Ranked Choice Voting

We’re all familiar with how a traditional election works: each person votes for their favorite candidate. The votes are then added up and whoever has the most votes wins. Simple enough.

But there are also obvious problems with this. Consider a race with with five candidates. Two of the candidates get 15% of the vote each, two others get 20% each, with the final candidate receiving 30%. Under the traditional system (called First Past the Post, or FPTP) the last candidate would win with only 30% of the vote. That doesn’t feel right. Voters who are concerned that voting for their favorite candidate may ‘steal’ votes from the ‘electable’ candidate are familiar with another problem with this system (also known as the ‘spoiler effect’).

Ranked Choice Voting

But there are other methods of voting besides FPTP. One method, known as Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), continues to gain traction. RCV is a method of voting where – instead of simply voting for your top candidate and electing the person who receive the most votes – each voter ranks their choice of candidates. If one candidate receives more than 50% of everyone’s top choice, they win. If not, however, the candidate who got the fewest top-choice votes is eliminated, and the election is re-run.

For example, say Jill, Tom, and Alice are running under RCV. Of people’s top-choice pick, Jill got 40% of the votes, Tom 36%, and Alice 24%. Under traditional voting – what’s known as “First Past the Post” (FPTP), Jill got the most votes so she would win. Under RCV, however, since no one got more than 50%, Alice (the one with the least votes) would be eliminated from consideration and the top choice votes would then be counted again.

To be clear, it’s not the case that Alice’s 25% would be given to Tom or Jill. Instead, you take every ballot that had listed Alice as their top choice, look at who they ranked as their second choice, and count that person as their vote. For example, say two-thirds of the people who ranked Alice first (i.e. 2/3rd of 24%, or 16%) had Jill as their second choice, and one-third (1/3rd of 24%, or 8%) had Tom second. In this case, Jill would have 40% of the vote (from the first time around), plus an additional 16% (from the second time), for a total of 56%. Because Jill now has over 50% of the vote, she wins.

There are many benefits of RCV over the traditional First Past the Post (FPTF) methods. It avoids the spoiler effect and gets closer to ensuring that the candidate that’s chose maximizes the satisfaction of the electorate. Several places (like NYC) already use RCV, and non-partisan groups like Fair Vote are advocating for it. For those looking for social proof, it has been endorsed by many Nobel Prize winners, political thought leaders, political scientists, and, yes, politicians from both parties, including John McCain and Barack Obama.

Benefits and Tradeoffs

I certainly think that Ranked Choice Voting is a better system than First Past the Post. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t downsides. There is a great article that runs through the different voting systems and their pros and cons, and the Fair Vote site makes additional arguments for why RCV is better than the other systems. (I’m personally a fan of what’s called score voting, where each candidate is rated on a scale – similar to Amazon ratings – and the candidate with the highest rating wins. That said, RCV is the alternative system with both the most popular support in the U.S. and the most “real world” use, as its the primary form of voting in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and many others.).

If you have a choice to support or petition for Ranked Choice Voting over FPTP, I’d recommend it. No voting system is perfect, yet few procedural changes (perhaps along with moving to open primaries and bipartisan redistricting) have more downstream consequences for our form of government. Choose wisely.

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