Voting Rights

As Electoral Reform Lands on More Ballots, Anti-Ranked-Choice Campaign Defends Status Quo

The Protect My Ballot campaign is out to stop ranked-choice voting.

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A surging number of states and localities are thinking about adopting ranked-choice voting, an alternative approach to running an election that offers more room for independent and third-party candidates. This, in turn, has sparked a backlash from the defenders of the traditional system.

Come November, voters in Alaska, Massachusetts, and North Dakota, among other places, will decide whether to adopt ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference instead of choosing just one. 

If a candidate gets an outright majority of first-preference votes, he or she wins. If no one gets a majority, the candidate who received the least number of first-preference votes is eliminated. The votes they received are transferred over to voters' second preference. The process repeats until one candidate receives a majority of transferred votes. The process is also known as "instant runoff" voting, because it simulates a run-off election.

Proponents say that ranked-choice voting would increase representation and expand options for voters beyond the two main parties. The system is currently used in limited circumstances in 23 states, including for local elections, and primary races. Only Maine uses rank-choice voting for statewide elections.

Melodie Wilterdink of the Alaska Policy Forum, a conservative think tank, argues that ranked-choice voting "doesn't allow everyone's ballot to be counted." If voters are asked to rank four candidates in an eight-candidate race, there is a chance all four candidates will be knocked out, resulting in "ballot exhaustion" and a discarded vote.

Last week the Alaska Policy Forum, alongside the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, the Maine Policy Institute, and the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs, formed the Protect My Ballot coalition to oppose ranked-choice voting.

Confusion about how the system works could suppress voter turnout even more, argues Wilterdink. In Maine, she notes, election officials had to print a 19-page instruction manual on how to vote. 

David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, disagrees. When ranked-choice voting replaces a two-tiered primary and runoff election system, he finds turnout increases by 10 point because voters only have to show up to the polls once.*

Kimball also says that ballot exhaustion doesn't affect a large number of voters. "These are the people who prefer the least preferred candidates, so you're generally talking relatively smaller percentages of voters," he tells Reason.

Where ranked-choice voting is used today, the public largely approves of the method, though support has varied widely across jurisdictions.

Exit polling from local elections in North Carolina shows large majorities—68 percent in Cary and 67 percent in Hendersonville—prefer it to traditional voting. Data from Maine's statewide races shows much narrower support, with approval largely following party lines: 81 percent of Democrats want to expand it while 72 percent of Republicans would eliminate it. (Other states, like Wilterdink's native Alaska, don't see a partisan divide: Both former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, and former Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, oppose ranked-choice voting.)

That's not to say that ranked-choice voting has been a success everywhere. As Protect My Ballot's website notes, North Carolina; Aspen, Colorado; and Burlington, Vermont have repealed ranked-choice voting, often after just one election. Voters in Burlington, which ditched ranked-choice voting in 2010, will soon decide whether to reinstate the system.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post said that rank-choice voting leads to a 10 percent increase in voter turnout.

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  1. As it is being presented, if ranked choice voting meant that only the second votes of voters whose candidates are eliminated get their second choice used, then this really is giving them a second bite of the apple without the same for everyone else. OTOH, if everyone’s second choice was counted, along with the first, and if a voter could select the same candidate all the way down the count (taking the chance that that candidate were eliminated), then why not.

    However, the arcane logic of all of this makes this such an inelegant solution that I do not see how this possible helps “democracy”. (It might help Democrats, however.)

    Take a look at what happened in ME when this was tried (using the first scenario above): the candidate with the most votes lost to the runner up because the wackjob candidate voters got a second chance.

    1. Plus, why is increasing voter turnout so important? If someone doesn’t care enough to vote, then they are indicating by their actions that it’s not important to them. So be it.

      1. Plus, why is increasing voter turnout so important?

        Not agreeing with any particular ends or methods: political and economic legitimacy.

