About this Issue
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.
Hacking America’s Antiquated Elections
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.
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).
Ways to Expand Use of Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked choice voting is imperfect, but perfection is literally impossible – and advocates of other, untested systems should be cautious about overstating their potential absent experience. But RCV is viable, legal, and successfully tested as a flexible tool for addressing problems in our elections. Once it becomes easy for all jurisdictions to use, as is likely within the next four years, both legislators and populist reformers will find RCV to be valuable. With each new advance, voters’ conceptions of what it means to vote will change from marking an “X” to ranking choices. The RCV ballot has drawn support in several different contexts, including the following.
Replacing plurality voting: The great majority of American elections are held with plurality voting, where candidates with the most votes win, even if they do so with less than half the votes. As Maine showed, voters are ready to support RCV when they are frustrated by elections that mean either having to vote for the lesser of two evils, or else for unrepresentative winners.
Replacing runoff elections: Holding a separate runoff between the top two finishers is a means to eliminate “spoilers.” But runoffs have downsides. The strongest candidates may not reach the runoff due to split votes. Runoffs exacerbate demands for campaign contributions and often have disparate voter turnout between elections. More than 96% of the nearly 200 regularly scheduled congressional primary runoffs since 1994 experienced declines in turnout, with an average turnout decline of more than 30% – a far steeper decline than the number of voters who don’t rank finalists in RCV races. Finally, runoffs increase election costs and burdens on voters, making them an easy target for budget-cutting policymakers. These problems explain why more than a dozen cities have voted to replace runoffs with RCV.
Replacing problematic means of nominating candidates: Traditionally, parties used conventions to choose nominees, which ensured nominees were accountable only to the parties’ most active members. But the main alternative, the primary system, has unrepresentative turnout, with steadily declining percentages of Americans registering with a major party.
RCV can help solve problems associated with nominating candidates. RCV could be built into the major party presidential candidate nominating processes, starting with party-run caucuses, and RCV could be used more generally to ensure nominees for all offices earn greater support. More dramatically, states could stop paying for primaries entirely and use RCV to accommodate voters having more general election choices among independents and party nominees.
One form of RCV is drawing particular attention: modifying the Top Two primary to advance four candidates, with RCV to be used in November. As used in California and Washington, Top Two establishes that all candidates seeking an office run in the same primary contest, and the top two finishers face off in November regardless of party. FairVote’s analysis of California’s 2012 congressional elections found that advancing four candidates to an RCV contest in November would nearly triple the number of general election races with third party or independent candidates and more than quintuple the number of general elections with more than one candidate from the same major party.
Opening up legislative elections to better choice and fairer representation: The combination of winner-take-all rules and rising partisanship has led to a sharply rising percentage of districts in which only one party has any real prospect of winning, and more legislatures where one party has a lock likely to last for generations. It has entrenched incumbents, depressed participation, promoted unrepresentative homogeneity within parties, and created barriers for women, racial minorities, and minor parties to win more seats. Redistricting alone has limited impact on these problems, as suggested by distorted partisan outcomes in California and not a single congressional seat changing hands in 2016. Truly unlocking democracy depends on adopting RCV in multi-winner elections. The first step is to have larger districts with more voters and more seats; for example, one might combine five adjoining districts into a larger district with five representatives. These would be chosen by RCV, with the percentage of the vote necessary to win declining in relation to the number of seats in the district – about 17% of like-minded voters being able to elect a candidate in a five-winner district.
Multi-winner RCV is used in at least one governmental election by every voter in Australia, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Minneapolis (MN), and Cambridge (MA). FairVote’s congressional election simulations show that not a single voter in a state with more than two representatives would be represented by only one party. Congress would have a far broader mix of perspectives. New opportunities would arise for independents and third parties to hold the major parties accountable, and more cross-cutting representatives would be likely to forge compromises. Expect to see the Fair Representation Act based on this form of RCV introduced in Congress next year, and for more cities and states to consider it.
Looking forward, American politics is at a tipping point. Our current system simply isn’t working, and all trends suggest it will keep getting worse. Maine shows that voters are ready for change, and reformers are planning city and state campaigns for RCV across the nation. Now is the time to think big – and rank the vote.
