What’s Wrong with Ranked Choice Voting: A Response to Howie Hawkins

My old friend Howie Hawkins is running for president as a Green, and I wish him luck. According to his piece here in CounterPunch (28 April 2020), he seems to think that ranked choice voting (RCV), also called cumulative or preferential voting, is a key issue that his campaign is dedicated to getting across to voters.

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 2020 Iowa Democratic primary presidential caucuses may be a receding memory, but they remain notable as a case study in ranked choice voting. Democrats gathered in 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 at the time, 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 again, 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 choices for the job, but as their next best choices calculated to divide the opposition. If you want your candidate to win, you don’t give a second place vote to his or her closest rival; you give it to the candidate least likely to beat your favorite. Ranked choice voting invites this kind of negative voting, which can further distort the electoral process.

Hawkins claims that ranked choice voting discourages negative campaigning because candidates also need those second and subsequent choice votes to win. Negative campaigning can be rough, for sure, but it has the virtue of highlighting information voters wouldn’t get otherwise. A ranked choice voting campaign is likely to be all smiley faces and pretense, leaving voters ignorant of the nastier motivations at work.

In the end, ranked choice voting produces a distilled intellectual brew, a fiction, made up of variable preferences mixed with obscure and even treacherous political calculations. It replaces one’s personal preference–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.

What is insidious here is that the electoral process as we know it is hollowed out, leaving the field open to political operatives maneuvering behind the scenes. The pretense is that elections are really about consensus, not differences over real issues. Real policy will be made behind the scenes, even more than it is now.

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. Hawkins seems to think that ranked choice voting will solve the problem of presidential candidates losing the popular vote and still getting elected. The obstacle there, however, is not winner-take-all voting, but gerrymandering and the electoral college.

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

Ranked choice voting, by contrast, obscures the voter’s intention by blending secondary preferences 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 looks like 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.