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Electoral Reforms: Ranked Choice Voting - BCB #15
"What if we don't have to choose the lesser of two evils?"
Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system has entered the national conversation after Sarah Palin’s defeat in her bid for a House seat. Whether or not this new voting method caused her loss, ranked choice voting has long been proposed as a depolarizing election reform because it may allow more moderate candidates to win.
Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also called instant runoff voting or preference voting, asks voters to rank candidates rather than listing only their most preferred choice. If any candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, they win. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest number of first-choice votes is eliminated. Anyone who voted for the eliminated candidate has their second-choice vote counted instead. And so on, eliminating as many candidates as needed while assigning second, third, fourth etc. votes until someone emerges with a majority. You can see the process graphically in this interactive explanation, and here’s what a ranked-choice ballot looks like (from nyc.gov):
From a polarization perspective, the key advantage of RCV is that it eliminates the need for voters to choose a less-preferred candidate just to prevent someone else from winning – this is a well-known problem called strategic voting. In other words, “in ranked-choice voting, you can express your dislike of the two main candidates, while also expressing your preference between the ‘two evils.’”
For this reason, proponents say that ranked voting can promote more civil campaigning and dilute a two-party system. Since the ranking system doesn’t force a binary choice, it theoretically allows more room for third parties and independent candidates. Whether it will actually deliver an advantage to independent or moderate candidates remains to be seen. In Maine, independent gubernatorial and Senate candidates fared no better under RCV, and one independent candidate dropped out of the Alaska House race, stating that it was “just too hard to run as a nonpartisan candidate in this race.”
Internationally, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia have instituted RCV at a national level. It’s also used in New York, Minneapolis, and Main. But it’s a big change from the way Americans are used to voting. Suspicious Massachusetts voters soundly rejected it in 2020. RCV can take many rounds to find a majority, and the more complicated process can reduce participation for some voters. And if a voter doesn’t rank every running candidate, their ballot may be “exhausted” in later rounds, meaning their vote isn’t counted.
Given the current state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that the method itself is polarizing, and generally more embraced by Blue than Red, which points out that most of the funding for pro-RCV advocacy comes from Blue institutions.
More on That
As the dust settles in Alaska, early assessment suggests that voters understood the process just fine, it reduced the sway of major political parties, and civility mattered during the campaign. Ironically, Palin had urged voters to rank only one candidate, but she would have won if the 11,243 Begich voters who listed only one choice had put her second.
Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America Institute, expands on how ranked-choice voting can loosen the grip of political parties in primaries and state-wide elections.
This Red piece argues that RCV runs against the grain of federalism, because it causes confusion amongst the general electorate and “creates more opportunities for distrust in electoral processes.”
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Quote of the Week
Ranked-choice voting strives to reduce problems of political polarization not by changing the patterns of voters, but rather by changing the patterns of candidates.