Ranked-Choice Voting: Choosing One Candidate or Many?
Damon Huss, from Teach Democracy, explains how ranked-choice voting compares to traditional single-winner elections.
Voters at a polling place in New York on November 8, 2020. (Michael Nagle/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)
November 6, 2023
Damon Huss, from Teach Democracy, explains how ranked-choice voting compares to traditional single-winner elections.
By Damon Huss
The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.
The quote above is from a Supreme Court decision about the importance of state legislative districts being equal in size. But Chief Justice Warren’s statement could equally apply to a controversial voting issue arising in the United States. The issue is ranked-choice voting (RCV), a system in which voters can vote for more than one candidate, ranking their preferences, rather than voting for only one candidate. RCV is being used in at least 50 jurisdictions (state and local) across the country. Many predict that it will be adopted in more and more jurisdictions over time.
Those who support ranked-choice voting would agree with Warren that democracy depends on there being no restrictions on the people’s right to freely choose their representatives. Those who oppose RCV would agree with Warren that the essence of democracy is the right to vote freely for “the candidate of one’s choice.” [Emphasis added.] We will look at ranked-choice voting in more detail below, but first, we will look at how elections traditionally work in the United States.
Most elections in the United States are fairly straightforward. Most use single-choice voting (SCV), meaning that voters pick one candidate in any race on their ballots. There are two types of SCV elections, majority-threshold and plurality-threshold.
In jurisdictions (state or local) with a majority threshold for elections, the candidate with more than 50 percent of the votes wins. If a candidate gets a plurality (50 percent or less, but still the highest number of votes), then an additional election between the top two candidates occurs. This additional election is called a runoff election.
In jurisdictions with a plurality threshold, the candidate who simply wins the most votes — even if it is not a majority — wins the election. There is no runoff. Either way, whether a majority or plurality threshold system, voters vote for just one candidate.
In the RCV system, voters do not vote for a single candidate. Instead, they rank their top candidates on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-place votes, that candidate wins. The election is over.
If no candidate receives a majority, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated from the race. The second-place choices on all the ballots for that candidate are then counted. This process is repeated until one candidate finally has a clear majority of votes and wins the election.
Quite often, ranked-choice voting is called instant runoff voting. Just like a runoff election, candidates who do not reach a majority threshold have to go to a new round of votes. But the “runoff” is immediate, with no separate, second election having to be scheduled weeks or months later.
The recent election in Alaska shows how the RCV system works. Alaska used RCV instead of SCV for the first time in August 2022 when Democrat Mary Peltola was elected to serve in Congress in a special election. (A special election is held to fill a vacancy when an elected official can no longer serve.) Peltola was running against two other candidates: Republican Nick Begich III and Republican Sarah Palin, who was Sen. John McCain’s running mate for vice president in the 2008 election.
In the first round of voting when voters ranked their choices, Peltola won a plurality of 39.7 percent of the first-place votes. Palin came in second with 30.9 percent. Begich came in third with 27.8 percent. Begich was eliminated and the second-place choices on his ballots were disbursed to Peltola and Palin.
After the final counting, Peltola beat Palin, becoming the first Indigenous person from Alaska elected to federal office since Alaska became a state in 1959. She was also the first Democrat to represent Alaska since 1972.
Critics of the ranked-choice system were not pleased. “Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) in response to Peltola’s win. Sen. Cotton argued that 60 percent of Alaska voters “voted for a Republican [combining votes for Palin and Begich], but thanks to a convoluted process . . . a Democrat ‘won.’” (In November 2022, Peltola won re-election after receiving an even larger plurality (48.8 percent) in the first round of voting.)
Maine approved RCV for statewide and federal elections in 2018, and Alaska in 2022. Maine also became the first state to approve RCV for presidential general elections in 2020. Nevada has approved a state constitutional amendment to potentially allow RCV in 2026. Many more local elections have used some version of RCV in recent years, including Santa Fe, New Mexico; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Oakland, California; and New York City.
Is RCV fair? Let’s look at the arguments for and against RCV.
The instant runoff feature of RCV ensures that no candidate can win with only a plurality. Also, in crowded races with candidates from various parties, only candidates with the most support will eventually get a majority of votes. This contrasts with Sen. Cotton’s statement above.
Many voters are concerned that our politics has become extremely divided (or polarized). Fewer politicians seek compromise with each other to get bills passed. In RCV, candidates need to have a broad appeal to gain as many second-choice votes as possible. Those second-choice votes are as valuable as first-choice votes in the instant runoff.
