• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.

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.

More articles by:

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

June 02, 2020
Zoltan Grossman
Deploying Federal Troops in a War at Home Would Make a Bad Situation Worse
Nicholas Buccola
Amy Cooper is Christian Cooper’s Lost, Younger Sister 
Manuel García, Jr.
Global Warming is Nuclear War
Patrick Cockburn
An Unavoidable Recognition of Failure: Trump’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan
John Feffer
Is It Time to Boycott the USA?
Kathy Kelly
Beating Swords to Plowshares
Lawrence Davidson
U.S. Urban Riots Revisited
Sam Pizzigati
“Failed State” Status Here We Come
Ron Jacobs
In Defense of Antifa
Cesar Chelala
Bolsonaro and Trump: Separated at Birth
George Wuerthner
The BLM’s License to Destroy Sagebrush Ecosystems
Danny Antonelli
The Absurdity of Hope
Binoy Kampmark
Sinister Flatulence: Trump Versus Twitter
John Stanton
How Much Violence and Destruction is Enough for Depraved American Leaders and Their Subjects?
Richard C. Gross
The Enemy Within
Thomas Knapp
Trump’s “Free Speech:” Doctrine: Never, Ever, Ever Mention He’s a Liar
John W. Whitehead
This Is Not a Revolution. It’s a Blueprint for Locking Down the Nation
June 01, 2020
Joshua Frank
It’s a Class War Now Too
Richard D. Wolff
Why the Neoliberal Agenda is a Failure at Fighting Coronavirus
Henry Giroux
Racial Domestic Terrorism and the Legacy of State Violence
Ron Jacobs
The Second Longest War in the United States
Kanishka Chowdhury
The Return of the “Outside Agitator”
Lee Hall
“You Loot; We Shoot”
Dave Lindorff
Eruptions of Rage
Jake Johnston
An Impending Crisis: COVID-19 in Haiti, Ongoing Instability, and the Dangers of Continued U.S. Deportations
Nick Pemberton
What is Capitalism?
Linda G. Ford
“Do Not Resuscitate”: My Experience with Hospice, Inc.
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Who Are the Secret Puppet-Masters Behind Trump’s War on Iran?
Manuel García, Jr.
A Simple Model for Global Warming
Howard Lisnoff
Is the Pandemic Creating a Resurgence of Unionism? 
Frances Madeson
Federal Prisons Should Not be Death Chambers
Hayley Brown – Dean Baker
The Impact of Upward Redistribution on Social Security Solvency
Raúl Carrillo
We Need a Public Option for Banking
Kathy Kelly
Our Disaster: Why the United States Bears Responsibility for Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis
Sonali Kolhatkar
An Open Letter to Joe Biden on Race
Scott Owen
On Sheep, Shepherds, Wolves and Other Political Creatures
John Kendall Hawkins
All Night Jazz All The Time
Weekend Edition
May 29, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Tim Wise
Protest, Uprisings, and Race War
Nick Pemberton
White Supremacy is the Virus; Police are the Vector
T.J. Coles
What’s NATO Up to These Days? Provoking Russia, Draining Healthcare Budgets and Protecting Its Own from COVID
Benjamin Dangl
Bibles at the Barricades: How the Right Seized Power in Bolivia
Kevin Alexander Gray - Jeffrey St. Clair - JoAnn Wypijewski
There is No Peace: an Incitement to Justice
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Few Good Sadists
Jeff Mackler
The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Joshua Frank
In Search of a Lost Socialism