Ranked Choice Voting Is Under Attack

Created: 21 October, 2019
Updated: 14 August, 2022
4 min read

Ranked choice voting, an alternative ballot method, has been under attack by the press. Unlike the traditional “pick one” ballot used in most U.S. elections, ranked choice ballots allow voters to rank the candidates in order of preference.

If no candidate gets a majority of first preference choices and a voter's first choice comes in last, their candidate is eliminated in an automatic round of runoff and their second choice will be be counted in the runoff round. This process iterates down the ballot until there is a clear majority winner with the broadest base of electoral support.

2018 was a landmark year for electoral reform in states and municipalities across the country. Fresh off a string of victories, the highly diverse, grassroots, non-partisan coalition of American election reformers is pushing full steam ahead for even more voting reform victories in 2019. Ranked choice voting is among their top priorities in 2019. And the press has taken notice.

Ranked choice voting comes under attack in the media as it makes its way toward becoming official election policy in Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.

One analyst / opinion columnist at the Washington Times wrote a piece entitled, “Ranked-choice voting should be slotted dead last as election reform.” The piece starts off with some good old-fashioned partisan fear-mongering:

“Progressives are floating yet another election reform, Ranked-choice voting. It’s an idea so bad, even some dyed-in-the-wool liberals reject it."

Election reform is non-partisan. It affects how candidates are elected to office, and does not favor any part of the political agenda or platform of the two major parties in America.

But its opponents in both parties like to paint it as a scheme cooked up by the other party. So for a conservative newspaper like the Washington Times, ranked choice voting is “yet another election reform” floated by “progressives.”

For a liberal newspaper like Slate, election reforms like California’s top two open primary is a threat to Democrats. But election reform isn’t about helping one or the other party win. It’s about empowering the voters to make their voice heard in public policy, and making politicians more accountable to the electorate.

The anti-ranked choice voting editorial in the Washington Times goes on to claim:

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“In the end, a voter’s ballot might wind up being cast for their second, third or even fourth choice — a candidate they may actively dislike and never consider supporting. It rigs the system to allow candidates with marginal support to win elections. And voters can’t get around this problem by refusing to rank candidates they don’t like. That can end up costing them their vote altogether. The technical name for this is ‘ballot exhaustion,’ and it’s very real.”

But this isn’t any different than the “pick one” ballot. On pick one ballots, your vote is exhausted after the first tally if your candidate got fewer votes than another. If this is a problem, at least with RCV ballots it’s actually less of a problem than with pick one ballots. This argument actually makes the RCV advocates’ point for them.

The editorial then makes this astounding argument against ranked choice voting:

“This ballot exhaustion leads to the election of candidates who are not the first choice of a majority of voters. The only majority they’ve won is a majority of whatever votes were left in the final round of tabulation. The 2010 mayor’s race in Oakland, California, took 10 rounds of vote tabulation to get a winner. The ultimate winner received less than a quarter of the first-round votes, yet managed to pile up a 1.9% margin of victory in the final round.”

RCV opponents continue to point to the election of Jean Quan in 2010 as an example of the failure of ranked choice voting. That’s because Quan went on to be a controversial, one-term mayor in the spotlight of national criticism over police handling of the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests. But critics are wrong on that count.

In 2010, RCV delivered Oakland its first female mayor, a woman of color, and a local city council member, who ended up beating an establishment politician, Don Perata, President pro tempore of the California State Senate from 2004 to 2008. That’s people power over party and establishment power.

Then when Oakland residents were unhappy with Quan’s performance as mayor, RCV proved itself nimble and eliminated Quan in the first round of tabulations in the 2014 election. Yet another example of ranked choice voting doing something about sky high incumbency rates.

The Washington Times article concludes:

“Ranked-choice voting is a confusing, overly complicated gimmick — one that allows candidates with only marginal support to win elections. This is one reform that would actually make the electoral system worse.”

Yes, RCV supporters would probably agree that this ballot reform tilts the balance of power away from the established centers of political gravity and toward the marginalized. It’s an overreach to suggest, however, that candidates with “only marginal support” win ranked choice elections. It’s a system that incorporates more information about voter preferences into the election result. It allows more of the nuance of political support to filter through on election day.

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