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The Promise and Peril of Ranked-Choice Voting

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The Promise and Peril of Ranked-Choice Voting

Reformers advocate it as a cure-all for American democracy, but experience counsels a more cautious approach. April 12, 2021
Politics and law

Ranked-choice voting (RCV)—sometimes called preferential or instant-runoff voting—is gaining support among election reformers. Calling it the “master reform,” proponents argue that RCV can boost voter turnout, reduce the power of money in elections, improve campaigns’ substance, eliminate extremists, and encourage new political parties. Skeptics worry that it could confuse voters, depress turnout, raise the costs of election administration, and either allow too many outsiders to win or privilege incumbents and well-funded candidates. Some of these concerns are overblown. But while experimentation with RCV is worthwhile, evidence and experience offer reasons to doubt that it can be a panacea for American democracy’s woes.

Among the many versions of RCV, the most common in the U.S. is a set of rules permitting voters to rank as many as five candidates in order of preference (rather than requiring them simply to vote for one candidate). In single-seat elections, if no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated; those who marked that candidate as their first choice will see their second choice counted instead. This process repeats until one candidate emerges with a clear majority, in many cases winning with a substantial number of voters ranking him as their second or third choice.

Preferential voting is increasingly common in the U.S. It was first adopted in two dozen cities during a wave of municipal reform in the first half of the twentieth century. Three California cities—San Francisco in 2002, Berkeley in 2004, and Oakland in 2006—adopted RCV systems in the 2000s, as did Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2006. Today, 20 cities have a version of RCV on the books, most recently New York City, which approved it in 2019 for city primaries and special elections (but not for general elections for mayor, city council, or other offices). Maine used RCV for the first time in both state and federal elections in 2020, and a number of other states also used it for the Democratic presidential primaries last year.

However, significant bipartisan resistance to RCV makes its broad adoption an uphill battle. Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, called it “the most horrific thing in the world” as the Maine GOP campaigned against it in a 2016 referendum, passed legislation to halt it, and filed lawsuits seeking to block its implementation. In New York City, the NAACP and a leading Democratic candidate for mayor, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, oppose its use in the upcoming Democratic primary. And in Massachusetts, 55 percent of voters cast ballots against an initiative to establish RCV for state-level elections in 2020.

Many arguments in favor of RCV are theoretical. Advocates predict that it would offer better incentives for candidates and voters. Candidates would no longer seek to maximize turnout among their core constituents, instead making appeals to other groups, hoping that some voters would rank them as second or third choices. Voters could vote for their top choice without worrying about “wasting” their vote on longshot candidates, since their second and third choices would still count if they selected a candidate outside the mainstream first. Scholarly study of RCV in the U.S. and abroad is relatively limited, though some nations such as New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia—which has used it for over a century—have more practical experience with it. But conjectures, rather than empirical evidence, are often the stuff of which reforms are made.

Reformers are correct that low participation in urban elections poses a political problem. Turnout is less than 30 percent of the electorate for most big-city mayoral elections and falls below 15 percent in some cities. Off-cycle contests decrease turnout further. Low turnout risks giving militant activists and interest groups that engage in electioneering—usually progressives, environmentalists, and public-employee unions—disproportionate influence, and may cause elected officials to be more responsive to a group well to the left of the electorate as a whole. Policy outcomes, in turn, skew to the left of the average city dweller’s preferences.

But scholarly evidence that RCV increases turnout is thin. FairVote, an advocacy organization that promotes preferential voting, analyzed turnout in six jurisdictions in California, Minnesota, and New Mexico, finding an increase after the implementation of RCV. However, a scholarly study of San Francisco found that RCV diminished turnout among black and white voters, while another study found that turnout remains mostly the same under RCV.

And even if it bolsters turnout, RCV invites the problem of “ballot exhaustion,” which occurs when too many voters rank too few candidates such that their vote is not counted in the final runoff. Consider an election where five candidates are running but a voter ranks only three, all of whom get eliminated before the final tally. Since none of his votes will have gone to either the winner or the runner-up, his ballot is effectively discarded. A study of San Francisco’s 2011 mayoral contest found that 27 percent of first-round ballots were exhausted before the last round, meaning that those voters’ ballots had zero impact on the final vote distribution that decided the election. That so many votes were not part of the final tally does not bode well for such a system inspiring confidence in election outcomes. It also undercuts the reformers’ argument that, unlike plurality systems, RCV yields winners with clear majorities behind them.

