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Ranking Ranked-Choice Voting

MADISON — Ranked-choice voting has its share of fans and detractors.

While it’s supporters insist RCV, or “instant-runoff voting”, delivers true “majority rule” in plurality elections with several candidates, opponents argue the preferential system is complicated and unrealistic in a polarized political climate.

A new policy brief from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL)  examines the “promise, peril, and real-world record” of ranked-choice voting.

Rank the Vote: The Implications and Record of Ranked-Choice Voting, by WILL’s Senior Research Analyst Noah Diekemper finds that the states and municipalities that have employed ranked-choice voting haven’t provided much evidence that the system would serve to address some of the structural issues in American politics, and could make things worse with lengthy and chaotic election aftermaths with bizarre results that don’t reflect a majority or plurality.

“Ranked-choice voting isn’t necessarily better or worse than the current system — it’s just different,” Diekemper said. “But it does present the danger of even lengthier ballot counting and odd results, without necessarily fulfilling the promises to improve our politics. It’s no silver-bullet solution and we ought to be clear-eyed about the downsides.”

What is ranked-choice voting?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL): In a ranked-choice voting system, voters rank all the candidates for a given office by their preference—first choice, second choice, etc. The votes are first tallied based on the first choice on every ballot.

When ranked-choice is used to elect one candidate (instead of multiple candidates in a multi-member district), if no single candidate wins a first-round majority of the votes, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and another round of vote tallying commences. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, then the vote goes to the second choice and so on. Eventually one candidate receives a majority (over 50%) and wins the election. The result is similar to traditional runoff elections, but with just one trip to the polls.

To win, a candidate must have a majority of votes cast. If 100 votes are cast, the winner needs 51. If a candidate wins 51 votes in the first round, she or he wins the election. If none of the candidates secure a majority, the election goes to step two.

As WILL’s policy paper notes, proponents of ranked-choice voting, on the right and left, believe the changes to how voters select candidates could de-polarize American politics and incentivize moderation and consensus. But these promises are largely unproven. The Milwaukee public-interest law firm’s review finds RCV has a hard time living up to its promise while “delivering some dangerous downsides.”

  • Ranked-choice is supposed to give voters more options and make politics less acrimonious, but a two-party system already maximizes coalition building. Republican and Democratic caucuses both include voters with different priorities and necessitate compromise; widening the number of viable parties discourages compromise.
  • The “majority” winner in a ranked-choice election need not have anything like majority preference. Americans have deep underlying disagreements about politics that generally rule out true majority rule. But the majorities established by ranked-choice elections hardly deserve the name; in one scenario, a candidate could win a ranked-choice election despite being ranked last or second-to-last out of five choices by a majority of voters.
  • Overhauling elections systems invites chaos and mistakes. New York City’s experience implementing a new system of voting, where they published thousands of dummy results in the middle of high national skepticism of elections, is the sort of thing that civic leaders should be at pains to avoid.
  • Ranked-choice elections delay results. At a time when Americans already dislike being made to wait longer for results, ranked-choice voting requires the presence of all ballots before counting can begin. In an age of mailed-in ballots, this means significant delays.
  • Ranked-choice elections in America have mostly looked like typical ones: plurality candidates winning and lots of mudslinging. Roughly 97% of American ranked-choice elections have been won by the candidate who won a plurality of first-place ballots (in the manner of usual American elections) anyway, while the tone and hostility of those elections has not noticeably differed from usual ones.

In 2016, the state of Maine became the first in the nation to enact ranked-choice voting. RCV was employed in U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, state senator and state representative races. And eventually presidential elections.

Alaska and Maine are the only states in the country to have established the use of ranked-choice voting for all congressional and state elections, according to NCSL. Maine encountered some legal problems when, in 2017, when the state Supreme Judicial Court found that parts of it violated the state constitution.

Many large cities in the U.S. use ranked-choice voting including St. Paul, Minn., Portland, Maine, and four cities in the Bay Area of California, according to NCSL.

New York City’s Mayoral race didn’t help ranked-choice voting’s public-relations problems. As Politico reported last July:

Even though last week’s fumble by the city Board of Elections — in which it released incorrect vote tallies before fixing the totals 24 hours later — was not specifically related to the ranked-choice system, the complex way of choosing candidates is drawing new scrutiny as New Yorkers are going on two weeks waiting to learn the identity of the city’s likely next mayor.

The board had errantly counted 135,000 test ballots and added those into its original vote totals. The debacle exposed what many see as the system’s biggest flaw: it’s much more complicated than traditional single-candidate voting.

But supporters like Nashville City Council Member Dave Rosenberg told WPLN in Nashville earlier this month that ranked-choice voting ends the wasting of votes.

“In effect, you’re making sure those voters’ votes still count by seeing who their second choice was, since their first choice was eliminated,” Rosenberg told the news outlet.

Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey has introduced a bill that would bar counties from using instant-runoff voting.

“This is a method that is confusing and complex — where if you have multiple candidates, instead of just voting for the name on the ballot, you would instead actually rank those candidates 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for example,” Kelsey said.

In Wisconsin, state Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) co-sponsored a ranked-choice voting bill last year. It would only be used for congressional elections — House and Senate races.

Kooyenga told The Associated Press that the system has a moderating effect.

“We’re a purple state,” he said. “This is a bill that I think a lot of Wisconsin residents are going to look at.”

The bill, which received bi-partisan backing, remains stuck in the Senate. 

“It’s no silver-bullet solution and we ought to be clear-eyed about the downsides,” WILL’s Diekemper warned.

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