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    2. Voter turnout matters because of the reasons people don’t turn out. If it is because of apathy it doesn’t really matter, unless that apathy is the result of knowing that they have no choice and or that those votes won’t really change anything. As for your criticism of ranked choice it is legitimate but the first to win a plurality has many of the same problems.

      1. Why is an apathetic vote favorable to a vote out of ignorance? If someone doesn’t care about governance of the nation, why should they even vote?

        1. It matters because of what causes their apathy, as I stated.

          1. If it is because they could care less, yeah fuck them, but if they are apathetic because they aren’t given a choice (see Republicans in California) than it matters and we should give them more choices.

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    3. There are variations in ranked voting. The method given in the article is not carved in stone. Don’t like it, then argue for another one. But thinking there are only two possibility is silly.

      But basically the naysayers in the article are saying, “I find the new system confuses me with its rules about reach around, so let’s keep with the old system that fucks me in the ass without a reach around.”

      1. But thinking there are only two possibility is silly.

        Not nearly as silly as thinking anyone thought there are only two choices.

      2. Never turn down the reach around.

      3. IS the problem with the present system the first-past-the-post counting? Or is it the fact that legislatures have made it hard for third parties to even get on the ballot and write-in votes difficult to cast in a way that gets them counted?

        Will ranked choice voting encourage candidates to game the system by creating false-flag additional candidacies?

        I’d say keep the first-past-the-post system of counting, and eliminate laws which discourage third parties and write-ins. And abolish publicly funded primaries-let the parties pay for their own primary elections or create caucus and convention systems to select candidates.

    4. Setting aside that the FF were so clear about the unbridled good that is democracy that they set 2 branches of government and an electoral college in juxtaposition to it…

      Maximizing voluntary participation maximizes political legitimacy. If you consider political legitimacy a value, then votes and parcipation are a form of currency. Picture a company that collected 30% of everybody’s income and, when the time came for consumers to pick the product up off the shelf, less than 40% of the people who already paid in showed up to pick up their product. The company would be a success (assuming production costs weren’t retarded) but the product would be an abject failure.

      Obviously, as libertarians, we’d prefer not to be forced to pay or force other people to pay for a product but, as pragmatists, we’d want as many people as possible to get as large an ROI on their ‘investment’ as possible. The ROI doesn’t necessarily legitimize the taking but it’s considerably harder to contest that a moral wrong has been committed when people get more than they expected or wanted for the price they paid.

    5. No, there’s no “second bite of the apple”.

      Consider traditional voting with three candidates. Assume that the jurisdiction requires a majority winner – no pluralities. Everyone goes to the polls and votes once for their top candidate but no one candidate wins the majority. The bottom candidate is eliminated and a new vote is scheduled. When the run-off election is held, all the voters for the top two candidates still like their candidates. Nothing’s changed so they will vote for their same preferences again. Only the voters who liked the third candidate have to change their votes. They don’t get a “second bite” any more than the people who liked (and still like) the first and second candidates.

      The ranked-choice method described in the article merely accomplishes that exact pattern of votes without the expense and time of coming back to the polls at a later date.

      There are lots of legitimate criticisms of ranked-choice voting. Your comment is not one of them.

      1. The ranked-choice method described in the article merely accomplishes that exact pattern of votes without the expense and time of coming back to the polls at a later date.

        Yeah, IMO, ranked-choice voting’s biggest flaw is the either/or portrayal of existing systems as non-ranked choice. Not that they necessarily are ranked choice but that they either are or, if they aren’t, ranked choice takes decisions that would be relegated to lines of succession and bureacracy and puts them into the hands of the voters in a more up front manner.

      2. I agree that one of the best parts of the instant run off is that it eliminates having a second election. These second election are often smaller and may not even have the number of voters in the first election. One way to increase voter turn out is to have fewer election with more choices on each ballot. I absolutely hate when majority parties will move elections to most obscure times to lower turn-out. Like putting a state supreme court election on date of a summer primary for local school boards.