Approval Voting: Works Great, Less Complicated
Nearly a quarter of a millennium into the American experiment in constitutional representative democracy, I am far more surprised the system has survived for so long than that it suffers from numerous problems. I have lived through less than a quarter of the history of U.S. elections, and heck, I’m falling apart already.
A basket of methods intended to serve a population of not much more than 3 million now serves a population of more than 300 million. Yes, it has evolved. In 227 years we have gone from suffrage only for white male landowners to “universal” (okay, not really - ask a convicted felon) adult suffrage. We have gone from hand-written or party-printed ballots to a government-printed “Australian” ballot with candidate access controlled and limited in each state by the ruling parties. U.S. Senators, once chosen by state legislatures, are now chosen by popular vote. And so on.
Replacing plurality voting with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) - as lead essayist Rob Richie recommends - or with some other new voting system, strikes me as more in the nature of a knee replacement than a heart transplant, but hey, why not? I’m a market anarchist myself, but if we are going to take democracy seriously, I suppose there is something to be said for continuously tweaking technical voting methods to most accurately reflect real voter preferences. Along the way we may still do well to recall H. L. Mencken’s conception of democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Democracy by my lights is never going to be perfect.
Rob makes two especially strong arguments for RCV:
- It provides for majority rather than plurality winners. Even if there is nothing magical about majority versus plurality vis a vis “the popular will,” there is a longstanding and visceral appeal to majority rule.
- It eliminates the need for separate “runoff” elections when a majority is required and no candidate receives one.
So far, so good. But I cannot approve of the complexity of RCV versus my own preferred voting alternative, Approval Voting.
Those who paid attention to the Florida presidential vote recount in 2000 probably recall quite a bit of controversy over the use of “butterfly ballots.” Many voters claimed to find those ballots confusing and difficult to understand. Some even claimed that in retrospect they had probably voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore.
No, I’m not saying that voters are stupid, although some undoubtedly are. I am saying that those of us with an ongoing, even obsessive, interest in politics tend to forget that most American voters don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the technical aspects of casting a ballot. They show up every two or four years to spend an hour standing in line and five minutes in a booth filling out an unfamiliar form. The more complicated that unfamiliar form becomes, the greater the likelihood of error.
Some voters seem to have a difficult time looking at lists of candidates, picking one for each office to be elected, and accurately recording their choices. We can hardly expect those voters to do a very good job of looking at lists of candidates and ranking all those candidates on all those lists in order of preference. If they even bother to try, the ratio of noise to signal in results will presumably rise.
Some voters will blithely choose one candidate, unaware that they should rank their choices. Others will get the numbering system or other measuring mechanism backward when ranking their choices and end up weighting the power of their votes in favor of the candidates they like least instead of most. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! Well, okay, maybe not that last part. But if the goal is to align outcomes with real voter preferences, there are real potential defects in RCV as the method of doing so.
Approval Voting is simpler. Here is how it works:
The voter votes for all the candidates he or she likes.
And that’s it! Let’s consider an example. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein all appear on the ballot for president.
The voter is okay with Clinton or Stein, but not with Trump or Johnson, so the voter votes for Clinton and Stein.
Or the voter is okay with Trump or Clinton, but not Johnson or Stein, so the voter votes for Trump and Clinton.
Or the voter is only okay with Johnson, so the voter votes only for Johnson.
The candidate who receives the most votes wins. Easy peasy. One variant of Approval Voting requires that the winning candidate, in addition to receiving the most votes, must receive votes from a majority of voters.
Are there problems with Approval Voting? Sure. In the majority requirement variant, a runoff might be required. RCV avoids that. Approval Voting can also be gamed. If I prefer Johnson but am okay with Stein, I might vote only for Johnson because I would rather have Johnson and don’t want to put any gas in Stein’s tank. And Johnson’s campaign might encourage his “base” voters to do exactly that.
But of course RCV can be gamed in the same way. A voter doesn’t have to rank all the available choices. In the above example she could rank Johnson first and rank no other candidates, so that only her vote for Johnson counts no matter the circumstances.
Simpler is better. If the purpose of a voting method is to align outcomes with voter preferences, simplicity matters, because complexity produces noise that interferes with our ability to understand those preferences. Is simplicity the only consideration? Of course not. But it’s an important one, and in my view Ranked Choice Voting’s virtues are not sufficient to offset its complexity versus Approval Voting.