RCV advocates also hope to reduce the negativity of political campaigns, a longstanding feature of American elections. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, a liberal think tank, says that RCV “would encourage more civil campaigning and political discourse.” At least one study found that survey respondents in cities using preferential voting were more satisfied with the conduct of local campaigns, and less likely to see them as negative, than were people in similar cities with plurality elections. Some polling data also indicate that voters perceived RCV elections as more “civil.”

The notion that RCV will make campaigns less negative remains unproven, however. Australia, which elects its parliament using this method, has vigorous campaigns. New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary has featured some harsh rhetoric, most notably toward tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Even if RCV induces candidates to moderate their appeals to voters, it’s unclear how, if at all, it would change the campaign behavior of interest groups. And even if civility prevails among mainstream candidates, preferential voting might encourage extreme candidates with more strident messages, giving them an incentive to siphon first-place ballots from a slice of the electorate that feels secure giving second-place votes to more popular candidates.

Campaigns for office in America are notoriously long and expensive, but little evidence exists with which to determine whether RCV will reduce the amount of money in elections. But consider that in 2010, in Oakland’s first RCV mayoral race, candidates spent $1 million; in 2014, they spent nearly $1.8 million. This increase may have more to do with RCV inducing more candidates to run than the top candidates engaging in a major media battle. Nonetheless, commercials tend to be the most expensive part of campaigns, and it is not obvious why preferential voting would cause leading candidates to spend less on advertising.

Some proponents are attracted to the idea that RCV would encourage the emergence of a multiparty system. Francis Fukuyama argues as much, as does the New America Foundation’s Lee Drutman. Consider, however, that two main parties dominate Australian politics: one on the center-left, the other on the center-right. In Australia, RCV often plays little role in deciding outcomes, since first-choice votes determine the winner of many seats. In the country’s 2013 elections, for instance, 90 percent of constituencies elected the candidate with the most first-choice votes; the preferential voting system had little impact on who won or lost. Of course, Australia has more parties nationally than does the U.S., but that is because it uses a parliamentary system with proportional representation.

In any case, multiple political parties already dot America’s urban electoral landscape, with the Greens in California and the Working Families Party in New York playing influential roles. Those parties can still act as “spoilers” by siphoning votes from major-party candidates, but one study, using survey experiments in American cities, found that RCV may not significantly change election outcomes and had no positive impact on voters’ confidence in elections and the democratic process.

For many, the summum bonum of RCV is that it should reduce polarization and encourage moderation. In theory, it would seem to do so—but in practice, the results have been less encouraging. A study of seven deeply divided countries found little support for the idea that preferential-vote systems enhanced the fortunes of moderate political parties. Another study of Oakland and San Francisco found that RCV did not ameliorate voting polarization along racial lines. A casual observer might also note that San Francisco and Oakland have hardly become bastions of moderation since implementing preferential voting.

It’s fair to say, then, that the jury remains out on RCV. While 11 American states and 20 cities have adopted versions of it, those adoptions are quite recent. We lack sufficient experience with and study of RCV to offer a final verdict.

Before reformers try to visit the system on the entire nation, they should investigate how RCV performs in U.S. cities. Expectations for what RCV can achieve should remain modest. Many of the electoral diseases RCV is supposed to cure are deeply entrenched. RCV might not live up to its billing as the cure-all for American politics—the solution to make democracy more civil, participatory, reasonable, and representative.

Would-be reformers should also remain alert to unintended consequences. Even seemingly small changes to voting and party systems can have large unforeseen effects. As Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield noted long ago: “If we change the party system in one respect, even a seemingly trivial one, we are likely to set in motion a succession of changes which will not come to an end until the whole system has been changed.” Banfield’s prediction that efforts to improve the political parties by democratizing them would backfire proved prescient: the adoption of primaries to select candidates has resulted in a dysfunctional presidential-selection system and increased voter alienation. Tinkering with the party system is risky business.

With that in mind, we should retain a healthy skepticism that the American electoral system can be remade on the basis of rational planning. Salutary change to American politics is as likely to come organically as it is from intention.

Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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