Why I changed my mind about Ranked Choice Voting

And why I think Approval Voting is better

In my very first post on this blog I endorsed Ranked Choice Voting. At the time, I was campaigning for Question 2 in Massachusetts to replace our current voting system (plurality voting) with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). That initiative ultimately failed though. You can read my theory on why it failed here.

I still wish RCV had passed in MA, I still think RCV is way better than our current voting system (plurality voting), and I still stand by most of what I wrote in my original blog post.

However, going forward, I will no longer be pushing for adoption of RCV. I'll be supporting approval voting instead. First I'll explain what I think is wrong with RCV, then explain why approval voting is better.

What's wrong with RCV

There are lots of resources online that compare the mathematical pros and cons of different voting systems (here's a good starting point). However, my main problem with RCV doesn't have anything to do with math, or whether it picks the best candidate.

My problem with RCV is that I think it's too confusing for most Americans, and people wouldn't trust/respect the outcome of an RCV election.

This wasn't something I used to worry about. But that changed in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. I'm specifically referring to the "Stop the Steal" movement, and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.

Here's my summary of what happened: Joe Biden won the presidential election, Donald Trump couldn't accept that he lost (or chose to pretend that he didn't lose), Trump said that the election was rigged and he should have actually won the election, other people believed Trump/couldn't accept that he lost either, some people tried to overturn the election either through "legal" means (suing, recounting ballots) or force (storming the Capitol).

The statistic that blows my mind is that 30% of Americans think that the 2020 election was rigged and Joe Biden won the election illegitimately (article with lots of polls that back this up).

I'm not sure how much support you need to stage a successful coup, but I'd guess it's around 30%, so I'm very worried about this and the potential for something like this to happen again.

Now, all of what I just said happened with plurality voting. That's the voting system we've been using since the Constitution was ratified. Imagine if the 2020 presidential election had been using RCV instead. Of course, I don't think using RCV would have made the outcome of the election illegitimate. But I do think that even more people would have felt that the election was illegitimate if we had used RCV.

That's the gist of what I think is wrong with RCV. Even though it's a pretty good voting system (miles better than plurality voting), the way the winner is determined is more complicated than plurality voting so I think it has a "trustworthiness" problem.

So even if RCV would be better than what we have now, I fear RCV could just be one more tool that conservatives could use to question the outcome of an election and create doubt in people's mind that the election was fair and legitimate.

It's sad that we now have to factor in whether this would be likely to fuel conspiracy theories, but I think it's unavoidable and it's dangerous to ignore conspiracy theorists.

I'd rather keep using a broken voting system than something that would probably just get overruled (either "legally" or by force) by people who don't like the outcome of the election.

Why Approval Voting is better

First I need to explain what approval voting is. Here's how it works: you know how "regular" voting (plurality voting) works, right? Ok, now imagine that, except you can vote for more than one person. Then the person with the most votes wins. That's it.

Literally the only difference between approval voting and plurality voting is that you can vote for more than one candidate. Same ballots, same voting machines (just need to be updated to not reject ballots with more than one choice filled in), same ballot counting system.

You really can't beat it in terms of simplicity. I'd say it's equally simple to plurality voting. I think the only reason plurality voting seems a bit simpler is because that's what we're used to. If you think about it, limiting people to only voting for one candidate feels like an almost arbitrary restriction.

And what's most amazing about approval voting is how much you get from this one little tweak. In fact, all of the benefits I talked about with RCV apply to approval voting too. Reducing strategic voting, allowing third-party candidates to run without spoiling the election, electing candidates who better represent all of the voters, etc. Approval voting is actually even better than RCV at achieving these things.

Here's a chart from equal.vote that compares the "goodness" of different voting systems:

A chart showing election accuracy of different voting methods. 3-2-1 voting and STAR voting are at the top with ~95%, approval voting is ~90%, IRV/RCV is ~85% and plurality voting is at the bottom with ~80%.

If you're curious about the math behind the chart, just follow that link. But the point of this post is not to compare the mathematical pros and cons of RCV and approval voting. If you want that though, you can read what the RCV people say about approval voting here, and you can read what the approval voting people say about RCV here.

But, again, the math has nothing to do with why I switched my support from RCV to approval voting. The real reason I think approval voting is better than RCV is because it's simpler and stands a better shot of not having its results overturned because it "doesn't feel right."

Of course, approval voting is not completely immune to conspiratorial attacks. If I was an unscrupulous politician that lost an election that used approval voting, I would assert that approval voting is anti-democratic and demand that all ballots with more than one candidate selected are invalid (i.e., probably most of them). That would of course throw the whole election into limbo (assuming enough people sided with me and were equally delusional or immoral), and in the chaos I'd try to seize power.

I know that sounds really bad, and makes our current voting system sound kind of good in comparison. But I think the only way we get out of this mess (toxic factionalism and extreme polarization) is by fixing our voting system. I really believe that the root cause of polarization in US politics is the plurality voting system (see my original post for why). We need to fix our voting system, and I believe the safest (least likely to facilitate a coup) alternative is approval voting.

Summary

RCV is a great voting system (much better than what we have now), but the way the winner is determined is honestly a little confusing and we don't need that right now. Approval voting is also a great voting system, and the way the winner is determined couldn't be simpler, which makes it very attractive in a world where conspiracy theories drive politics.

Extra: Okay, but how would RCV actually lead to a coup?

For brevity, I didn't dig into how using RCV would lead to a coup. If you're pro-RCV, you might think the idea that RCV could be the cause of a coup a bit fantastical. And it kind of is. I was making an unrealistic assumption that RCV would be used to decide the outcome of a presidential election. But if you're familiar with the current spread of RCV, you know that that's nowhere close to happening. Well, Maine does use it to choose their presidential electors, but that's just one state. Even if the RCV movement is successful even beyond the imagination of its leaders, we're still at least 15-20 years away from the day when all or most Americans are using RCV to vote for president.

The strategy of the RCV movement is to get people using RCV at the state and local level. Then once lots of people are using it in lots of places, it will seem less weird and it will be easier to get even more people to use it in other places. Until eventually everyone uses RCV for all elections.

The reason why my critique of RCV is probably unfair is because I'm imagining us using RCV in a presidential election right now. Of course people wouldn't understand or trust RCV now. But maybe in the 15-20 years it takes to build up to the point where most people are actually voting for the president using RCV, it won't seem strange and opaque to people.

Maybe. But on the other hand, even in 20 years I still think there will be politicians and people who will use any tool available to them to cast doubt on an election that they don't like the outcome of. And I think even in this imagined world where RCV is well-known and normal, it would still be an easy target for people who want to paint an election as illegitimate.


Footnotes

  1. The most confusing thing about RCV is how the winner is determined. The voting process is pretty simple – just rank the candidates – but the way those votes get tallied is a little opaque. Unlike plurality voting (and approval voting) where you just add up the votes and you're done, RCV determines the winner in a series of "virtual rounds". When I campaigned for RCV in Fall 2020, this was the hardest thing to explain to people. Even the organizers knew this was a turnoff for voters and encouraged us to focus on the benefits of RCV without getting into the specifics of how the ballots are tallied.

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