About December 2016
The United States has just concluded a presidential election. As we anticipate the transition of power, it may be worth asking whether the specific form that our democracy takes is truly representative. Might we do better? And if so, how?
For years, third-party activists and many others have promoted ranked choice voting as a way to more clearly and fully express what the electorate wants. In 2016, the voters of Maine adopted ranked choice voting statewide, an event that has prompted us to take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of ranked choice voting as compared to our current system, which in most cases is a simple plurality vote system.
Writing the lead essay this month we have the executive director of FairVote, Rob Richie, who worked actively for Maine’s initiative and on many other RCV measures. Joining him will be Professor Jason Sorens of SUNY Buffalo; libertarian political activist Thomas L. Knapp; and Professor Jason McDaniel of San Francisco State University.
Rob Richie of FairVote explains why he thinks ranked choice voting is better than the system that most of us now use. Rather than marginalizing all outsiders and shoehorning everyone into two big, unwieldy parties, a ranked choice system would tend relatively more toward the representation of multiple viewpoints and toward the enactment of all policies that could command a majority, even if they do not command a majority within a given party or division of the electorate. RCV isn’t just better for our politics, says Richie; it’s been tried successfully in a wide array of settings, and it deserves to be seen not as an experiment, but as a well-known alternative. Given the shortcomings of our current system, RCV looks better and better, he argues.
Thomas L. Knapp recommends the use of approval voting, in which voters simply signal their approval of as many candidates as they find acceptable, without ranking them; the candidate with the most votes then wins. Knapp’s case for approval voting is that it is simple and easy to understand, and that it will produce fewer headaches for voters than Ranked Choice Voting. In the universe of possible systems, none are perfect, but simplicity is a factor that should not be discounted entirely: Simple elections encourage turnout and foster confidence in the legitimacy of the results. Whatever problems our democracy may have, Knapp concludes by arguing that voting method is perhaps not so high on the list.
Jason Sorens admits that Instant Runoff Voting has some advantages over our current plurality system. Yet he too recommends approval voting, and he supports his choice with reference to both the system’s mathematical appeal and certain real-world considerations. Approval voting will be easier to administer and count; parties will be discouraged from running divisive candidates; and even certain recent elections would, if run by the approval system, likely have returned results that he finds much better.
Jason McDaniel dives into the empirical literature on ranked choice voting. He finds that RCV tends to produce confusion rather than consensus. Many voters rely on party identifiers and a small number of candidates in order to make relatively informed decisions; these voters will be perplexed as parties and candidates proliferate. Rather than a rush to the amiable center, RCV is likely to provoke a mass exodus from the polls. Although RCV may have some upsides, the reality of an already polarized but not terribly well-informed electorate suggests that it will not likely achieve the outcomes that well-informed political scientists hope to see. New voting systems must be tested using experimental evidence drawn from real electorates, and by this measure, RCV is not as great as its proponents would have it.