Why you should care about Ranked Choice Voting

UPDATE (11/4/20): The ballot initiative for ranked choice voting in Massachusetts has failed. You can read my thoughts on the outcome here.

This November Americans will be voting on who will be our next president for the next four years. If you're like many voters, the choice between Biden and Trump feels like choosing between the lesser of two evils. Many Americans will not be voting for the candidate that they want to be President, but instead voting against the candidate that they don't want to be President. At the same time, many have observed that the country feels more divided than it's ever been since the Civil War. The solution I've heard most often is "a call for unity." But politicians have been calling for unity since our nation's founding, and "calling" for unity doesn't accomplish anything. Unfortunately, our political system doesn't allow for unity. The systems of checks & balances laid out by our founding leaders have proven utterly useless in the face of the eternal war between Democrats and Republicans. Instead of the three branches of government keeping each other in line like you learned in your social studies class, Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a tug-of-war that has infected the entire government and has no winners. Our founding leaders thought they had given us a tool to get us out of any mess: the constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, passing a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress as well as ratification by three-fourth of the states. Given the current deadlock between the Democratic and Republican Party at both the federal and state levels, passing a constitutional amendment on anything is a pipe dream.

It sounds hopeless. But it's not. In November voters in Massachusetts will have the chance to vote on something that I genuinely believe can cure America of the illnesses that I described. I'm referring to Choice 2, which, if passed, would adopt Ranked Choice Voting for most state and federal elections in the state. You're probably wondering how changing the way we elect candidates could possibly fix all of those problems. Or you might not even know what Ranked Choice Voting is (according to a recent poll, 32% of MA residents don't understand it). In this essay I'll explain what Ranked Choice Voting is, how it works, and how it could save our political system.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is an alternative method for electing political candidates that replaces plurality voting. If you've never heard of plurality voting, it's the basic voting system that you probably just think of as "voting." First I'll explain how plurality voting works so you can see how RCV is different. In plurality voting voters pick their one, favorite candidate from a list of possible candidates. The winner is whoever receives the most votes (a plurality of the votes), but they don't need a majority (more than half).

RCV works a little bit differently. Instead of only choosing your one, favorite candidate, you rank all (or some) of the candidates in the order of who you most want to win. So you would rank your first-choice candidate first, your second-choice candidate second, etc. and finally your least-desired candidate last.

Once everyone's ranked ballots have been collected, it's time to pick the winner. Unlike plurality voting where you just count up the votes and you're done, to determine the winner in RCV you need to analyze the ballots repeatedly over several rounds. Don't worry, it's easier than it sounds.

Ok, so here are the steps for figuring out the winner:

  1. In the first round you only look at voters' first-choice candidate. If one candidate receives more than half of all of the first-choice votes, that candidate is declared the winner!
  2. However, if there are more than two candidates running, there probably won't be a single candidate with more than half the votes. In this case, there's no clear winner after Round 1 and it's time for Round 2.
  3. Before Round 2 begins, one candidate is eliminated from the running. The candidate who received the fewest votes in Round 1 is eliminated.
  4. Now that there's one fewer candidate, Round 2 can begin. Round 2 works exactly like Round 1 – only the first-choice of each voter is used and if one candidate receives a majority of the votes, they win – but with one exception. This is the cool part of RCV. For the voters who had picked as their first-choice the candidate that was just eliminated, instead of counting their first-choice candidate, you count their second-choice candidate.
  5. So in Round 2 you count up the first-choice votes from everyone whose top-choice is still in the running, and the second-choice vote from everyone whose top-choice was eliminated.
  6. If there's one candidate who now has more than half of the total votes, that candidate is the winner!
  7. If there's still no candidate with a clear majority, you eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes like we did before Round 2. Then you count everyone's votes again, but always using voters' top-candidate who hasn't been eliminated yet as their vote.
  8. Eventually you're guaranteed to have a winner, at least by the time when all but two candidates have been eliminated.