  2. Begich dislikes it because he won by a narrow plurality and the libertarian candidates vote total more than covered this slim margin. Given Begich’s stances on many issues, and how he actually followed the party line on gun control, the ACA etc, it is quite plausible that he would not have received victory if Alaska had had ranked choice. Additionally, ranked choice would probably be more of a boom to Libertarian principles than access to all 50 ballots (especially if we maintain that access) as both parties will have a reason to champion more Libertarian policies in close races.

  3. I like the idea, and I like most variants of ranked voting. But I’m in California where we got rid of traditional primaries and went to a top two system. So a free for all election in June, with the top two Democrats going onto November.

    Think about how that would work in ranked voting. it’s basically choosing which two Democrats go onto to November ballot. Literally no difference. What California needs is a way for people to legally vote for someone other than a Democrat. Like real ranked voting someone’s vote for a non-Democrat candidate actually counted.

    Okay, I’m being cynical here, ranked voting doesn’t mesh at all with a two top system. And top two will never go away because the Democrat controlled state realized that it means permanent Democrat control. The interesting races in California are only races between a fiscally irresponsible Democrat and a Democrat who happens own a calculator.

    1. and a Democrat who happens own a calculator.

      I’m going to need proof of that…

    2. Not necessarily, though fixing it would require applying ranked voting in primaries, not merely waiting until the general election.

      Consider a ranked choice ballot with four primary candidates, 2 Rs and 2 Ds and 100 voters. Initial preferences are D1 35%, D2 30%, R1 20%, R2 15%. Under California’s current jungle primary rules, only D1 and D2 make it through to the general election. Under ranked voting, R2 is eliminated. D1 still gets 35 first-choice votes. D2 still gets 30 first-choice votes. R1 still gets 20 first-choice votes. R2’s first-choice-voters go to their second choice. Assume for simplicity that voters’ second choices follow party loyalty. R1 now has 35 total votes. Next D2 gets eliminated and those voters go to their second choice. D1 = 65 and R1 = 35. The general election will be between D1 and R1.

      But yeah, it will be hard to get that implemented in any jurisdiction with jungle primaries. There’s too much bias in favor of incumbents in that system.

      1. But yeah, it will be hard to get that implemented in any jurisdiction with jungle primaries. There’s too much bias in favor of incumbents in that system.

        Not to mention the difficulty getting any particular party to give up the current “There’s no way in Hell Sanders is the nominee.” process.

        1. There’s also the little problem of the government telling political parties how they need to determine their candidate. Not that I’m saying that all laws pertaining to political parties are invalid, but telling them how to elect their internal candidates seems like a bridge too far.

          1. Then they should pay for their own primaries, instead of the taxpayers footing the bill. After all, they are “private organizations”.

    3. Top two is the same as ranked choice if 3 are running and the election is nonpartisan.

      1. No it really isn’t.

      2. For example last election I would have ranked Johnson (who I voted for) top choice then either Trump or the Constitutional party nominee 2 and 3 and then Hillary and than the Green Party Candidate. Trump won a fairly decent majority of my state so ranked voting wouldn’t have impacted the outcome, but in other states this was much less the case.

  4. Come November, voters in Alaska, Massachusetts, and North Dakota, among other places, will decide whether to adopt ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference instead of choosing just one.

    I have a question… in 2000, we were told by the media and the Democrats (I repeat myself) that black people and other minorities couldn’t navigate public life as well as white people. As such, they couldn’t understand a ballot with two boxes on it and therefore were “disenfranchised” by the complexity of the ballot.

    Putting aside whether ranked choice voting is better or worse for democracy, will this system complicate the voting process since we were told that marking a single box on a ballot was a labyrinthine process that disenfranchised Democratic voters?

    1. Confusion about how the system works could suppress voter turnout even more, argues Wilterdink. In Maine, she notes, election officials had to print a 19-page instruction manual on how to vote.

      Next time I won’t skim the article.