A final thought: Maybe voting method isn’t really as earth-shakingly important as those of us who spend time thinking about it want it to be.
In his essay, Rob points out that “[e]xtensive data analysis from more than 125 RCV elections in the Bay Area show that … every single winner has been the ‘Condorcet’ candidate who would defeat all others head-to-head…” But if something was broken in Bay Area election outcomes, RCV didn’t obviously fix it, and it may have been that nothing was broken at all. To be fair, I’m not sure Approval Voting would have fixed anything here either. Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place for better outcomes.
The False Promise of Instant Runoff Voting
By ballot initiative, Maine has just adopted instant runoff voting (IRV) for state elections. IRV is also used in some local elections around the country. In principle, IRV has some desirable properties compared to the status quo electoral system in the United States (single-member-district plurality), but once we look at the actual political context in which it would be implemented in the United States, it may well make things worse for third parties, especially Libertarians. Moreover, there are alternative electoral systems that are superior both in the abstract and in the concrete to both the status quo and IRV.
Advantages of IRV
Rob Richie’s essay did a good job of laying out the potential benefits of IRV. Its single biggest advantage may be how it addresses the wasted-vote problem. If you like a third-party candidate best, you may be able to safely rank that candidate first on your IRV ballot, knowing that if and when that candidate is eliminated, your second-choice preference will count. For instance, if you liked Ralph Nader but preferred Al Gore to George W. Bush in 2000, under IRV you could have ranked Nader first and Gore second, and your vote would have counted for Gore once Nader was eliminated from the counting process. If every state had used IRV to allocate electoral votes in 2000, Al Gore would probably have won the presidency.
By reducing the wasted-vote problem, IRV also reduces major-party gamesmanship. In last month’s U.S. Senate election in my state, New Hampshire, there was a “conservatarian” independent candidate, Aaron Day, whose mission was to defeat Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte by drawing away conservative and libertarian votes. He spent no money on his race, but in the closing days, a shadowy, Democratic-linked group sent a glossy mailer to Republican households touting Day’s conservative record and bashing Ayotte as too liberal. Ayotte lost by about a tenth of the votes Day won, and so he quite plausibly cost her reelection. In 2010, Democrats ran “Tea Party” independents in congressional races, and Republicans have also been caught out funding Green candidates in the past (William Poundstone’s book Gaming the Vote describes many such shenanigans).
When used in computer-simulated elections with voters having randomly assigned preferences, IRV outperforms plurality voting by the metric of interpersonally comparable utility (“Bayesian regret” is the technical term). In other words, voters are in aggregate happier with IRV than plurality, at least when they vote sincerely rather than tactically.
Disadvantages of IRV in the Abstract
Even in the abstract, though, IRV has some disadvantages. It doesn’t actually eliminate the wasted-vote problem, and it may reduce it only a little bit. Think about a case with a strong third-party candidate, like Ross Perot in 1992. Suppose 35% of voters prefer Bill Clinton to George H.W. Bush to Perot, 31% prefer Bush to Clinton to Perot, and 34% prefer Perot to Bush to Clinton. If everyone votes sincerely under IRV, Clinton wins after Bush is eliminated in the first round – even though 65% of voters prefer Bush to Clinton. But it gets worse. If just a small number of Perot preferrers (>3%) put Bush first and Perot second, then Perot would be eliminated first, and Bush – their second choice – would win. They’ll have a strategic incentive to falsify their preferences.
Now, every electoral system is subject to tactical voting like this. But IRV makes it easy and obvious how to vote tactically. In general, you “up-vote” your lesser-evil candidate and “bury” your lesser-evil candidate’s most viable opponent. This is just what voters do under plurality, voting tactically for the lesser evil instead of their preferred third-party candidate.
As the Bush-Clinton-Perot example above shows, IRV can also fail to select the Condorcet winner, the candidate that a majority of voters prefer to each other candidate. In fact, this happened in Burlington’s mayoral election in 2009, causing the city to end IRV for mayoral elections when the Progressive won over the Republican in the final round of IRV counting, even though the Democrat, eliminated earlier, was actually the Condorcet winner.
