Ranked Choice Voting: a More Democratic System?

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

The debate surrounding the merits of our electoral system has been intensifying over the past few years. Under the current plurality system (also called winner-take-all or first-past-the-post), each voter votes for only one candidate, with the candidate who polls more votes than any other candidate elected. The plurality system, however, can, and has, led to occasions when a candidate wins without a majority of votes, calling into question the extent to which our government is truly democratic. The rank choice vote (RCV)—used by Australia, Ireland, several American cities such as San Francisco, and recently, Maine—has gained publicity as a potential solution for the issues associated with plurality. An examination of RCV in theory and in practice reveals its effects on democracy and can help us determine whether the system should be adopted on a larger scale in the U.S.

Under RCV, voters list candidates in order of preferences. If a candidate wins a majority in the first-choice votes, they are elected. If no majority emerges, then the candidate in last place is eliminated. Each vote cast for that candidate will then be transferred to the voter’s next-ranked choice among the remaining candidates. The ballots are redistributed in this manner until one candidate does win majority.

RCV seeks to promote the election of individuals who the majority of the population is able to accept. It eliminates the spoiler effect exhibited in current voting practice—this effect describes the phenomenon where two similar political opponents siphon off votes from each other to pave the way for another candidate to win, even though the voter niche of the first two candidates is larger. As an illustration, in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Ralph Nader split potential Al Gore votes to allow Bush to win presidency. On the congressional or gubernatorial levels, RCV would prevent such scenarios, leading to a more democratic outcome with the winner better reflecting the choices of the most voters.

The system thus encourages more centrist politicians. Since winning requires an absolute majority of the vote, RCV forces politicians to be mindful of not only first-choice votes, but also second-choice and further choice votes. Thus, they are compelled to appeal to a broader crowd of voters to maximize their chances of success, in turn leading to higher likelihoods of compromise or bipartisan approaches. In this way, RCV also disincentivizes negative campaigning by directing campaigning strategies more towards finding common grounds and less toward dividing, attacking, and alienating potential supporters. In fact, a campaign ad from Maine’s Democratic primary illustrated opponents Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet both urging their own supporters to support the other candidate as well in second-choice votes.

Voters thus face a lesser worry about “wasting” their vote, since under the RCV they could vote for candidates they actually care about and still have their alternative preferences accounted for. Proponents of the RCV assert that the system could increase voter turnout, giving voters who, under the plurality system, may had felt disillusioned by the two front-runners, more motivation to turnout. In fact, a study of 79 elections in 26 American cities found that the RCV was associated with a 10 percent increase in turnout compared with non-RCV elections.

There are, however, critics who note challenges. It requires voters to do more political research, imposing greater informational costs. Under RCV, it is no longer sufficient to determine one’s most preferred candidate: one must consider the remaining candidates as well. RCV also requires counting all ballots at a centralized location rather than in a precinct. Thus, although the system could be relatively simple to adopt in local elections, implementation in statewide or national elections would require an overhaul of existing voting procedures and equipment.

Significantly, although in theory the RCV resolves the issues of a plurality system, in practice it could still result in the election of a non-majority winner. Ballot exhaustion occurs when voters do not rank enough candidates to stay meaningful until the final round. For example, perhaps a voter ranks only three out of five candidates running, all of whom are eliminated prior to the last runoff. Thus, the voter has no say in the final round of vote redistribution which decided the overall election runoff. If enough ballots are exhausted, it could lead to a winner who may not had been supported or considered by a majority of the population.

The RCV also treats a voter’s second or third-choice vote equal in weight as a voter’s first choice. For example, in 2010, the Australian Labor Party won the House of Representatives with 38 percent of the first-choice votes on the ballot, while the second-place Liberal-National coalition won 43 percent. While the equal treatment is essential in producing the benefits the RCV does, it could raise doubts about the legitimacy of the victory and the persuasiveness of the political mandate the Labor Party earned.

Proponents of the RCV argue for the implementation of a system that better reflects the growing diversity of interests that exist in the U.S. today. However, the suggestion of a break in the status quo can pose as a threat to established party leaders, as exhibited in the long battle RCV supporters faced in Maine.


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