Ranked-choice voting: what it is and why we should consider using it more in the U.S.
In a few word, most elections in the U.S. are a mess. Candidates and parties raise exorbitant campaign funds for primary and general elections, only for voters to pick one candidate who likely doesn’t represent a simple majority of the electorate.
As this piece from Quartz put it, “Ultimately, voters choose between one of two or three candidates, a Democrat, a Republican, and an Independent, if one runs. That means a winner could have a mere 34% of the vote and take the race, leaving a majority of the electorate—a whopping 66%—unhappy with their representative.”
The winner-take-all conditions we have in place can also contribute to the vitriolic rhetoric now commonly found in some races—candidates spend much of their funds and time bashing opponents. While we can debate the merits of that mudslinging, we do know it can dissuade voters from turning out.
In other words, it’s bad for democracy.
There is one measure that, if implemented, would most directly change how we pick our elected officials: ranked-choice voting.
What is ranked-choice voting (RCV)?
There are a few different versions of this, but here’s the basic definition: RCV is a voting system that allows you to rank candidates based on your preference. Instead of you having to choose just one candidate, you can have a primary choice plus several alternate ones.
Here’s how it works. To win, a candidate needs to garner a majority of the votes cast—simple enough. RCV’s primary component kicks in when this doesn’t happen. If no candidate wins a majority, the one with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race. However, instead of the ballots cast for this candidate being tossed aside, they’re instead put toward whichever candidates are listed as choice #2. This goes on until a candidate wins the majority.
- For an election with five candidates, you rank each on your ballot, putting Candidate A as choice #1, Candidate B as #2, and so on.
- No candidate wins a majority, with Candidate A—your first choice—receiving the fewest first-choice votes. Candidate A is then eliminated from the race.
- From here, all of the second choices on the ballots with Candidate A as the #1 preference would then be counted and put toward the remaining candidates. In this case, your vote would now go to Candidate B.
- This repeats until somebody wins the majority.
This might seem complicated, but as a voter it simply means you list the candidates on your ballot in an order of preference. If your top choice doesn’t win, there’s still a chance your next preferred candidate could win. Ballotpedia has a much more technical explanation and example here.
RCV’s Basic Benefits
So what are the biggest benefits of using RCV in our elections? To answer this and some other questions, I spoke with Ben Chapman, Communications Manager for FairVote Washington which advocates for using ranked-choice voting within the state.
Please note some of his responses have been edited to fit the site’s format.
“It makes elections fairer, gives voters more power, and changes political incentives to discourage mudslinging and encourage real, civic-minded debate,” said Chapman. “RCV ensures winners have broad support from voters, it encourages more positive campaigns […] and it results in governing bodies with more diverse representation that are truly representative of their constituencies.”
To recap: RCV can give voters more sway and better representation while discouraging negative campaigns.
One of the more common complaints against RCV is that it seems difficult to understand at first. When I asked if this was true, Chapman strongly disagreed and pointed to a survey as proof.
“In 2013, a poll of Minneapolis voters who had used RCV in their city elections showed that 85% of voters found RCV ‘simple or somewhat simple’ to use. Those are really overwhelming numbers for a poll,” he said. “Some suggest that the elderly will struggle with changing to a new system, but it’s just not true! And it’s also kind of insulting to suggest that the elderly can’t figure out how to do something as simple as ranking things.
“[Ranked-choice voting’s popularity] makes sense if you think about how it works,” he continued. “We all use the logic of RCV in our daily lives. If you’re ordering pizza and you want pepperoni but the restaurant is all out of that topping, then you’ll instead order your next favorite, which might be sausage. That’s basically how RCV works. You hope you get your favorite choice, but if not, you’ll be glad for the opportunity to make a second choice, or even a third choice if you have to.“
RCV & the Two-party System
Right now in the U.S., most examples of jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting have elections that eschew our national two-party system. Local RCV elections often don’t involve major party affiliations at all.
So I was curious in knowing if RCV is reconcilable with races—primaries and general ones—that do include the two-party system. Can large-scale RCV work with our two-party system?
Yes, according to Chapman, who said RCV would not only work, but that this is exactly why we need ranked-choice voting.
“The two-party system is one of the main reasons we need RCV,” he said. “Right now, crowded party primaries are resulting in winners that don’t have majority support. This means a lot of voters are left out of the decision, and the result is that lackluster candidates make it to the general election without the support of a broad voter base.”
Plus, RCV can help solve one of the most common complaints about general elections: “spoiler” candidates.
In our current system, independent and third party candidates are able to run for office but are essentially shut out from winning. Not only is this undemocratic, but it sets these candidates up to “steal away” votes from Democratic and Republican ones.
(As Chapman notes, think back to Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election, who was “famously accused of ‘spoiling’ the election for Al Gore,” as well as Jill Stein’s effects on the results Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
If RCV is used in general elections, this problem would basically evaporate. Voters who prefer independent or third party candidates could list those from the major parties as their next choices. It would allow “third parties and independents to vote for whom they actually support,” as Chapman put it.
Additionally, it would help us “move past the era of shaming candidates and voters” and “transform campaigns into contests of coalition-building and teamwork.”
It’s hard to argue against something that could help lower polarization and provide non-Republican and non-Democratic candidates with a way to better impact elections. We could also guess that such a system could improve voter turnout. Far less likely would you need to twist yourself into knots over electoral math and concern yourself with debates of “the lesser of two evils.”
Wouldn’t you be more inclined to participate if you knew your preferred candidate, regardless of whether or not they have a big party affiliation, has a better shot at winning, and if you knew you wouldn’t be “throwing away your vote” if you prefer one of these candidates?
Examples of Jurisdictions Using RCV
In the U.S., there are just a few notable examples of communities that use ranked-choice voting. Maine is the only state that uses RCV at the federal level in addition to state races. However, RCV is only used in local races elsewhere; Minneapolis and St. Paul currently use it, while New York City will be implementing it in 2021. Ballotpedia has a full list of places currently using RCV here.
Abroad, versions of RCV are much more common. Here are countries that use this system in some fashion:
- New Zealand
- The U.K.
Ranked-choice voting isn’t a perfect system for the U.S. to adopt—we have an electorate that is constantly fatigued by voting and civic engagement. It’s not difficult to imagine resistance to introducing something new that, although not a complicated one, it’s often painted as so. That’s probably why Massachusetts voters decided not to adopt it this year. (Alaska also has RCV on the ballot, but results are not final at this time.)
However, the potential benefits to RCV cannot be overstated: more power for voters, potentially better representation, and a much-needed break from our winner-take-all structure. And if we were to couple this with other changes to our elections, such as curtailing dark money or offering public financing for campaigns, we would have a much more democratic system of which we can be proud.
“RCV has such phenomenal potential to improve how we do politics in America,” Chapman said, and implementing it anywhere we can would be “a victory for democracy everywhere.”
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- Ben Chapman shared this letter to the editor, which he said was a great retort to arguments of ranked-choice voting being too complicated for elderly voters.
- Researchers Sarah John and Andrew Douglas, in observing seven cities using RCV, found statistical evidence that ranked-choice voting does reduce the prevalence of negative campaigns and attack ads. They also found survey respondents were overwhelmingly confident in their understanding of how RCV works.