There are several other “in the abstract” disadvantages to IRV. IRV has a more complicated ballot, potentially confusing some voters, and a much more complicated counting process than plurality or approval voting. IRV requires counting at a centralized location rather than by precinct. IRV is also subject to a technical-sounding but important problem called “non-monotonicity,” which means that you can help your preferred candidate by ranking her lower. Finally, the Bayesian regret criterion suggests IRV is worse than other ranked-ballot alternatives like Condorcet-consistent methods and Borda count, and much worse than approval and score voting.
Disadvantages of IRV in the Real World
Getting away from the blackboard for a moment, we also need to think about how IRV would actually work in American elections. It’s no accident that IRV is almost universally a project of the ideological left here in the United States. Vermont started using it in local elections once the Progressive Party became a threat to the Democrats. Maine adopted it after two consecutive elections in which a Republican governor was elected because the left split its vote between a Democrat and a left-of-center independent. (Maine also has a strong Green Party.) Republicans face little third-party threat from their right flank (the Constitution Party is extremely weak), but Democrats do face such a threat in certain places. IRV helps them overcome that threat.
IRV actually neuters third parties, especially those with a strong ideological orientation. Third parties may get higher shares of first-preference votes under IRV, but it is still almost impossible for them to win seats, and they lose all the “blackmail power” that they enjoy under plurality. Currently, strategic third parties can choose to run candidates in races where they want to punish one of the major-party candidates (as Day did to Ayotte) and refrain otherwise. This possibility gives major parties an incentive to cater a bit to ideological minorities.
Is this blackmail power a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on one’s perspective, I suppose, but one way to defend it is to note that democracy’s institution of majority rule threatens to trample the rights and interests of passionate minorities. Third-party blackmail power under plurality rule gives passionate minorities some leverage; it is a way of incorporating intensity of preference into our otherwise majoritarian political system.
For libertarians, the Libertarian Party’s potential blackmail power is a valuable thing. We libertarians expect Democrats at least to be decent on civil liberties and Republicans at least to be decent on economic freedom. When they stray to the authoritarian side of the spectrum, the Libertarian Party can run a candidate to punish them by campaigning on those issues, drawing away conservatives upset by a Republican’s apostasy on economic freedom, for instance. The potential for this sanction should make the major parties govern in a more libertarian fashion than they would otherwise. If this is right, the adoption of IRV would result in less freedom.
Better than IRV: Approval Voting
Approval voting (AV) is a simple system that lets voters select more than one candidate in an election. The candidate with the most votes wins. There is no need for new ballots or new counting equipment, it doesn’t exhibit non-monotonicity (you can’t hurt a candidate by voting for her), it scores much better than IRV and plurality on Bayesian regret in experimental simulations, and although it is gameable like every electoral system, it is actually difficult and non-obvious how to vote tactically (you need good information about other voters’ preferences and to be able to calculate expected utilities).
For libertarians, AV is especially attractive. The Libertarian Party tends to be perceived as a party of the ideological center in the United States. For instance, Gary Johnson voters were about equally split between Trump and Clinton preferences. Moreover, the Libertarian candidate frequently garners double-digit percentages when there is only one major-party candidate on the ballot. Thus there are many Democrats willing to cast Libertarian votes when there is no Democrat on the ballot for a race, and many Republicans willing to do the same when there is no Republican. Under approval voting, then, these voters might well cast votes for both the Libertarian and their preferred major-party candidate in three-way races. Libertarians might actually have a chance of winning some elections.
Consider an election like the following:
|Percentage of voters||Ranking||Approved-of|
|30%||Clinton>Stein>Johnson>Trump||Clinton, Stein, Johnson|
Under plurality with sincere voting, Clinton wins narrowly, as she actually did. Under IRV, Stein is eliminated right away, and then Johnson. Clinton wins the election handily. Under approval voting, Johnson wins in a landslide.
Now, I am not actually claiming that Gary Johnson would have won the 2016 presidential election if it were held under approval voting, although it is possible given how unpopular the other candidates were, but rather I am making the point that approval voting helps candidates who can manage to be everyone’s second choice. Under IRV, everyone’s second choice is eliminated right away and has no chance. AV tends to pick consensus candidates, and a high-quality, centrist Libertarian could very easily manage to be just that candidate in the United States.
