Voting is the lifeblood of democracies around the world. The United States of America was founded on a plurality system, also called “Winner-Take-All” or “First Past the Post,” where voters have one vote per seat, and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Advocates of this system tout its simplicity, stability, and accountability of candidates to a geographic constituency. In 2019, New York City voted to move away from this plurality system in favor of another – Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). New York City joins the states of Maine, Alaska, and dozens of jurisdictions around the U.S.
Ranked Choice Voting – Overview
Rather than casting one vote for their preferred candidate, ranked choice voters grade a given number of candidates from most to least preferred. If no candidate has more than 50.1% of first place votes after the first tabulation, then the candidates who mathematically cannot win are eliminated and their votes are re-allocated to the second choice on the ballot. This process continues until there are only two candidates left, and the individual with more votes wins the seat. On June 22nd, 2021, New York City will put its new system to the test with the Democratic Primary for the Mayor of New York City.
Ranked choice voting advocates argue the reformed system is more representative, increases turnout, and disincentivizes negative campaigning. Critics argue, however, that these benefits are exaggerated, or even misleading, and there are hidden or damaging implications to RCV.
Representation and Voter Turnout
Advocates argue that RCV is a more representative system because it attracts new candidates. Therefore, the thinking goes, voters have more choices which will attract more people, increasing turnout. Additionally, RCV eliminates the “wasted vote” argument that deters people from voting for their preferred candidate because they have no real chance of winning. In theory, this argument makes sense: a more diverse field of candidates will inspire new voters to go to the polls, who may feel disenfranchised by the current Democrat and Republican duopoly. This conclusion depends, however, on the assumption that more choice will encourage new voters to go to the polls.
The Alaska Policy Forum (APF) challenges this assumption by pointing out that ranked choice voters rarely fill out the entire ballot, this is especially true for racial minorities. It is possible that the presence of more choices does the opposite of galvanizing the public; rather, the complexity and novelty of the system could be confusing, especially for people who were not likely voters in the first place.
Professor James Campbell of the University of Buffalo argues that even if RCV does increase turnout, it will be “produced by voters drawn to the polls to vote for candidates having no real prospects of being elected.”
The winner of an RCV election does not necessarily have the majority of votes. According to a study published in 2015 by the ScienceDirect Journal, RCV does not always lead to a majority winner: “in fact, none of the winners of the elections examined in the study won with a majority of the votes cast.” A non-majority winner is possible because of a unique aspect of RCV called “exhausted ballots.”
An “exhausted ballot” is discarded because all the candidates marked on a particular ballot are eliminated prior to the final round. According to the same study, since many voters do not rank all candidates, the rate of exhausted ballots is quite high, anywhere from 9% to 27% of all votes cast. According to that statistic, approximately 1 in 5 of every vote cast would be discarded in a RCV election. Critics argue that such a system is less, rather than more representative.
RCV advocates contend this new system will reduce political polarization by disincentivizing attack ads and negative campaigning. A study published in 2014 by the University of Iowa found that RCV did indeed decrease voters’ perceived negativity of campaigns. The civility of a political race is, however, quite a different thing than partisanship once a candidate has been elected.
While the plurality system incentivizes coalition building, cooperation, and aggregation, the ranked choice system does the opposite, encouraging differentiation and contention. Professor Campbell writes “Although its advocates embrace RCV as a reform reducing the hyper-conflict of polarization, it is likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Based on this rational choice analysis, RCV is a system that generally enables divisiveness.” The plurality system is obviously polarizing, but RCV could exacerbate grid lock by removing the incentive for those left and right of center to coalesce around the two political parties. Whereas the plurality system is a competition between Democrats and Republicans, a RCV election could widen the scope of the ideological battlefield so that factions of each party are fighting against each other. Of course, this “in-fighting” would be accompanied by conflict with the factions on the other side of the political spectrum as well.
Many people believe the U.S. election system needs reform, but even a well-intentioned change comes with its own set of potentially problematic incentives. So, who will be correct: the RCV advocates who argue that this system will increase representation and mitigate polarization, or its critics who say this new system will only exacerbate the challenges of the plurality system? Only time will tell, but the NYC mayoral primary on June 22nd, 2021, ought to provide some insight on this question.