This Is How We Know Ranked Choice Voting Works

Nick Shereikis
July 26, 2021

On Tuesday, June 22, voters in New York City’s mayoral primaries implemented ranked choice voting for the first time. Already established in select cities and states around the U.S. (Berkeley, Memphis, Alaska, and Maine, to name just a few), this system of election balloting is becoming increasingly prominent in discussions about our national electoral systems.

“With a traditional ballot, all the votes are added up, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate did not win a majority of votes. This system is sometimes called ‘plurality voting,’” New York Times reporter Harry Stevens explains. “With the ranked choice ballot, if none of the candidates receives a majority of first choice votes, the last place candidate is eliminated, and her votes are distributed to her voters’ second choice candidates. The process repeats until one of the candidates collects more than half the votes.”

Ranked choice voting (RCV) guarantees a majority winner. It increases competition, eliminating the ‘spoiler effect’ for non-establishment candidates. It saves taxpayer money, creating an automatic run-off election when a leading candidate earns less than 50 percent of the vote. And, most importantly, it encourages civility, forcing candidates to appeal to their opponents’ supporters for second place votes.

At the Political Empathy Project, we believe that implementing RCV is one of the best possible ways we can address political polarization and tension. Of course, there are several viable alternatives to our current first-past-the-post system, but RCV alone — unlike methods like approval or STAR voting — boasts a proven record of success around the world.

American cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco have been using RCV successfully for over a decade. Other countries around the world, including Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, also use RCV to stage elections, both locally and at a national level. Canada and Britain, though they ultimately rely on the same winner-takes-all model in their elections that we currently use here, implement RCV in internal party elections to ensure candidates are selected by genuine majorities (rather than bare pluralities).

And it works. “The major parties on the right in Canada and Australia have not become as illiberal as their American counterpart,” leading political scientist Lee Drutman writes. “Canadian politics scholars would point out that in Canada, regional identities are often stronger than national partisan identities, and this regionalism has kept Canadian politics more moderate. And Australian scholars would point out that ranked-choice voting has exerted a moderating force on Australian politics.”

Of course, not everyone is on board with RCV yet. Democrats and Republicans alike continue to push back against this system of election balloting, often arguing that the forest of options on RCV ballots is too complicated for voters and could depress election turnout, that RCV could hurt communities of color, or that government agencies need more time to prepare to deploy this system. Unfortunately for anyone espousing these particular talking points, the NYC mayoral primary elections alone prove them wrong — a recent report from Citizens Union shows definitively that using RCV grew voter turnout exponentially, increased competition, encouraged more people of color and women to run for office, and significantly decreased the number of ‘wasted votes.’ 77 percent of voters also explicitly said they wanted RCV to be used in future local elections.

“While it is both easy and appropriate to criticize Trump and fellow Republicans for their anti-democratic descent in service of the ‘Big Lie,’ it takes more work to appreciate how the structure of the party system itself laid the groundwork for the former president’s politics of loathing and fear,” Drutman tells us. “A politics defined by hatred of political opponents is a politics ripe for hateful illiberalism.”

It’s time for RCV in America. It’s growing in influence across the country already, on both sides of the aisle (the Virginia GOP used it this year to select their gubernatorial candidate) — and it could be the answer to many of our electoral woes.

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