Now, of course we have to consider how the other parties would react to approval voting. Chances are they would run to the center and try to snag approval votes from libertarians. They would try not to alienate significant minorities with inflammatory language and discriminatory policies, which would motivate “disapproval votes” (ballots marked for every other candidate). In fact, the major parties would probably keep winning most elections using this strategy – but the policy outcome doesn’t sound so bad to me.
We know this for sure: had the Republican Party used approval voting in its primaries, it would never have nominated Donald Trump. Had it used IRV… who knows? In the real world United States, approval voting has massive advantages for libertarians, moderates, and the total satisfaction of voters that IRV lacks – and IRV might even be worse than the status quo because it neuters third parties, generally to the advantage of center-left Democrats.
 Using the term “ranked-choice voting” for IRV is not really correct, because there are many ranked-ballot systems of which IRV is just one.
Ranked Choice Voting Likely Means Lower Turnout, More Errors
The history of electoral reform in America is littered with people who eagerly made grand claims about how their preferred solution would cure what ailed American democracy. Usually this involves “liberating” the sanctified voters from the dastardly efforts of politicians and political parties to suppress the “true” preferences of the electorate. Too often, the fruit of these reform efforts has been the creation of electoral processes that reduce voter engagement and maintain the status quo. Rob Richie’s arguments in favor of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) echo many of the same arguments that reformers have been making for over a hundred years. Unfortunately, pro-RCV arguments are similarly based on faulty assumptions about voters, and too often they ignore or inappropriately minimize empirical research that highlights the potential for negative consequences.
In evaluating electoral reforms, I am guided by a clear baseline principle: changes that expand access to the vote and encourage more political participation tend to be better than those that seek to restrict voting or make it more difficult. Based on the results of my research into the impacts of Ranked Choice Voting in city elections, this particular electoral reform fails on both counts. RCV makes voting more complicated, which leads to several negative consequences for the level and quality of voter participation in elections.
Equality of Electoral Voice: Lower Turnout and More Ballot Errors
Under RCV, overall voter turnout does not increase, and is likely to decrease significantly, especially among those segments of the electorate that are already least likely to participate. I examined voter turnout in five San Francisco elections from 1995 to 2011, the last two of which featured Ranked Choice Voting. My main topic of inquiry was whether variation in turnout across racial lines was related to the adoption of RCV. According to the results of my analysis of over 2,500 precincts across the five elections, turnout declines among African-American and white voters was significantly correlated with the adoption of RCV. Additionally, I found that the adoption of RCV exacerbated disparities in voter turnout between those who are already likely to vote and those who are not, including younger voters and those with lower levels of education.
In additional research, I analyzed voter turnout in nonpartisan mayoral elections in RCV cities compared to similar elections in non-RCV cities. The results show that the impact of RCV on voter turnout depends upon whether elections occur during odd years or even years. In odd-year elections with Ranked Choice Voting, voter turnout decreases about eight percentage points, on average, compared to a non-RCV general election at the same time. Whereas in even-year elections RCV has little or no effect on voter turnout. Even-year elections usually coincide with congressional or presidential elections, and they generally have much higher voter turnout than those that occur in odd years. One explanation for this is that during odd-year elections it is very difficult to get low-propensity voters to the polls. By making voting more complicated, RCV exacerbates this tendency, making it less likely that new and more casual voters will enter into the process.
Another major concern with respect to equality and integrity of the electoral process under Ranked Choice Voting is how it affects the tendency of voters to make errors when marking ballots. Research indicates that when voting is made more complicated, for example through ballot design or the presence of many candidate options, ballot errors increase. My colleague Francis Neely and I analyzed almost two million individual ballots in order to measure the incidence of errors that disqualify a ballot from being counted after the adoption of Ranked-Choice Voting in San Francisco elections. We found that such errors were significantly more common in RCV elections than plurality elections. The rate of errors was comparable to electoral situations that involve either very complex voting tasks or poorly designed ballots. To be clear, it is the additional complexity of voting under Ranked Choice Voting, not RCV itself that causes more ballot errors. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that implementation of RCV will result in higher rates of ballot errors that cause individual ballots to be disqualified. These ballot errors will be concentrated among those portions of the electorate who are already most vulnerable to being underrepresented.
