Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), also called "instant runoff voting," is the darling of Progressive voters and is being aggressively asserted as the future of American elections. It is an instant "runoff" because the race in question goes through multiple rounds of tabulation to get to the final result. Despite little supporting evidence, proponents say it is "more majoritarian" and promotes "collaborative campaigning." While the creep toward RCV elections may not rank at the top of the list of concerns, it probably should be. Consensus and good feelings are what Progressives live for, but elections may not be the place to allow those ideological concerns to prevail. This is especially true if one's Fourteenth Amendment equal protection guarantee is eroded in service of those ideals. Nevertheless, there is growing pressure to implement the system, and many will find themselves voting that way in the not-too-distant future if not well-informed.
According to the University of Cincinnati Law Review (UCLR),
"As of 2021, fourteen states have adopted RCV at the state or local level. Maine uses RCV for all federal elections. In 2020, Alaskans voted to adopt RCV for both federal and state elections. Similarly, although California does not use RCV statewide, large cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley use RCV for mayoral and local elections. On its largest scale to date, RCV is now used by the more than eight million residents of New York City when electing its mayor." (22 states have adopted some kind of legislation to adopt RCV.)
In addition, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced the Ranked Choice Voting Act in 2019, and in 2021 Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) introduced the For the People Act "which would require all states receiving federal election grants to replace voting systems with those capable of tabulating RCV ballots." In 2020, Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren made RCV "a central policy objective." The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) shows that "more than 11 million Americans live in jurisdictions that use RCV."
Finally, make no mistake, "bi-partisan" nonprofits like FairVote, endowed with grant money, are aggressively pushing RCV too. FairVote is one of many nonprofits and NGOs popping up in recent years that are heavily funded by groups like the Democracy Fund and so many others. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) states, "RCV advocacy organizations claim that this massive overhaul can improve voter confidence by providing more candidate choices, decreasing negative campaigning, and ensuring majority rule." The transformative jockeying behind the scenes may well be a column for another day.
RCV in Simple Terms
RCV is grounded in a "plurality system" of voting. "Plurality voting is distinguished from majority voting, in which a winning candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes. With RCV, the voter selects candidates in order of preference.
With ranked-choice voting, voters may choose to vote for a number of candidates, but they must rank them in order of preference. UCLR explains:
"After the first round of tabulation, if any one candidate receives fifty percent or more of the first-choice votes, that candidate wins the election outright. But if no candidate secures more than fifty percent of the vote, RCV elections proceed to subsequent rounds of vote counting. First, the bottom candidates who cannot mathematically reach fifty percent are eliminated. Then, the votes for these now-eliminated candidates are reallocated to the voter's second-choice candidate. If a voter's first-choice candidate was not eliminated, that first-choice vote remains the same and is simply carried over into the next round. This vote reallocation process continues until one candidate receives over fifty percent of the vote and is thus declared the winner."
Please note the following: The voter ranks candidates by preference, but when the ballot leaves his hands, his votes are reallocated "at the direction of officials [who then] engage in multiple "rounds" of vote disbursement...conducted in secrecy behind closed doors."
Now for a real-world example provided by UCLR regarding Maine's 2018 election for the U.S. House of Representatives. Four candidates qualified to appear on the ballot in Maine's Second Congressional District. The ballot is pictured below:
Maine District 2 Race/https://scholarship.law.uc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1432&context=uclr
UCLR, again, explains the example clearly. Notice that the candidate who would have won in a regularly conducted election would have won in a standard election with 46 percent of the vote, but he lost in the RCV election:
"After the first round of voting, forty-six percent of voters ranked Poliquin as their first choice while forty-five percent chose Golden. Under the standard plurality voting system, Poliquin would have won. Nevertheless, because no candidate received over fifty percent, the RCV election continued. Because it was statistically impossible for Bond or Hoar to reach fifty percent, both were dubbed "non-continuing candidates" and were eliminated. Consequently, the twenty-four thousand voters who ranked either Bond or Hoar as their first choice had those votes eliminated and then reallocated to either Poliquin or Golden, depending on which candidate the voter ranked second highest. After the final tabulation, Golden prevailed by just over three thousand votes. Poliquin, the two-term incumbent, lost despite winning the plurality vote."
As with many issues ardently supported by Progressives, ranked-choice voting is the change Americans are looking for to heal the political divide. They say it gives "a greater voice to voters." At worst, they would have you believe the change is harmless and leaves voters' constitutional rights more than intact. However, a close examination of the weeds shows it is transformative and is actually the opposite of ensuring the voter's "voice."
The Realities of Ranked Choice Voting
Let's bust some myths about RCV by looking at some real-world examples of how voters might become disenfranchised with an RCV system.
