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Overview of Ranked Choice Voting (Ranked Choice Voting Part One)

By: Miriam Edelman

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), also known as Alternative Vote is a voting method, by which voters rank candidates in the order of their preference. The format varies by jurisdiction, and the most common form is instant-runoff voting. In this type:

-          If a candidate wins a majority of #1-choice votes, he/she wins.

-          If a candidate does not win such a majority, then the candidate with the fewest number of #1-choice votes is eliminated. The eliminated candidate’s #1 votes are assigned to those votes’ voters’ #2 choice candidate. A new tally indicates if any candidate won most of the votes. The same procedure continues until a candidate has a majority of the votes.

 

-          Elects a candidate with a broad array of support.

-          Saves money by eliminating potential runoff elections.

-          Increases turnout by preventing potential runoff elections and by letting people vote #1 for their preferred candidate [Since that candidate might not be favored to win in normally-run non RCV-elections, members of the electorate might not want to vote that candidate. Since they also might oppose the leading candidate(s), they might not vote at all.].

-          Reduces negative campaigning – Instead of candidates attacking each other, they try to get #2-choices of voters of their opponents. Candidates might also team up with each other, wanting their supporters to choose the other candidate of that team as their #2. For example, in 2021, New York City Council candidates Sara Lind and Jeffrey Omura announced such a partnership when running in an open-seat race to represent the Upper West Side. Presumably, they did it to avoid them splitting votes in their race against well-respected, then-Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Lind said, “Jeffrey and I hold similar values, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to work together to push a progressive agenda on the Upper West Side,” and Omura said, “Sara and I agree it’s time for a fresh start for our neighborhood, and I look forward to teaming up with her to ensure we usher in a renaissance for all.”

-          Elects more women, members of racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community to office. – Under RCV, members of these traditionally-underrepresented groups would no longer be pressured to not run and would no longer be thought of as “spoilers.” More diverse elected officials could result in more inclusive public policies/laws.

 

Meanwhile, criticisms of RCV (with counterarguments) are also made. RCV:

-          Is too complex. – However, voters have found RCV to be simple. In addition, people could go online and see how easy it is.

-          Is costly. – Changing to RCV could require money to be spent in voting equipment and training. However, as it could decrease costly run-off elections (one of which in Georgia cost $75 million), it would save money.

-          Only helps a certain political party. – RCV does not provide advantages to any political party.

-          Can result in the loss of the initial candidate with the most votes. – For example, in Maine’s election for its second Congressional district in 2018, Bruce Poliquin, the initial candidate with a plurality (45.6 percent in the first round), lost to eventual winner Jared Golden. It is possible that his anti-RCV hurt him, as the more-pro-RCV candidates in that race received more second- and third-choice votes than Poliquin did. “Come-from-behind” victories are less common in RCV races than in Congressional primary runoffs than. Fewer than 12 percent of RCV races were won by the candidate who did not lead in the initial round. Meanwhile, a much larger percent (32 percent) of Congressional primary runoffs were won by a non-leading candidate of the initial elections. Come-from-behind victories occur more in Alaska, where the general election candidates are likely to include people of the same political party.

-          Results in “exhausted” votes not counting – “Exhausted” votes are called “wasted” votes in typical elections. In RCV, a vote is three times less likely to be exhausted/wasted than in a normal election.

-          Delays results. – However, results of typical elections are not always called as quickly as people might think. In addition, results of RCV elections are called more quickly than results of a run-off election.

-          Contradicts “one person, one vote.” – In RCV, a person’s vote is applied once per round (if applicable).

 

RCV is a growing trend around the world and in the United States. In the 1850s, it was created in multi-winner elections, which result in multiple candidates being elected. In 1870s, professor William Ware changed this election format to the single-winner elections. Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Malta, Northern Ireland, Papua New Guinea, and Ireland have all used RCV in their national elections.

 

RCV has been used in the U.S. since 1915, when Ashtabula, Ohio began to utilize it for its city council elections. During the past two decades, RCV has become more widely used in the U.S. As of November 2023, 13 million people lived in 50 jurisdictions that use RCV. Some local areas use RCV to elect their local officials; Maine and Alaska utilize RCV for state and federal elections; four states have used RCV in presidential primary elections. RCV has a neutral effect on the electoral success of incumbents.

 

Generally, RCV has positive results. According to FairVote, RCV results in winners having strong mandates, as the winner is in the top three choices of 73 percent of voters. Most (71 percent) of voters rank multiple candidates. Usually, voters like RCV better than their old way of voting. A 2021 study reported that youth turnout was higher in RCV cities than in non-RCV cities because RCV campaigns are more civil and have more contact by candidates to voters. Competitive RCV elections can increase turnout, as shown by the following: in 2018 in San Francisco, there was larger turnout in a special RCV mayoral election than in non-RCV primary elections further up the ballot. A 2021 FairVote study shows that compared to Caucasian voters, voters of color used more rankings in 2020. Ranked ballots yield more valid votes than typical ballots.

 

However, an exception happened in Alaska. Democrat Mary Peltola’s victory in a special election for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022, when Alaska used its new RCV method, caused disputes about RCV. In the initial round, Peltola had a plurality of the vote (with 40.2 percent), and the two Republicans (Nick Begich III and Sarah Palin) had a combined majority of the vote (59.6 percent). Coming in third with 28.5 percent, Begich was eliminated. Begich’s votes were split in the following way: Almost half for Palin, 30 percent for Peltola, and 21 percent (equivalent of 11,222 votes) to no one (since those people did not rank Palin and Peltola – Thus, “ballot exhaustion” happened.). With the new vote calculation after the redistribution of Begich’s votes, Peltola won with 91,206 votes (equaling 51.5 percent of the vote) to Palin’s 85,987 votes (equaling 48.5 percent of the vote). Hence, Peltola won by more of the 11,222 Begich votes that went to no one.

 

There were mixed reception to RCV in Alaska. Alaskans for Better Election’s survey results showed positive sentiments about RCV, which 85 percent thought was “simple” or “very simple,” contradicting the criticism that RCV is complicated. However, some people proceeded to complain about RCV. For example, on social media, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) wrote, “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.’ 23-year old Chris Chandler, who listed Palin as #1 and Begich #2, said “Why would we change something that’s not broken? It’s just another way for them to get another Democrat in there.”

 

Despite the controversy over RCV, Peltola was even more successful, when mere months later, she won a full term to the U.S. House. Perhaps, she had a slight amount of incumbency advantage. In the first round, she received 48.64 percent (plurality). Her share of the vote increased to 49.2 percent (plurality) in second round and 54.9 percent (majority) in the third/final round.

 

Later this year, Alaskans are scheduled to vote whether to end RCV and return to Alaska’s prior voting system. The Alaska Repeal Top-Four Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative qualified to appear on the ballot in Alaska on November 5, 2024. It might not make that ballot. In April 2024, three Alaska voters sued the Alaska Division of Elections, arguing it did not properly certify this initiative. Their complaint is on https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/24530485-20240402-complaint-22akhe-w-exhibits-summons.

 

RCV has been used in the DC. area, primarily in Takoma Park, Maryland. In early 2007, Takoma became the first Maryland city to use RCV when RCV was used for a City Council special election for the seat held by former City Councilmember Marc Elrich. In that election, Reuben Snipper won in a majority during this first round. The pro-RCV FairVote organization surveyed voters leaving polling sites about RCV; while 45 voters thought that RCV caused a more positive campaign, just one disagreed.

 

Soon, DCNOW’s blog will have a follow-up article about recent and current efforts to bring RCV to the nation’s capital. Read it, transform D.C.’s elections, and help our city.

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