Politics

image showing hand with 5 voting stickers representing ranked choice voting

Transforming Democracy: The Powerful Pros and Alarming Cons of Ranked Choice Voting

Background

Whether or not ranked-choice voting is good or bad can be as divisive as the candidates themselves. Voter dissatisfaction is incredibly high, and ranked-choice voting is increasingly seen as a possible improvement to status quo voting systems.  It seems that voters, regardless of political affiliation, are unhappy with the current state of voting in the U.S. As a result, the concept of ranked choice voting is gaining visibility and becoming a frequent topic of debate. Ranked-choice voting, sometimes referred to as “instant-runoff” voting, feels like a new concept. However, it has actually been around for more than 150 years.  It is also already in place in some local and state elections in the U.S.

The concept here is pretty simple: instead of voting for just one candidate in a given election, you rank the candidates in order of your preference.  The idea is that the ultimate winner of the election will better represent the preferences of the voters.  The details of how this all works, however, do get more complicated (see the “cons” listed below).  This is where the debate heats up.  When we consider the pros and cons of ranked-choice voting, is it a better electoral system?  Would it improve our election process?

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Image source: NYC Civic Engagement Commission

On a ranked-choice ballot, a voter ranks each candidate according to their preference.  If any of the candidates earn more than 50% of the vote (a voting majority), then that candidate wins.  If, however, no on is over the 50% mark, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated.  However, the ballots that listed that eliminated candidate as the first choice are now recounted, and the votes are given to the candidate who was listed as the 2nd choice.  That process continues as many times as needed until a single candidate has won more than 50% of the vote.  At the end, the winning candidate was preferred to the losing candidate by a majority of the voters.

Pros of Ranked-Choice Voting

The winner gets a majority of votes

But isn’t it already true that the winner is the one with the majority?  Not necessarily.  Specifically in elections, a majority means having more than half of the total votes.  Despite the U.S. being a primarily two-party system, there are usually more than two candidates in a given race.  In the case of a primary, there can be many more than two.  In those cases, the candidate with the most votes can easily have fewer than 50% of total. When that happens, it means that most of the voters didn’t vote for the winner.  Instead of a winning with a majority, the candidate wins with a “plurality.” A plurality means the candidate had more votes than any other candidate, but less than 50% of the votes.

So how often is a candidate elected with less than 50% of the vote? Quite often.  In fact, in the eight presidential elections from 1992 to 2020, half of the winners had the support of less than half of the voters.  And it’s not purely partisan.  Half of those wins were by a Democrat (Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996), and half were by Republicans (George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016).  Under a ranked choice voting model, the eventual winner is determined by who can reach the highest total over 50% when second, third, fourth, etc. preferences by voters are considered.

Presidential Elections – Popular Vote Percentage Totals

YearPresidentParty% of Votes
1992Bill ClintonDemocrat43.01%
1996Bill ClintonDemocrat49.23%
2000George W. BushRepublican47.87%
2004George W. BushRepublican53.16%
2008Barack ObamaDemocrat52.93%
2012Barack ObamaDemocrat51.06%
2016Donald TrumpRepublican46.09%
2020Joe BidenDemocrat51.31%
Data Source: Wikipedia

Less negative campaigning and mudslinging

Notice this says “less” and not “eliminates.”  Partisan politics are too prevalent these days to think negativity is going to go away, but the nature of ranked choice voting means candidates will want to avoid alienating voters.  A candidate who won’t be a voter’s first choice may still be a voter’s second choice. If they attack that other candidate too strongly, though, they could create hard feelings with their opponents supporters.

This could be especially true for party primaries.  Increasingly, the most extreme candidates within a party are the most likely to win a nomination. Candidates stake out extreme positions as they seek to motivate the base.  With ranked-choice voting, however, candidates may find increased support “in the middle” as they look to accumulate 2nd– and 3rd-choice votes as well.

Reduces wasted votes

The concept of wasted votes refers to the idea of voting for a candidate who has no realistic chance to win.  Why do these candidates even run, though?  It is often so that they can draw attention to a particular idea and introduce an important topic of conversation into the public discourse.  Voting for these candidates shows support for their agenda, but it comes at the expense of voting for a candidate with a better chance to win.  With ranked-choice, a voter can list a “fringe” candidate first to make a statement, and then choose a more viable candidate as their 2nd choice. 

Improved efficiency and lower costs

The concept of a run-off election is one that many people are familiar with.  This happens when an election’s rules call for a second election when a majority winner does not emerge from the first election.  A second election means a delayed result, more money spent by the jurisdiction, and more time required of voters to participate.  With ranked-choice voting, the run-off happens on the same ballot.  The process is essentially the same, but with lower cost and a significant time savings.

Cons of Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked-choice voting is complicated

Complicated is, of course, a relative term.  Ranking candidates instead of voting for just one is harder. It requires deeper consideration and perhaps more research to cast an informed vote.  The process itself is more complicated as well.  It’s not just a matter of counting all the votes.  The elimination of the candidate with the fewest votes and the recounting that follows is more involved. 

There is also the concept of an “exhausted” vote.  This happens when a voter chooses not to rank every candidate and has their ballot eliminated when the only remaining candidates are not represented on their ballot. With ranked-choice voting, you may rank every candidate, but you are not required to do so.  As exhausted votes are eliminated, the total vote pool for the remaining candidates is reduced, and this can give the appearance of “votes being tossed out.”  In an era where many people are convinced of voter fraud despite no evidence, a misunderstanding of how exhausted votes work could easily be misconstrued.

The person with the most votes can lose

That is, the person with the most votes after the first round of voting can lose.  As candidates are eliminated and votes are recounted based on rankings, a candidate who had fewer votes after the first round could emerge with more votes in a later round if they were listed more frequently as a top alternative choice among voters.  Keep in mind that the “instant run-off” only happens if no candidate earns more than 50% of the vote initially. However, the run-off process could indeed change the final order.  That’s the whole point, of course, but some consider that a drawback compared to the traditional “most votes wins” model.

Your vote does not count if it’s “exhausted”

This is often cited as a disadvantage, but it is really more of a misunderstanding.  If a voter does not rank every candidate, then it is indeed possible that their ballot will be eliminated at some point in the run-off process if the only candidates remaining were not part of their ranking.  It is misleading, though, to say their vote did not count.  The ballot was counted for each candidate they had ranked.  

It changes the tradition of One Person, One Vote

This con is based on the perception that by ranking candidates on a ballot, voters are casting more than one vote. We can debate the semantics here, but a ranked ballot is still just one ballot.  The validity of this concern depends on whether or not you consider a vote to be the ballot or the choices on that ballot.  It is a different kind of vote, to be sure, but it is still “one person, one ballot.”

Conclusion

Ranked-choice voting is not new, but it is a process that is not often used in the U.S., and for many voters it is very much a new concept.  When looking at the cons on this list, the true impact of these disadvantages range from moderate to negligible.  The most significant one – the complicated process – is real for many people, but it is also likely to decrease if the approach becomes more popular.  The pros, however, are quite substantial:  saving time, saving money, and electing a candidate who truly enjoys the highest level of support among the electorate. 

That said, it would represent a significant change, and, for many, a challenging or downright complicated concept.  For that reason, further adoption of ranked-choice voting would probably benefit from gradual increases at the state level as opposed to a sudden shift at the national level.

Have you ever participated in a ranked-choice voting election? If so, feel free to add a comment and share your experience.

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