And that's it! Sorry if that wasn't as simple as I promised. But to summarize, in each round you count up everyone's votes using their top-choice that's still in the running. If one candidate has more than half the votes, they win. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and then you repeat the process with the new set of candidates. Tallying the votes by hand is a little tedious, but should be something that anyone with basic math skills could do. But luckily, computers can calculate the winner very quickly so RCV shouldn't cause any delays in the election process.

So, why is Ranked Choice Voting better than plurality voting? Rather than go into a technical deep dive of all the benefits of RCV, in this article I'll just talk about the biggest advantage: it eliminates the "spoiler effect" when similar candidates run against each other. When political pundits talk about a "spoiler candidate", they mean a candidate that runs in an election (usually a third-candidate entering a two-candidate race) and then "spoiling" the election for whichever candidate they're more similar to, thus handing the election to the candidate that neither of them are similar to. For a real-world example of this, in 2000 many people blamed the loss of Al Gore to George W. Bush on Ralph Nader, who ran as a Green Party candidate in the presidential election. Basically, people believe that if Ralph Nader hadn't run, the people who voted for Nader would've instead voted for Gore (since the two ran on relatively similar platforms), thus securing the win for Gore instead of Bush. Of course, it's impossible to say what Nader voters would have done had Nader not been a candidate, but it's certainly plausible that his presence resulted in Bush winning.

Let's imagine how things might've played out if RCV was used in the 2000 election. For simplicity, let's pretend that Bush, Gore, and Nader were the only candidates in the election, even though there were actually other candidates. Instead of voters being forced to choose one candidate, they would instead rank all three candidates in order of preference. Let's assume that 80% of Nader supporters rank the candidates Nader → Gore → Bush, and 20% of his supporters rank them Nader → Bush → Gore. Since Nader only received 2.74% of the popular vote, we can assume that he would have been eliminated from the running before Bush or Gore. Therefore, the votes for Nader would then be distributed to the second-choice candidate of his voters. So 80% of the Nader supporter votes would go to Gore, and 20% would go to Bush. In this scenario, Nader was able to safely run without spoiling the election for either candidate, so maybe Gore would've won the election. Of course, if you're glad that Bush won the election in 2000, maybe you're thinking that it's good that we didn't use RCV. But if a majority of the nation (technically, electors in the Electoral College) would've preferred Gore over Bush as president, don't you think he deserved to win?

I want to make it clear that RCV is not a partisan issue. RCV will benefit conservatives and liberals alike because it will empower people to vote for the candidate that they actually want to win the election, not just the candidate who they think has the best chance of beating the person they don't want to win.

Here's another example from more recent history, that I hope will show how RCV could benefit Republican voters too. This is based on my own speculation, but I don't think it's too farfetched. If you remember the 2016 Republican Primary process, there were initially a sea of candidates and Trump was not considered a serious candidate (more details on the primary). Let's fast-forward to the end of that primary. At the end, four front-runners emerged: Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz. Donald Trump ended up getting 44.9% of the popular vote and clinching the nomination. But another way of saying that is 55.1% of Republicans voted for not Trump. Yet since Trump had the most votes (not a majority though), he ended up winning the primary and going on to be President. Now, I don't have any hard evidence supporting this theory, but I believe that many of the Republicans who didn't vote for Trump would've actually preferred any of the candidates over Trump. Unfortunately, voters couldn't agree on which of the samey Republicans to throw their weight behind to beat Trump, so their votes were split across Rubio, Cruz, Kasich and others, thus clearing the way for Trump to take the nomination. I believe that if voters were able to vote in that primary using RCV, many would have ranked Trump last on their ballot (I'm thinking of the "never Trumpers") and perhaps a candidate that was actually preferred by a majority of Republican voters would've been nominated instead.

Another cool thing about RCV is that primaries themselves are actually unnecessary. If you've ever wondered why we have to have primary elections before the main election, the main reason is because if multiple candidates from the same party ran against each other in the main election, the vote would be split across all of the candidates in that party. But imagine if RCV had been used in the 2016 presidential election without primaries. Voters would have had the opportunity to rank Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz in a single ballot. I have no idea who would've won that election, but I wouldn't necessarily assume that it would have been Trump or even Clinton. For Americans who felt dissatisfied with their choices in that election, that should be great news.