      1. I can only assume they were going into the details of the election process rather than actually instructing people how to vote. Even then I’m pretty sure you could adequately instruct someone how to make sausage in less than 19 pages.

        1. Have you gotten through your life without ever meeting an actual government employee?
          19 pages is probably the executive summary. Or maybe just the safety warnings.

          1. Knowing what government thinks about your average person, and especially what Democrats think of their own base, the manual probably consisted of pictographs with the assumption that Black and Latino people can’t read English.

  5. Data from Maine’s statewide races shows much narrower support, with approval largely following party lines: 81 percent of Democrats want to expand it while 72 percent of Republicans would eliminate it.

    This all feels like a game of poker to me. It seems like they dynamics of the locality are going to largely determine who’s for it and who’s against it.

    As Brandybuck noted above, there are some places where Democrats (to give one example) have a 100% lock on the electoral process. In my town, the choice is between a Hillary Clinton style Democrat and Che Guevara. Ironically, it’s not Republicans who feel disenfranchised (although I suspect they do), it’s the Che Guevara party that feels disenfranchised. So often times the most progressive groups are the ones supporting messing and tweaking with the ballot process, all designed to increase the influence of Che Guevara representation.

  6. Just like the admission about the 1619 Project, climate alarmists are saying the quiet parts out loud.

    https://twitter.com/EricHolthaus/status/1288093160829341697

    The climate emergency isn’t about science, it’s about justice.

    1. It was time to tune out as soon as people started using the phrase “environmental justice.” Weld together two unrelated issues in an attempt to boost the popularity of both.

      1. Anytime. Progressive adds the word ‘justice’ to anything, the result will be the exact opposite of,justice.

    2. Bullshit. It is, and always has been, about political power. The fascist kind.

  7. Other states, like Wilterdink’s native Alaska, don’t see a partisan divide: Both former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, and former Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, oppose ranked-choice voting.

    This is a partisan divide. It’s just not along the lines you are suggesting.

  8. YES. More ranked choice voting, please. More ways for voters to meaningfully participate and have their voices heard in the system. Voter turnout in the US is abysmal compared to other first world nations and I think a large part of it is because there are a lot of people who have realized that voting between a shit sandwich and a giant douche literally doesn’t matter and so they don’t bother to vote at all.

    RadioLab did an interesting podcast about how ranked choice voting works in Ireland. Worth a listen to.

    https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/tweak-vote

    1. Voter turnout in the US is abysmal compared to other first world nations and I think a large part of it is because there are a lot of people who have realized that voting between a shit sandwich and a giant douche literally doesn’t matter and so they don’t bother to vote at all.

      This probably has more to do with cultural differences and also parliamentary politics which is prevalent around the rest of the first world.

      I’m sure I don’t need to explain parliamentary politics to the group, but when when just by voting you automatically get *some* representation vs. none at all in a winner take all system, that probably has more to do with it than the particulars of our ballot system. But I could be wrong.

      1. It would have been interesting to see if Johnson would have gotten more votes if people weren’t convinced voting for him helped Hillary and thus they voted against Hillary rather than for Trump. It would also be interesting to see if Hillary would still have “won” the “popular” vote, considering she didn’t win a majority of votes, but a plurality and mainly due to California. She was behind in popular votes before California closed.

      2. That’s not an inherent feature of parliamentary politics. Many parliaments are elected as single candidates in districts by plurality.

        What I think you mean is proportional representation, which is a distinct concept from parliamentary politics. The thing about proportional representation, though, is that it pretty much requires a strong party system, which is also fostered by parliamentary politics. But some of the biggest states of the US also have a strong party system, wherein it’s very difficult for elected officials to act independently of their party, which often means one guy decides for the whole state.

  9. Just run many similar candidates of made up parties. Same as Cali does so top two choices are dems.

  10. While we’re at it lets implement some even more electoral and hard hitting electoral reform. Term limits for the legislative branch (and I can even see an argument for the judicial branch as well). Increasing the number of Representatives to reflect population growth since 1920, and tying mandatory increases to future population growth. And every state adopting either the Nebraska (my preference) or the main model for awarding electoral votes. I think all of these, along with a form of ranked choice will benefit everyone, increase turnout and help alternative parties.

