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What’s Wrong with Ranked Choice Voting

An electoral reform popular with many political activists and commentators is ranked choice voting, also called cumulative or preferential voting.

Instead of voting for just one candidate from a list, as we normally do, ranked choice voting allows each of us to vote for two or more candidates, ranking them respectively as first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on.

The Iowa Democratic caucuses in this year’s presidential primaries are already a receeding memory. But they remain notable as a case study in ranked choice voting. Democrats gathered in public spaces like schools and fire halls, where they ‘voted’ by joining one or another group supporting a particular candidate. The number of people in all the groups was then counted up. Any group with less than 15% of the total of all present was then dissolved, with its members free to join any of the surviving groups, or stand aside. That was how voters’ second choice was exercised in the Iowa caucuses.

According to the vote totals released, the popular vote was won by Bernie Sanders, but Pete Buttigieg picked up enough second place votes to give him more delegates. Both claimed victory.

No problem, according to the advocates of ranked choice voting. Buttigieg was judged the winner because his combination of first and second place votes was greater than Bernie’s combination of the same, thus earning him more delegates. This is spite of the fact that more voters chose Bernie as their first choice than Mayor Pete.

If Iowa had a traditional “winner take all” system, Bernie would have won with the largest number (a plurality) of votes, and gained all the delegates. But in the ranked choice system–where second choices can count as well as first choices–Buttigieg became the winner. As the Washington Post (2/5/20) put it at the time: “Sanders had the most initial support in the caucuses . . . But Buttigieg leads in the calculus of how support translates into delegates.”

Ranked choice systems have serious flaws. Most obviously, they muddle otherwise clear cut results by allowing more than one candidate to claim victory, as both Buttigieg and Sanders did in Iowa. The idea of elections where two different candidates can plausibly declare themselves winners is a recipe for disaster.

In another flaw, ranked choice voting counts second (and subsequent) place votes as if they were equivalent to first place votes. That ignores the difference, often significant, between first place choices, and second (or third and fourth) place choices. Preferences tend to be obliterated in ranked choice voting, where all choices count as identical.

Further, why is it that people who support the weakest candidates (those eliminated in the first round) should get to vote twice, at least in the Iowa version of ranked choice voting, while everyone else stands pat? Why should supporters of the least popular candidates be able to tip an election this way? Shouldn’t everyone, out of basic fairness, be able to change their vote in subsequent rounds?

It is equally disturbing that supporters of one candidate can rank their second (and subsequent) choices not as their actual next best favorites, but as their next best choices calculated to divide the opposition. Ranked choice voting invites this kind of negative voting, which can further distort the electoral process.

In the end, ranked choice voting replaces one’s personal perference–arguably the essential ingredient in voting for a candidate–by a collective abstraction: a synthesized tabulation or “calculus” of ranked preferences which represents nobody in particular, yet claims to embody a theoretical consensus of which no one may even be aware.

Ranked choice election produces a distilled intellectual brew, a fiction, made up of variable preferences mixed with obscure and even treacherous political calculations.

Ranked choice voting is supposed to improve on the traditional winner-take-all system, with its threat of a tyranny of the majority. The Founders’ answer to this threat, however, was separation of powers and other checks and balances in the Constitution, not ranked choice voting.

To the Founders, ranked choice voting, if they could have imagined it, would have seemed a threat to democracy. They presumed, after all, as most of us still do, the voter’s right to insist on the primacy of his or her conscious perference as the clearest evidence of his or her intention.

Ranked choice voting, by contrast, obscures the voter’s intention by blending secondary perferences with primary ones. Uncertainty along with some degree of ignorance and confusion, after all, are what make second choices second. Giving them equal credibility with first choices, as ranked choice voting does, destabilizes political decision-making, as we saw in Iowa.

Winner-take-all is hardly perfect. Majorities may, temporarily, run roughshod over minorities. But majorities remain essential to getting many things done. The best check on the threat of a tyranny of the majority is arguably the next election, where the opposition (in a ‘winner-take-all’ system) only needs 51 percent of the vote to ‘throw the bums out’ and return to power. Winner-take-all electoral accountability, in the context of our Constitutional protections, still seems to remain the best check we have on any possible tyranny of the majority. We abandon it at our peril.

Adrian Kuzminski is a scholar, writer and citizen activist who has written a wide variety of books on economics, politics, and democracy. 

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