Ranked Choice Voting: Pros & Cons

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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:








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