    1. *Maine model

  11. It would be faster and simpler to just let Nancy Pelosi announce the results as the polls close in Hawaii.
    Just for the duration of this emergency, of course.
    No one really wants to handle all those nasty, germ ridden ballots, and if the most votes were for Biden, all is well. In the unlikely event there were a few votes for the racist, well, he would just get investigated and impeached to death.

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  13. Personally I prefer approval voting to ranked-choice voting. It’s simpler, has most of the same advantages over first-past-the-post that ranked-choice does, and it’s quite a bit simpler to explain. Also, it allows for protest votes: vote no on every candidate.

    1. Since I worded that poorly, let me elaborate. Approval voting passes the “can you explain it to your grandmother in 12 words or less” test that most proposed voting systems do not pass.

      1. Not sure if that description makes me feel like it will be a good thing. To many referendums get passed because the explanation is simplistic and deceitful.

  14. What I want is an enforceable None Of The Above option. If NOTA gets the most votes, a new election is scheduled and no candidate from the first election is allowed to run in the new election.

    If you can’t come up with a candidate I want to vote for I’m happy to leave the office empty for a term (or two).

    1. Not sure leaving a number of offices would result in any better situation than then being filled. In fact, I suspect it would make things worse.

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  16. Instant run-off helps break the 2-party monopoly and helps elevate minor party / independent candidates.

    It would allow one to vote the the LP candidate and avoid voting strategically to avoid being a spoiler. It also helps nullify the “you are throwing away your vote” / electability argument that people use to deter people from supporting non R/D candidates.

    Sure it may be a bit more confusing at first, but with voter education efforts — after a cycle or 2 people will get comfortable.
    The only real reason to oppose it is incumbency protection / maintaining the existing 2 party dominance.

  17. The Alaska GOP sure has a short memory.

    *** Whereas, the Republican Party of Alaska believes in and supports the principles of Democracy, Fairness and Majority Rule, and

    Whereas, Alaskan voters should be able to vote their conscience without fear of wasting their vote or helping elect candidates they least prefer, and

    Whereas, Instant Runoff Voting [a.k.a. ranked choice voting] eliminates majority voters splitting their votes among similar candidates allowing a candidate with only minority appeal to win, and

    Whereas, Instant Runoff Voting eliminates spoilers, those candidates with little chance of winning who can knock off more representative candidates, and

    Whereas, Instant Runoff Voting ensures majority rule without having the expense of a runoff election

    Now therefore be it resolved that the Republican Party of Alaska fully supports the Instant Runoff Voting initiative proposition appearing on the August, 2002 Primary Election Ballot.

    (Adopted by the Republican Party of Alaska in State Convention on May 18, 2002)

  18. The “two party monopoly” has traditionally kept US politics moderate, centrist, and slow-moving, when Europe was torn between fascism, socialism, and Christian conservatism.

    The point of US-style democracy isn’t giving the masses what they want, it’s to make workable compromises and protect minorities. It’s far from clear that ranked choice voting will do that.

    1. Why should the masses get what they want before you just because they are most of the country?

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  23. The people pushing “instant runoff voting” have managed to convince people that it is synonymous with “ranked choice voting” – the use of a ranked ballot. IRV is a deeply flawed system and it does throw votes away. This is illegal both on the basis of state voter intent laws and the constitutional requirement that every vote be counted. The correct ranked choice system is Condorcet, which COUNTS ALL VOTES and operates like a round robin tournament.

    I’ve been talking about this issue for over twenty years. Like another person above, I was an advocate of Approval Voting because it is easy to understand, however, once a ranked ballot become acceptable, the application of the Condorcet algorithm to the ranking/preference information produces the best possible system.

    Please study this. IRV is a terrible system.

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