Myth #1: This is a feel-good outcome. Voters end up with the "best" candidate
In one recent RCV election in San Francisco, "by the final round of tabulation, 27 percent of voters had their ranked ballots exhausted." That means they were no longer participating with the other 73 percent "because the candidates and the voters change in subsequent rounds." If it is okay to disenfranchise voters as the rounds continue, then yes, RCV is a great idea. In reality, the subsequent rounds "treat some voters more favorably than others." To clarify:
"Voters who rank a non-continuing candidate first, and thus have their second or third choice considered, get to morph their ballots into outcome determinative votes. In contrast, voters who rank a continuing candidate are stuck with a single choice and that single vote. Moreover, while some voters have their votes counted again and again, others have their ballots eliminated in RCV's subsequent rounds. It is illogical to suggest that the twenty-seven percent of voters who had their ballots exhausted by the last round were afforded an "equal chance" to impact the outcome of the election—they did not even have a vote to exercise in the later elections."
Myth #2: Voting behavior operates in a vacuum
Voting behavior is relative in nature. On election day, voters weigh their votes by selecting a candidate from a field of candidates. So in a normal election, the voter has one shot to vote for the candidate who has done the best job of convincing said voter that his or her platform best represents the convictions and ideals of that voter. The candidate with the majority of votes wins.
With RCV, candidates change in the sorting, and effectively, so do voter decisions. With RCV, voters are effectively participating in "hypothetical elections."
"In practice, RCV forces voters to gaze into the crystal ball and forecast their preferences should the pool of candidates change, and in real-time, cast votes based on hypothetical, future elections. This is the functional equivalent of requiring voters to select a party nominee in a spring primary election, while also casting their vote for the general election without knowing who the other candidates will be or hearing any further debate from those candidates. This feature of RCV not only burdens voting rights and leads to wasted ballots. It is fundamentally illogical."
Ranking candidates first should never cause a candidate to lose, and "ranking a candidate lower than the first" should never cause that candidate to win, but it happens all too frequently with this method.
Myth #3 RCV is confusing, but voters can be educated
There is ample evidence to suggest that subsets of voters will always be confused at the polls in RCV elections. RCV is "unduly complex" and therefore overly burdensome to voters—ironically, something progressives scream about incessantly with regard to ID laws. They say ID requirements disenfranchise minorities, for example. As a result of the confusion, RCV often results in overvotes whereby a voter selects one candidate more than once.
"For example, some voters believe that to express support for their favorite candidate in an RCV election, they need to fill in the box next to that candidate's name for each round. When overvotes occur, the voter's entire ballot is "exhausted" and rendered null and void for the entire election. In other words, a simple voter mistake leads to a disenfranchised voice."
In the San Francisco RCV election, according to UCLR:
"820 ballots were exhausted due to an overvote. Additionally, in Maine's Second Congressional District election, 6,453 votes were exhausted in the first round alone. By the final round of tabulation, over 15,000 votes had been thrown out. Of these, 533 voters had overvoted and another 335 votes were not counted for failure to select a continuing candidate. In closely-contested elections decided by a few thousand votes, these numbers are significant."
"The results are cause for concern. After RCV was implemented, the rate of exhausted ballots and overvoting increased in minority precincts primarily comprised of African American, Latino, and foreign-born voters. Precincts with higher elderly and low-income populations saw similar increases. Further, studies find that women are more likely than men to have ballots exhausted because of RCV errors."
Myth #4: RCV saves taxpayer dollars
There are "considerable costs" associated with the RCV system of voting. In summary, according to UCLR:
"To implement and maintain RCV, the government must conduct detailed voter education campaigns, print new RCV ballots, and purchase expensive ballot machines. In Maine, implementing RCV increased the state's electoral budget two-fold. In the same vein, RCV does not alleviate administrative burdens but rather increases the toll on election personnel and resources. In fact, if the government had a sincere interest in preserving money and resources, it should avoid implementing RCV entirely."
Summary Points on Ranked Choice Voting
- RCV functions as a numerous, closed-door runoff election, where some voters are afforded a greater weight and ability to influence the outcome of an election.
- RCV deprives voters of an educated and meaningful vote in those subsequent elections.
- RCV defies the core tenets and common sense nature of [American] elections.
- RCV is confusing, both in theory and in practice, such that an increased number of voters commit errors resulting in disenfranchisement. The standard counterargument is that votes are simply counted the same at each round of the RCV election, but cloaked behind that simplistic justification lies the reality that, while numerically counted the same, these votes are fraught with voter confusion, uncertainty, and inequity"
Research performed by the (FGA) confirms UCLR's findings and also found that districts using RCV "have lower voter turnout rates and it changes and delays the election counting process."
In May 2021, the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota published a well-sourced 32-page election reform report that makes a case against RCV as "a risk voters shouldn't take" with key lessons learned and ways to "defeat RCV when it comes to your state." The report reminds American voters of the following—ranked choice voting is the "opposite of transparent" and "one person, one vote" is a "bedrock electoral principle" that "undergirds" American voters as set forth by the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee. It is a guarantee that "any one citizen has a constitutionally protected right to participate in an election on an equal basis with others" at all points in the process.
While it is true that some outcomes may favor Democrats and others will favor Republicans or third-party candidates, the principles behind American elections clearly endorse the idea that "one's partisan preference must not outweigh the importance of preserving the constitutional principle that voters should cast votes of equal weight."