Phillip Meylan - Jul 17, 2021

Can Ranked Choice Voting Improve U.S. Politics?

Ranked choice voting (RCV) has been a much touted remedy for some of the ailments of American democracy. Broadly speaking, RCV is supposed to help more closely align candidates, and eventual winners, with voter preferences by permitting a more detailed expression of those preferences. That could mean the inclusion of more voices in politics and a shift away from divisive campaigning that trends toward extremes.

In contrast to many issues today, RCV actually enjoys some bipartisan support, with implementation being supported by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in different localities across the country. RCV also received a fair amount of support (58%) among The Factual’s subscribers — who represent a diverse cross-section of Americans from all socio-economic backgrounds and political persuasions across all 50 states — a sign that many Americans are frustrated by the current political climate and willing to explore measures that could make American democracy work better, for everyone. 

But RCV still has a lot of ground to cover. Some glaring mishaps in New York City’s recent rollout of RCV cast doubt on the future of the process in the national spotlight, as well as some of the likely challenges that could complicate implementation and early performance. This week, The Factual set out to compare the purported benefits and drawbacks of RCV with its actual performance in New York City’s recent Democratic primary to see whether RCV might aid the functioning of American democracy.

Do you support the use of ranked choice voting?

Source: Based on 430 votes from The Factual’s subscribers (July 4, 2021).

How Does Ranked Choice Voting Work?

In a few words, RCV lets voters express their preferences in greater detail. Rather than everyone casting a single vote, voters can rank candidates in the order of their preference. If there is no clear winner based on all voters’ first choices, candidates who received the least number of first-choice votes are eliminated and ballots that listed those candidates as their first choice will then be reverted to their second choice. This process is repeated until a candidate emerges with enough votes to win the contest. 

For more on how it works, check out Rank the Vote, a non-profit advocating for national adoption of RCV.

Potential Benefits

  • Less Polarization: Because a candidate can appeal to voters as a second or third choice, for example, they have an incentive to make a broader appeal and take less extreme positions (some disagree). 
  • No Runoffs: RCV eliminates the need for costly runoff elections, which can be costly and take time.
  • Strengthened Mandate: Elections using RCV can generally guarantee that a candidate emerges with an absolute majority, thus giving a stronger mandate for governing.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Complexity: Critics warn that the complexity can lead to lower voter turnout, increased expenses (e.g., new machines), and demand for education of both election staff and the public.
  • Ballot Exhaustion: Especially in instances where voters only select one or two choices and those candidates are eliminated, there is the risk of “ballot exhaustion,” where voters essentially don't get a say in the final deciding tally.
  • Undemocratic: Some argue that RCV is unconstitutional by contravening a “one person, one vote” formulation, others worry about the risk of candidates gaming the system to their advantage.


How did ranked choice voting perform in New York?

Potential Benefits 

  • More Choice: The election, especially down-ballot races for City Council, saw a diverse field of candidates. For example, 35 of the 51 City Council seats look like they’ll be occupied by people of color, and 29 will be occupied by people under the age of 40. This means the City Council will likely have a female majority for the first time ever. Likewise, many of those who ran were doing so for the first time, further evidence that RCV may have helped open up the playing field.

    So far, evidence suggests that voters liked RCV. Exit polling published by Rank the Vote showed that 77% of voters support the use of RCV in future elections, though it’s worth noting that this data is from the day of the election, before results were delayed. While there isn’t clear evidence for the idea that the expanded choice of an RCV election supports greater turnout, 26% of New York City’s registered Democrats cast a vote, compared to 22% in 2013.

  • Less Polarization: New York’s election doesn’t really give us much data here since this was a Democratic primary and progressive candidates never had much momentum.

  • No Runoffs: Despite the result taking some time, the use of RCV did eliminate the need for any runoff election, which would have cost candidates and the city substantial resources, and could possibly further frustrated the voter base. However, some argue that runoffs have their benefits. In this case, a runoff between Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia or Maya Wiley would have “ensured both of those candidates got scrutiny from voters.” That may even drive greater voter turnout, as it did during a runoff in New York in 2001. 

