Ranked Choice Voting: Pros & Cons

Ranked choice voting has been in place in mayoral elections in Minneapolis since 1999. It has been implemented in San Francisco and recently in Maine. So what is ranked choice voting? What are its merits or pitfalls?

Ranked choice voting (also called ranked preference voting) is when people vote for more than one candidate on the ballot. They select their first, second, third choice…maybe more depending on the number of candidates or the cutoff for the number of choices. Then, when votes are counted, if there isn’t a majority of votes received by a single candidate (50% +1), then the ranked choice kicks in. The candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated, and their second choice votes are distributed accordingly to the other candidates. This process continues until a candidate reaches the 50% +1 mark of a clear majority.

There are numerous merits in this process. First, it promotes civility. When it matters that people like you as a second choice, it may damage your appeal if you engage in negative or inflammatory campaign tactics or attacks on your rival candidates. Second, this promotes moderation by the candidates as they do not see as much of an incentive to take extreme positions to win the appeal of a particular base. This is tied to the first reason outlined above. Third, this process removes barriers for more candidates to participate, including third party options, as they may not be a solid first choice, but may be a second choice between a majority of voters of the two main parties. This creates the fourth benefit, an increased participation of candidates and ideas by lowering barriers to run for office. This also increases democratic representation since it is unlikely that a candidate who was solidly opposed by a majority of people would win. Pluralities won’t be enough, a majority is now needed to win. Thus, few voters would be stuck with an elected official who was their last choice.

However, there are some criticisms to consider. Some would say this system encourages a type of “bland compromise” or centrism and discourages bold ideas since they’re politically riskier. That candidates would become less distinctive and behave as a boring homogeneous cohort who rush to the middle of any issue in debate and so not offer anyone any real solutions to problems. Let’s address some of these concerns.

First, if voters become unimpressed with their choices, this system makes it easier for an alternative viewpoint to enter the fray. If the new viewpoint, no matter how bold or daring, is truly appealing to a majority of voters, then that candidate will carry the day.

Second, most citizens are not actively engaged, or even interested, in politics. Voter turnout has been low despite the current adversarial system which is more “exciting” or at least has more conflict. It seems many people are unhappy with the current hostilities and lack of compromise and political grace. Moreover, if people can have more trust in the temperament of candidates and knowledge that the system is now inclined to promote more compromise and less partisanship, they may decide to focus more on their personal lives, work and families. They may decide that it is acceptable for politically moderate technocrats to work out the details and simply let them do their jobs.

In regard to bold new ideas, those will come when needed. When there is a consensus, or at least a plurality, of concern about an issue within the public or the elected officials, candidates will appear to discuss the idea and run for office on platforms to address it. And if we’re worried about the promotion of status quo or lifetime politicians, I would say we already have them. But at least in the new system it would be easier to challenge them and they would be less partisan. In addition, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a continuation of the status quo as long as a majority of voters believe it is working in their benefit and it doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of others.

Politics may become more boring, but that would indicate stability and incremental progress. Ultimately, isn’t that what most of us really want?

For a list of some books and other media which inspired this post, please see:

https://nofictionbooks.com/partisanship-%26-elections

https://ballotpedia.org/Ranked-choice_voting_(RCV)

https://www.npr.org/2018/11/15/668296045/ranked-choice-voting-delivers-another-victory-to-house-democrats

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/06/11/maine-primary-ranked-choice-voting

https://the1a.org/shows/2018-05-29/how-ranked-choice-voting-could-change-politics

https://www.fairvote.org/minneapolis_voters_give_ranked_choice_voting_high_marks_after_third_rcv_election

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/06/14/in-praise-of-ranked-choice-voting




Noncompetitive Elections: Redistricting and Reform

Here are some alarming facts:

The Center for Voting and Democracy releases predictions for most House races a year prior to each election (titled Monopoly Politics).  In 2000, they had a 99% success rate.

In the 1998 election, 94 districts (22% of the House, then) were so safe for incumbents that the other major party didn’t even present a challenger.  In 2002, only one incumbent House member lost to a non-incumbent challenger.

Keep in mind this was prior to 2010 redistricting and Citizens United v. FEC.  If you wonder why certain House or Senate races draw so much funding or spending, it is because there are so many noncompetitive districts, and Citizens United then makes the spending all the more outrageous.  

If we wonder why politics have become so much more hyper-partisan it is primarily due to the rules we’ve established that govern elections.  The rules for how districts are created, who can vote, who can run, the fact that it is winner take all instead of ranked by preference proportionally, and the rules for how money is involved.  Then, alas, the media just goes with the money wagon…that is TV and most radio media (there are still good periodicals and programs and journalists out there if you bother to look).
If we don’t change the rules that govern how elections operate, I’m afraid we won’t see a decline in hyper-partisanship.

(Source: “Reforming the Republic: Democratic Institutions for the New America”, by Donovan and Bowler)

An Irony of Social Conservatism

There is an irony at the ideological heart of social conservatism.  Many social conservatives are uncomfortable with lifestyle choices that differ from their own.  That is pretty much what makes them social conservatives.  The great irony is that in order for these social conservatives to freely express their views, and even try to petition government to change its laws and policies in their favor, they need a government which is liberal, as in legally neutral, about the lifestyle choices of its citizens.  If social conservatives lived in another country which was socially conservative in a different way (say it forced its people to observe certain religious or moral codes with which our American social conservatives disagreed) they would be out of luck.  It is the great virtue of social liberalism that the government seeks to be tolerant of many different lifestyle choices, and even give those who seek to undermine this virtue the political right to express their opinions.  If social conservatives really think they’re the marginalized ones in society, they should be especially grateful they live in a society that observes social liberalism.

[I seek to distinguish social conservatism from economic conservatism as libertarians are socially liberal but economically conservative–that is economically “conservative” in the contemporary vernacular, but actually classically liberal.  In the above I use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in the academic sense (liberals are pro freedom and government neutrality or non-interference, as argued by Ronald Dworkin—though there is a healthy discussion philosophically between positive and negative liberty).  Also, any use of “ideological” isn’t meant as a term of derision, but as, “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.”  (Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309).]

For more on positive and negative liberty and conservatism and libertarianism, see “Liberty: Positive and Negative (Cato Unbound)”, by David Schmidtz, et al. here: https://nofictionbooks.com/political-theory