting Should Not Be the Only Priority for Reformers

By John Alrich

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I agree with much that Ms. Otis wrote. I have two concerns. First, this or any voting rule is only one of a complex of reforms needed to secure American democracy today. True, ranked-choice voting is relatively easily enacted, most take to the new method, and plurality rule is a blunt and easily abused method. My concern is that people will see our current woes only somewhat moderated and despair of an ability to truly solve our problems. That is for the short term. In the long term, as my top-two example was meant to illustrate, rules have many consequences—some of them unintended and unforeseen. We can be confident that different circumstances in the future will lead to different uses of the rules. We know that every voting rule is vulnerable to strategic manipulation and that political actors are motivated to find ways to use voting rules to their advantage.

In sum, by all means, work to enact ranked-choice voting. But be sure that it is just the first step and nowhere near the last that needs to be taken. A robust republican democracy in a diverse nation is a complex system in which wide access to secure voting yielding lots of information from and efficacy to the public is a necessary but far from sufficient piece of the puzzle.

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