What’s Wrong with Ranked Choice Voting?

It is nothing but makeup.

Photo by Michal Vrba on Unsplash

Whether you vote Republican or Democratic, we are all frustrated with our politicians, sometimes temporarily or as a mainstay. When asked what is wrong, a good number of us will point to the left, and others to the right. Surprisingly few of us point to the system itself. All that needs fixing is politicians making the right decisions, correct?

Fair Vote USA is one of the few groups that point to the system and want to make changes. Their current favorite approach is Ranked Choice Voting in which the voters pick several candidates, ranked in preferred order. When all votes are tallied but do not result in a clear winner, then the votes for the least-liked candidate are changed to the candidate next in line. Eliminating the candidate with the smallest number of votes and replacing them with the next preferred choice continues until one candidate reaches the 50 percent threshold.

The clear benefit of Ranked Choice Voting is that expensive run-off elections are avoided. It also feels like each voter is able to express his or her wishes more precisely. But it does not really change the system. Ranked Choice Voting is like applying makeup, so the result appears to be different. Overall, the same candidates are picked. They are still winners-taking-all.

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Before pointing out where Ranked Choice Voting is nothing more than mascara, let’s quickly delve into our voting system. Not each voter, but the collective of voters in a district decides the race. The majority picks the representative, and not the individual. As a result, our representatives are all majority-based winners.

As made clear in this image, a two-party system does not represent all voters well. Side-line relegation is included in a system that always eliminates yellow and supports an unnatural red or blue expression instead. RCV makes red and blue results come out faster, but it is not about improving our democracy.

In an example from a different setting, imagine going to a car dealer and being asked if you want to buy a Mercedes or a Mazda, because most shoppers that day picked the Mercedes as their number one choice; the Mazda happens to be the runner-up. If you say you want a Ford, the dealer will tell you that it is okay to pick a Ford, but that it doesn’t rank high enough, so your choice is obviously wasted. At the end of the day you’ll go home with a Mercedes (and according to our political reality this includes having to pay for it). Unfortunately (unless you wanted a Mercedes), that is how our voting system works.

In Ranked Choice Voting, you would place Ford as your top pick, and — completing this example in a simple manner — picked Mazda as number 2 and Mercedes as number 3. Given the same voters, you’d still go home with a Mercedes. In what is a simplistic example, our district voting system is explained as not very sophisticated. With Ranked Choice Voting, the system is perhaps optimized, but still not very sophisticated. The specific voter remains muted unless part of the majority.

In proportional voting, you pick a Ford and you go home with a Ford.

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In proportional voting the individual voters pick their own representatives. Every voter picks either a candidate or party, and the end result of all the votes declares who gets how many seats. The pie is cut up in pieces according to all votes. Close to one hundred percent of the votes translates therefore into the representatives of the people.

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Ranked Choice Voting does not change the overall set up. It still excludes the wishes of a substantial group of voters; it is still an exclusive democracy. This can, for instance, mean that 49.99 percent of the voters end up not being represented by their choice. While it feels there is more freedom voting with RCV, the number of voters not getting their preferred pick remains high.

Unfortunately, there is a new flaw in Ranked Choice Voting. A minority candidate can end up winning the seat. This requires a special setup, so fortunately this does not happen often. It did happen for Ross Mirkarimi in San Francisco. He ran for District 5 in 2004, and so did many others. There was no incumbent and many candidates took their chances in the newly created Ranked Choice Voting election.

Since there was no immediate winner, the system eliminated the candidate that had received the least number of votes, and replaced these votes with the number-two choice of these voters. It did not help pick a winner, and the next candidate with the fewest votes was eliminated, the choice of these voters replaced with their next choice.

Long story short: Ranked Choice Voting went though so many elimination cycles that almost one-third of the voters had gone through all their picks and were themselves eliminated. Ross Mirkarimi ended winning 50 percent of the voters—but only of the voters left in the game, a little over 70 percent of all voters. About 35 percent of all voters had actually picked him as one of their choices. Thanks to Ranked Choice Voting, he got a seat based on a majority of voters that had not voted for him.

Sad as this may be, it points to the same overall fault of district voting: Voters cannot pick the candidate they want in a refined manner, because their choice is snowed under by the majority decision of voters in their district. There is no fine-tuning, no matter the applied makeup.

Another flaw of district voting, explained here, is how easy it is to manipulate the voters because the win can be decided by a single vote.

Ranked Choice Voting is nothing but makeup; it does not change our system and, in general, it does not change who we pick as our chosen representatives. It should not be promoted as an improvement.

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  • Fair Vote USA also has multi-seat elections in their portfolio to help change the voting system. It is an improvement, but it contains flaws as well. Multi-seat elections are still based on districts, albeit containing more than one seat. Having districts always restricts our votes and remains an exclusive form of democracy.
  • Believe it or not, our US Constitution shows the way out. It declares that our government cannot put a system in place that discriminates if a better system is available. Proportional voting, when applied to the entire board or council, is the better system — hands down. The only exception occurs when the Constitution describes itself what should be in place, which it does for Federal elections, while giving additional powers to States. But cities and counties must follow the US Constitution fully. Proportional voting should be applied to electing our city councils and county boards today — a good start.

Structural Philosopher

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