  • Strengthened Mandate: Candidates did emerge from this election with strong levels of support than they would have otherwise. For example, Eric Adams emerged from the preliminary count with 30.8% of first-choice votes, but was finally elected with 50.5% of votes through reallocation. This means he will likely enter office (after almost certainly defeating a Republican opponent) with more tangible support from the Democratic base. By contrast, had Adams won only 30% of the vote in a traditional election, he not only would have faced a runoff, he would also enter office with less tangible support from the Democratic base and be more likely to encounter opposition to his policies. As another example, in a normal election Julie Won normally would have won Queens’ 26th District with just 18.5% of the vote, but thanks to the reallocation of votes through RCV, she emerged with 56% of the final tally, and therefore a clearer mandate for office.

 

Kathryn Garcia had fewer votes in the first round than Maya Wiley but was pushed ahead during subsequent rounds of reallocation, particularly due to the elimination of Andrew Yang. Source: Wikipedia.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Complexity: The largest issue during the election was a miscalculation in a preliminary tally that erroneously included over 130,000 test ballots. However, this seems to be related to the Board of Elections, not the implementation of RCV itself. And while the final tally did take over two full weeks, part of this is due to a rule that absentee ballots in the city cannot be counted until a week after election day. The rest of the delay, however, seems at least in part related to the use of RCV, issues that proponents argue would likely be resolvable with the right equipment and more established processes.

    Critiques that RCV would depress voting due to its complexity seem to have been misplaced in this instance. Though causation is hard to establish since there are several reasons why voters might be more active currently, voter turnout didn’t suffer negatively in this election. Additionally, exit polling showed that 95% of voters found the ballot easy to understand, including more than 90% of respondents from white, Black, Asian, and Hispanic groups.

  • Ballot Exhaustion: Roughly 15% of ballots were “exhausted” during the race, meaning they had no impact on the final tally between Adams and Garcia. That means some 140,000 voters selected candidates besides other than Adams and Garcia, and there’s no clarity on whether those ballots selected too few preferences or simply did not choose Adams or Garcia. Exit polling showed 83% of voters selected at least two candidates, and 42% selected a maximum of five. That leaves spectators wondering whether the result might have been different had a runoff been called between Adams and Garcia, effectively forcing that 15% of voters to choose or knowingly sit out.

  • Gaming the System: Again there was some evidence of the potential to “game the system” by joining forces with another candidate, though the effects of doing so are mixed. The coordination between Garcia and Yang was realistically due to the recognition that Adams had a strong lead in the polls, so cooperation represented the best chance of success for Garcia and Yang. In a traditional election, less popular candidates (i.e., Yang) would be expected to drop out.

    Some saw Garcia and Yang’s cooperation in a positive light, bringing about a rare instance of collaboration between competitors and pushing both to broaden their appeal to make their candidacy appealing to the supporters of an adjacent competitor. Others had more pessimistic interpretations. In a public appearance, Adams said “For [Garcia and Yang] to come together, like they are doing in the last couple of days - they are saying we can’t trust a person of color to be the mayor of the city of New York,” and others went so far as to describe the move as “voter suppression.” Other candidates, including Maya Wiley, the race’s other major Black candidate, rebuked Adams’ accusation. However, the threat of such a situation — where a selection of candidates make a pact to work together to effectively ruin the chances for another — may be worth considering.

Can RCV Benefit American Democracy?

As much as Americans support the idea of RCV, and want to believe in its restorative properties for American politics, the reality is that the jury is still out. The U.S. can’t simply look at the adoption of the system in other places, such as Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, or even at individual instances of success at home and conclude that RCV will clearly improve American politics. U.S. electoral systems are varied and distinct, both from other countries and each other, so substantial evidence is needed before Americans can make a conclusion regarding RCV’s efficacy.

New York City’s election provides another data point, but no definitive evidence. Bright spots, like increased turnout and the most diverse City Council in history, are good signs, though the causation between RCV and these results requires careful examination. Likewise, it will be hard for spectators at the national level to separate delays due to the continued failures of the city’s Board of Elections from those related to the actual implementation of RCV. Advocates will say the right equipment and training can make the progress seamless and far quicker; critics will say that reality is rarely so straightforward. For now, the best way to gauge the system's potential will be through continued testing across a range of levels of government and in different localities to see if, where, and when it works best.


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Written by Phillip Meylan

Phillip is a writer, editor, and researcher. Before completing his MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2019, he worked as an editor and content strategist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. When he’s not working, you can find him playing soccer, hiking, or cooking.

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