Why Ranked Choice Voting Makes Sense

ranked choice voting

Ranked choice voting or ‘ranked voting’ are terms used to describe any voting systems which include the option to preferentially rank candidates. Ranked voting schemes go by many names, including “preferential voting”. 

Our partner organizations FairVote, RepresentUs & Unite America all use the term “ranked choice voting” or “RCV” for short to describe the form of instant runoff ranked voting scheme they want to see implemented.

Ranked voting concepts are called “preferential” because they collect information from the voters as to which candidates they prefer and in which order they prefer them, ultimately requiring a candidate in a one-winner election to garner a majority of their constituent’s preference, rather than simply being able to focus on a small but strong base. 

Many consider "ranked choice voting" schemes far more democratic than our current single-mark ballots.

Ultimately, the winner of an election should be the candidate which popular opinion feels is most qualified, but that is not always clear with the current system popular in the United States and across most governmental elections worldwide. 

The problem with our current voting system is that often, voters are punished for having chosen their first selection, forcing them to either reinforce the political duality, or effectively mute their voice. Many are forced to compromise their vote in order to endorse the major party candidate that they prefer rather than the candidate they prefer above all othersThis has a remarkable stunting effect on the growth of third parties and the progress of discourse in our country. 

ranked choice voting
SOURCE: Utah Ranked Choice Voting

What is a runoff?

Runoff elections are used in States where candidates are required to receive a majority of the vote to win an election. A runoff election is an election which takes place subsequently from a general election, where the field of candidates is narrowed, usually to two candidates, and where voters cast ballots to indicate which of the two candidates is preferable for the office being sought. In a runoff, voters that did not choose either candidate are able to express their preference between the two most popular candidates from an initial round of voting. 

The runoff is a means of allowing voters to express their preference between the remaining candidates. Usually, as in France, the candidates that get the most votes go head-to-head in a runoff assuming no candidate receives more than half of the vote. This means that voters have an opportunity to voice their opinion regarding their preference between a narrowed field without having to sacrifice voting their first choice.

Instant Run-off Voting

Ranked choice instant runoff voting (IRV) is a form of balloting and voting in elections with more than two candidates which allows the voter to rank the candidates in order of their preference. Ranked choice IRV allows voters to vote their conscience without being penalized in our current political duopoly. It will open the electoral system up to third parties without risking electing an unpopular candidate as a result. 

A voter merely ranks the candidates in order of their preference, in the case of a 4-candidate race, a voter could rank any candidate as their first choice, second, etc. If a single candidate is able to achieve a majority ranking him or her as their first choice – then he or she would win just as would be the case in our current election system. However, if no candidate receives a majority of voters ranking him or her as the first choice, then an instant runoff is conducted. 

An instant-runoff involves reducing the field of candidates; typically reducing the field down to the two most popular then comparing their rankings and determining the winner based on which is popularly preferred. How this is done can alter the outcome of the election, so it is significant, though in most scenarios, the same winner would be named regardless of the nuances in counting the votes, but in very particular circumstances, different winners would be elected – circumstances statistically rare, but theoretically possible. 

Regardless of the application, the use of ranked choice voting diminishes the possibility of the election of an official with a majority disapproval. Instant runoff ranked choice also prevents the penalty for voting for third parties.

Another way proposed to count the ballots starts with first choice ballots being totaled. If no candidate has more than half of the votes as the #1 ranking, then the ranking and counting comes into play. The candidate with the least first-choice votes is then eliminated and the voters that voted for this candidate now cast their #2 choice. If these additional votes do not result in a single candidate having more than half of the votes, then the candidates with the fewest votes after this round would become eliminated and their voters second (or possibly third) choice becomes their vote. And so on, until a single candidate receives a majority.

ranked choice voting
SOURCE: YES! Magazine

Despite this, there are many hypothetical circumstances which can result in our current system producing winners with a majority disapproval. Here is an example of a significant failure of an election with more than two candidates. This is why third party candidates have so frequently been considered “spoilers”, a fact which has suppressed third parties for the entirety of US politics. 

Rather than only being able to vote for a single candidate, ranked voting allows a voter to prioritize their ballot, recording their primary or most preferred candidate as well as their second-most, third-most, and so on. The victor is ideally determined as the most popularly preferred candidate. If a race has more than two opponents, that is not always the same as the candidate which received the most #1 rankings in a ranked system. Sometimes candidates can show high numbers in a “first-past-the-post” system, yet a majority of voters disapprove of them. 

This isn’t possible with a ranked system, nor is it possible in a cardinal system. In the case of the electoral college, this issue is greatly complicated, and the electoral college would need to be either dismantled or profoundly modified in order for a ranked voting system to be put in place for the presidential race. 

There are many different voting schemes which include the notion of ranking candidates, and the notion goes by many terms; ranked voting, ranked-choice voting, preferential voting, etc. There are other concepts of voting which fall under the general scope of cardinal voting, which include a rating system instead of a ranking system.

ranked choice voting
SOURCE: UChicago News

Ranked Voting System In Practice

Ranked voting systems are currently already being used in many meaningful elections ranging from student government and collegiate elections, within businesses and other organizations.

Ranked voting is already in use for presidential primaries in Alaska, Kansas, Wyoming, Nevada and Hawaii and were in use for the democratic presidential primary in 2020. Maine uses ranked voting for congressional seats and for all statewide elections. New York City will be using ranked voting for all citywide primaries and special elections. Many other local elections across the United States use ranked choice voting. Many more examples exist within colleges and other organizations. In fact, Robert Rules of Order suggest ranked choice voting for organizational elections, especially conducted by mail.

Voting Systems To Improve Our Lives

There are many different election or voting systems that have been developed with the intention of allowing the voice of the people being governed to be truly heard. We need to embrace this progress – it will improve our lives, our governments and our politics. 

Like other technology, which has so clearly improved life for all of us, these relatively new voting concepts are a form of technology; they are the application of theory, mathematics and science intended to amplify the voice of the people and approach a more pure and equitable representative democracy. 

We should, as a society, contemplate the nature and outcomes of our elections and the system of voting in place. We should strive to implement a more democratic system. Ranked-choice voting, preferential voting, or a cardinal voting system could enhance the relationship between the voice of a population and the government that the population elects.

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