I promised that I would tell you how Ranked Choice Voting would fix the political problems I described in the first paragraph. To be clear, I'm not saying that adopting RCV in MA will be sufficient to save democracy in America. But I hope that if we adopt it in MA, we can serve as a model for the other states who will follow suit. And as more and more states start using RCV to elect members of Congress, I believe that we'll start electing representatives who actually represent us instead of their party. Anyway, time to deliver on that promise.

Here's how RCV will address the issues I mentioned in the introduction:

  1. Voters are forced to vote for the "lesser of two evils" - Plurality voting does not permit more than two candidates to run in a general election because other candidates could "spoil" the election. Voters must vote tactically in a primary, and vote for the candidate they think is most likely to beat their opponent rather than voting for their true favorite candidate. But with RCV, more than two candidates can run without fear of similar candidates spoiling the election for each other. With RCV, voters can rank the candidates according to their true preferences and feel confident that their vote will automatically go to their preferred candidate who is capable of winning.
  2. The country is more divided than ever - I actually don't believe this is true. I think that most of the country falls somewhere in the middle on most issues, but people are forced to pick a side in the battle between Democrats and Republicans which makes us feel divided. I know many Democrats who can't imagine how someone could have voted for Trump, but I bet that many Trump voters are more moderate than they might expect. I think many people voted for Trump, not because they support his agenda or even like him, but because they just happened to not want Clinton to be president for some reason.
  3. Congress is locked in a stalemate where everyone loses - Our government is currently controlled by a duopoly: the Republican and Democratic parties. I believe that RCV has the potential to disrupt this power dynamic by helping other political parties put representatives in Congress and end the tug-of-war. RCV would make it more likely for third-party candidates to win elections because voters could safely vote for those candidates without feeling like they're throwing away their vote. As an example, many Americans politically identify as libertarian, but neither of the main parties fully supports a libertarian agenda. With RCV, true libertarian candidates would likely be elected to office in some races. If there were true libertarians in Congress, they could vote with Democrats in some votes while voting with Republicans in others. This would make it easier for a majority vote to be achieved (even overcome a filibuster) and would also better reflect the true preferences of the constituents.
  4. The checks & balances described in the Constitution are not working - I think one mistake that our founding leaders made when writing the Constitution is that they assumed that politicians would act honorably and behave like proper gentlemen. Unfortunately, civility has been abandoned over the course of our nation's history as a result of the bitter struggle between the Democrats and Republicans. In 2019 when President Donald Trump was impeached, it was a forgone conclusion that nothing would happen to Trump as long as Republicans held a majority in the Senate. Congress is supposed to act as a check on the president's power, and one of their strongest checks is the power of impeachment. But instead of carrying out an unbiased investigation into the crimes alleged against the president, the impeachment process devolved into another tug-of-war between the Republicans and Democrats. Just like in my last point, I believe that RCV can fix this problem by injecting representatives from third-parties into Congress, and also by ensuring that the representatives who get elected actually reflect the preferences of their constituents.

Thanks for reading, and if you live in MA I hope you vote YES on Choice 2 on November 3! If you'd like to get involved with the RCV campaign in MA, you can learn more here.


Footnotes

  1. Technically RCV and plurality voting can be used for voting on anything, not just candidates. But for simplicity, I only mention voting on political representatives since that's what people are most used to voting on in elections.
  2. People often don't vote for their favorite candidate, but instead vote for different candidate. This is known as tactical voting, which is explained later.
  3. This is also known as the "clone" problem by mathematicians who study electoral systems. The idea is that similar candidates (i.e., clones) won't steal votes from each other.
  4. Of course, you would still need some way of qualifying candidates for the election so voters aren't overwhelmed with too many options. Ranking more than 5 or so candidates would probably be tough for most voters.
  5. This isn't something I came up with own my own. You can read more about the theory here.

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