In 2022, Nevada voters approved a measure that puts RCV in effect in 2026. That RCV system would allow the top five vote-getters in a nonpartisan primary election to compete in a nonpartisan general election using RCV. In support of the measure, a spokesperson for the Nevada Association of Realtors said RCV “can give more of a voice to the nearly 40 percent of Nevada voters who are not members of the two largest political parties.”
Candidates from smaller third parties are often viewed as spoilers, taking away votes from candidates in the two major parties: Democratic and Republican. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, an analysis by CNN showed that if half of the supporters of the Libertarian Party candidate and all of the supporters of the Green Party candidate in four key states had voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Clinton would have won. She would have had enough electoral votes to become president. Therefore, many Clinton-supporters viewed the Libertarian and the Green as spoilers.
If, however, voters had the option of voting for “back-up” candidates as their second or third choice, the spoiler effect would be eliminated. Third-party voters would have a chance to “express their political voice,” as political scientist Lee Drutman has argued, by picking their candidates first. They could pick major-party candidates second or third. If the major-party candidates are more popular, they will win, and there is no spoiler effect.
According to Stephanie Houghton of FairVote Washington, “Voters who have used ranked choice voting say it’s simple to use.” In Maine in 2020, more than 828,000 people voted (after RCV was approved in 2018), compared to 771,000 in 2016 (before RCV was approved). Some argue, however, that the use of absentee ballots due to COVID-19 could account for the increased turnout.
In addition, the current runoff elections in majority-threshold jurisdictions commonly have low turnouts. And runoff elections are expensive for the state. They include the costs of printing ballots, mailing ballots, and hiring poll workers and election workers to count ballots. Instant runoffs eliminate the need for those expenses.
The system of instant runoffs, in which second-choice votes of eliminated candidates are disbursed to the remaining candidates, is more complicated than a simple winner-take-all system. Picking one candidate on a ballot is easier than ranking two or more.
Opposing the 2022 Nevada “top-five” measure, the Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak warned that the measure would make the state’s elections “confusing, error-prone and exclusionary.” Sisolak was joined in his opposition by Majority Forward, a nonprofit affiliated with Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as numerous Democrats and Republicans in the state’s legislature.
RCV is flawed in that it allows candidates with fewer first-choice votes to win in the instant runoff. After Maine voters approved RCV in 2018 for federal congressional elections, Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden competed in the state’s first RCV general election. After the first-round vote, Poliquin led Golden by 2,000 votes. But when the least-chosen candidates were eliminated, their second-choice votes mostly went to Golden, allowing Golden to win.
Poliquin and several people who voted for him challenged the election result in federal court. Among several claims, they argued that ranked-choice voting violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of due process of law and equal protection under the law. In his equal protection argument, Poliquin claimed that his voters’ ballots were not given equal weight to other voters’ ballots because they were not counted in the instant runoff. Judge Lance Walker, a Trump appointee, rejected all Poliquin’s claims. Golden was sworn into office in 2019.
Often, political commentators distinguish between “extreme” far-left or far-right candidates and “moderate” candidates. So-called extreme politicians seek radical solutions to problems. They are typically unwilling to compromise. So-called moderate politicians, however, are more willing to “reach across the aisle” and find common ground with their opponents.
In analyzing the 2022 election of Mary Peltola in Alaska, law professor Nathan Atkinson and business professor Scott C. Ganz characterized Peltola as an “extreme” far-left candidate. (They implied that Sarah Palin was an “extreme” far-right candidate.) The “moderate” Nick Begich III, in their opinion, had more popular support when looking at all the ballots that had him in second place. But because Alaska’s voters were largely polarized between the far-left and far-right, they argued, Peltola unfairly pulled ahead.
In a letter to the editor of the Alaska Daily News, two citizens of the state argued that “RCV does not encourage more people to vote.” They cited that Alaskans cast 100,000 fewer ballots in 2022 — the first statewide RCV election — than in 2020.
After decades of seemingly increased voter apathy, many Americans want to be inspired to show up at the polls. Some have argued that robust campaign finance reform would make the political parties more responsive to voters’ needs. Others have argued that increased uses of mail-in voting and extended election days prompt voter enthusiasm. In the middle of the ongoing debate, ranked-choice voting has emerged as yet another possibility. As more data comes in from RCV elections, we will know in coming years if RCV is effective in strengthening American democracy.
1. Explain how ranked-choice voting compares to traditional single-winner elections.
2. Which arguments do you find more persuasive: arguments for RCV or arguments against? Give at least three examples in your answer.
3. Critics of ranked-choice voting say it violates the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” This phrase means every voter is guaranteed to have their vote counted. Do you agree? Why or why not?
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