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Ranked-Choice Voting: Technocracy Run Amok

(Reuters/Jeenah Moon)

“20 years of RCV in San Francisco has neither moderated the city’s politics nor produced any novel outcomes worth replicating.”

A bit of history was made last month when New York City became by far the most populous jurisdiction in the United States to use ranked-choice voting (RCV) in an election. Its debut in the Big Apple was a mixed bag: There was a large and  embarrassing hiccup on part of the widely despised New York City Board of Elections, which forgot to remove 130,000 test ballots from the initial results. But exit polls gave RCV enthusiasts more than a few data points to tout.

While RCV is still niche, its salience is increasing, and I think New York City’s use will ultimately help rather than hurt its popularity. 53 jurisdictions, including the states of Alaska and Maine, either use RCV or are slated to within two elections. Some truly powerful financial and intellectual winds are at its back as well. With RCV likely to continue its proliferation, now seems like a good time to interrogate some of the assumptions and motivations of its adherents.

Some Quick Background

For those unaware, RCV, also called instant-runoff voting, is an alternative to the first-past-the-post system with which most Americans are familiar. In the latter, voters cast one vote for their candidate of preference, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins. RCV, on the other hand, asks voters to rank their preferences, eliminating contenders and reassigning votes until one of the remaining candidates achieves a majority.

For example, if there are three candidates, A, B, and C, and A and B each receive 40% of the first-choice votes, C is eliminated. The 20% of voters who chose C as their first-round pick will then have their second-choice votes counted. As soon as A or B passes the 50% mark, they will be declared the winner. According to proponents of the system, this is preferable to traditional voting for a number of reasons.

High Hopes for Ranked-Choice Voting

Voting reform enthusiasts place much hope in RCV. They claim the alternative voting system will free people to vote their conscience by eliminating the “spoiler effect,” the notion that casting a vote for a preferred but unlikely candidate will help elect a least-preferred option. In turn, activists say it will induce more candidates into political races and promote the viability of non-establishment candidates. For these reasons, RCV enjoys popularity among many Libertarian and Green Party voters, as well as others who do not fit neatly into the two-party dynamic.

Voting reform advocates claim RCV will curtail negative campaigning and polarization because candidates are incentivized to court voters for the second- or third-choice votes. Proponents also say RCV will act as a bulwark against extremism. The go-to example is the 2016 Republican primary: RCV advocates point out that then-candidate Donald Trump was able to win despite being relatively unpopular with Republican voters because the opposition to him was divided among so many other candidates. (I think this is an unfortunate example, for what it’s worth. President Trump, with his anti-establishment streak and relatively eclectic policy platform, in many ways modeled the kind of candidate RCV advocates say they want to help.)

The point of elections is, above all else, to select a clear leader.

At the most extreme, RCV’s apostles believe that, with widespread adoption, it has the power to change fundamentally the composition of the nation’s representatives and, thus, American political life. In this telling, RCV would select electeds with different (read “better”) qualities than our current voting system does, thereby changing outcomes downstream of elections.

We have seen some of these lofty aspirations come to pass to one degree or another. In New York City’s mayoral primary, for example, candidates Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia campaigned collaboratively in hopes of encouraging voters to rank them first and second. It also seems that RCV really does encourage more candidates to enter the fray, along with boosting voter participation. All of these are welcome changes.

However, it seems unlikely that tweaking the voting process could deliver the kind of holistic change imagined by advocates. In Australia, one of the few countries that uses RCV at the federal level, a century of using RCV has not removed negativity from campaigning, nor has it meant the end of the nation’s relative political duopoly. 20 years of RCV in San Francisco has neither moderated the city’s politics nor produced any novel outcomes worth replicating. Out of the 428 RCV races that have taken place in the United States since 2004, there have only been 15 in which the plurality winner did not win, making it still more unlikely that RCV would result in serious changes.

Ranked-Choice Voting: a Technocrat’s Solution

Adopting RCV is simply not a priority for the average voter. Rather, RCV’s most enthusiastic support comes from a coalition of political activists, academics, and mega-donors. FairVote helpfully breaks RCV supporters into the following categories: “winners of Nobel Prize”; “winners of the Johan Skytte Prize”; “scholars on democracy, elections, and mathematics”; “newspapers and magazines”; “national political leaders”; and “authors and thought leaders.” The outsized importance assigned to procedural alteration is a byproduct of the demographics of this coalition.

In other words, the people with whom RCV is popular tend to be highly educated and process-oriented; they have high trust in “the system,” even as they decry its brokenness. These are not bad qualities to have, of course, but I find myself wondering if they might cause RCV advocates—let alone the eccentrics who seek to implement even more bespoke voting methods—to lose sight of the larger picture.

The point of elections is, above all else, to select a clear leader. Voting reform activists’ focus on redefining and selecting the “right” winner often neglects this aspect. RCV can engender some counterintuitive outcomes that fail to leave election winners with a solid mandate. In the 2010 Australian election, the Liberal-National coalition won 43% of the votes for the House of Representatives yet lost to the Labor Party, which garnered only 38%. While first-past-the-post can produce some weak mandates in crowded races, this Australian case seems particularly egregious.

One of RCV advocates’ primary lines of refrain is that the system guarantees that the winner receives majority support, in contrast to traditional vote tallying where merely a plurality is necessary. But, surely, there is some distinction to be made between a voter’s first choice and a selection much further down the list. If a candidate ekes over the finish line on a trickle of last-choice votes, is it really meaningful to say he is supported by the majority? Can voters meaningfully distinguish between their fourth and fifth choices?

It turns out many do not even bother to do so. This phenomenon, which is known as “ballot exhaustion,” describes when a voter does not rank the maximum number of candidates and has his ballot retired before the final tally, effectively rendering him an abstainer. This is a considerable problem and a thorn in the side to those who argue that RCV increases representation and influence for voters. In New York’s mayoral primary, 15% of voters ended up having their vote discarded. A 2015 study of four RCV elections found that between 9.6% and 27.1% of first-round votes met the same fate.

Conclusion

None of this is to say that RCV is sinister or stupid. On the contrary, it is a cleverly devised system that speaks to concerns shared by many, including me. We should also appreciate that it manages to walk the line between efficiency and philosophical simplicity in a manner that other alternative systems do not. 

However, voting reform enthusiasts should stop presenting it as a silver bullet for the United States’ political ailments. Given the exhausting tenor of American politics, it is not surprising that people are looking for solutions. However, at the end of the day, RCV is a matter of technocratic knob-turning. Its advocates, therefore, might do well to consider whether or not they are missing the forest for the trees in pursuit of a more perfect algorithm. Maybe this is one of the cases where there is beauty in simplicity.

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at eddiethoughts.com. He can be found on Twitter @EdwardFerrara_

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at eddiethoughts.com.

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