Polarization and Voter Confusion
An underlying theme of Rob Richie’s argument is that Ranked Choice Voting will help to alleviate some of the problems related to partisan polarization. The idea is that RCV will encourage more moderate and/or third party candidates to run for elective office, and that voters will not be forced to choose the “lesser of two evils.” While this argument seems to make a certain amount of sense, it rests on the faulty assumption that voters are capable of consistently and accurately distinguishing the ideological and policy positions of candidates for whom they vote, absent clear partisan and ideological cues to guide them. Unfortunately, implementation of Ranked Choice Voting will most likely increase voter confusion.
My research into racial group polarization in nonpartisan urban elections illustrates the problem. I found that there was a reduction in the polarized preference gap between different racial groups. However, this reduction in racial polarization was most likely caused by voter confusion about how candidates will represent their interests rather than any sincere expression of preferences previously suppressed by plurality systems. This result is consistent with analysis by Corey Cook showing that voters’ candidate preference rankings in RCV elections are highly inconsistent, lacking any well-ordered ideological or policy-based structure. Research into the Top Two primary system in California indicates that voters are not able to reliably identify candidates’ ideologies or policies absent strong partisan cues. Because of this, the new system has failed to achieve its supporters’ goals of increasing the chances of ideologically moderate candidates and reducing polarization.
While there is some debate among political scientists about the extent and causes of partisan polarization, there is little doubt that voters are highly polarized from each other. Given the reality of polarized voters, there is little reason to believe that a change to how people vote will result in the election of politicians who are less polarized.
Conclusion: First Do No Harm
The results of my research provide reasons for skepticism about whether the benefits of RCV outweigh the potential costs. However, my research has been limited to nonpartisan city elections, and therefore the findings may not generalize to partisan state or federal elections in which candidates may be better known and voters may be more likely to participate. Additionally, other researchers have documented some positive aspects of RCV. First, voters who experience Ranked Choice Voting tend to express satisfaction with the process and confidence in their ability to understand it. Second, based on high-quality research by other political scientists, it is reasonable to expect that the level of negative campaigning may decrease under RCV.
Despite these positive aspects, and given the unlikelihood that RCV will contribute to a reduction in partisan polarization, I believe that the potential for lower turnout and more ballot errors outweighs the potential benefits of Ranked Choice Voting. Rather than expand the electorate, reduce turnout inequalities, and ameliorate polarization, it is quite likely that the adoption of Ranked Choice Voting for state and federal elections around the country will further entrench the status quo.
An Incremental Win
Between Rob Richie’s lead essay and the responses from Jason Sorens, Jason McDaniel and myself, the main takeaway I get from this discussion relates less to the virtues or defects of any particular voting method than to its ultimate purpose.
All four of us seem to agree that the technical goal of an election is to reflect, in aggregate but as accurately as possible, the diverse preferences of voters.
Single member districts with first past the post plurality winners don’t do that very well. Even the most lopsided outcome — many U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators win election after election with 60% or even 80% of votes cast — tends to leave a significant percentage of the electorate unrepresented in its preferences. That’s not even counting those who abstained from voting for reasons other than the apathy usually ascribed to them. The glass gets filled for those who like the winner; it remains empty for everyone else.
Ranked choice voting, approval voting, score voting, and the like all mitigate this problem to a degree. Even if the voter’s most preferred candidate doesn’t win, there’s a decent chance that his second or third choice might, and that his glass will come out half full at any rate. Even as an anarchist, I have to call that a win.
But as an anarchist, I’m also compelled to interject a sentiment expressed by a distinctly non-anarchist historical figure, Abraham Lincoln: “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.”
The best way of giving expression to diverse preferences is to take as many matters and decisions as possible out of the hands of government altogether. Politics, including representative democracy, really amounts to some of us telling the rest of us what to do. Put that way, I assume most of us would like to see as little of politics as possible.
In the absence of politically determined mandates and prohibitions, most of us should be able to have our own way most of the time. The exception that lends credibility to political methods is when having our own way constitutes aggression against others. Yes, that is a real problem, but I don’t consider it obvious that politics ever has been, is, or can ever be, an optimal solution to that problem.
I’ve followed experiments in voting method closely for years, and will continue to do so with interest. I do genuinely hope that ranked choice voting makes voters in Maine happier with outcomes. I also hope it makes them more free. If not, well, at least it will add to the body of information we can draw on for purposes of improving (or, says anarchist me, justifying rejection of) American voting and election systems. Either way, as I said before, a win.