New York City has joined Maine in recognizing the danger of traditional plurality voting methods and has embraced ranked-choice voting. Ranked-choice voting is not new. Australia started using it in state elections in 1918, and Ireland started using it in presidential elections in 1937. Commentators have frequently pointed out that ranked-choice voting eliminates extremist candidates who are not favored by a majority of the electorate and allows a more moderate candidate to get elected. But the best way to understand the pitfalls of our traditional plurality voting system and the advantages of ranked-choice voting is with some simple examples.
Suppose that there are only three candidates. Candidate A gets 35 percent of the vote, Candidate B gets 33 percent, and Candidate C gets 32 percent. Without a runoff election, Candidate A wins even if most of those who voted for Candidate C would have preferred candidate B. In the extreme case, Candidate A was preferred by only 35 percent of the voters with 65 percent opposed, yet Candidate A wins, while a majority of the voters favor Candidate B. With Ross Perot running as a third party candidate in 1996, neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole was able to get a majority of the votes. We will never know who would have won if Ross Perot had not been in the race.
A runoff election could solve the problem, but only with an expense that would be unnecessary if the original ballots had allowed each voter to rank the candidates as first choice, second choice, and third choice. In a three-candidate race under ranked-choice voting, if none of the candidates received 50 percent or more of the votes in the first round, the third-choice candidate would be eliminated and the ballots of all those who had ranked that candidate as their first choice would be recounted, moving their second choice candidate up to first place. In the extreme example above, this ranked-choice voting procedure would enable Candidate B to win with 65 percent of the vote without requiring an expensive runoff election.
In the 2000 election both in Florida and nationally, George Bush beat Al Gore, but failed to get a majority of the votes, with Ralph Nader as the spoiler candidate. If ranked-choice voting or a runoff election had been used in Florida in 2000, Al Gore might have won the presidential election, but we will never know. In November of 2018 in the Australian state of Victoria in a race with several candidates, a Green’s party candidate, who came in third in the first round of voting, won the election under the ranked-choice voting system. In other words, ranked-choice voting can sometimes make a dramatic difference in an election outcome.
Now consider an election with 13 candidates as in the June 22 Democratic primary for New York City mayor where ranked-choice voting was used with voters ranking up to five candidates. First suppose that the traditional plurality voting method was followed. Imagine that an extreme left-wing candidate got 17 percent of the vote and an extreme right-wing candidate got 17 percent of the vote, and each of the 11 moderate candidates got 6 percent. Even in a runoff election between those top two extremist candidates, the winner might be truly favored by only 17 percent of the electorate with a majority of the voters preferring any of the more moderate candidates. In other words, in the extreme case, a candidate with just over 17 percent of the vote could get elected under traditional plurality voting even with almost 83 percent of the electorate strongly opposed to that candidate. If ranked-choice voting had been used instead, the most likely outcome would be the election of one of the more moderate candidates. In other words, under traditional plurality voting, even in the case of a runoff election between the top two candidates, one of the extreme candidates would win, but under ranked-choice voting, a more moderate candidate, preferred by a majority of the electorate, would ultimately win.
Maine is the first state to mandate ranked-choice voting in federal elections. Losing Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin from Maine’s Second Congressional District challenged the use of ranked-choice voting in federal court. He was in the lead in the first round, but lost after the votes of third-party candidates were reassigned under the ranked-choice voting procedure. After losing the recount and after a federal judge rejected the claim that ranked-choice voting was unconstitutional, Poliquin ceased his challenges to the outcome of the election.
In Maine and several cities throughout the United States, ranked-choice voting has been successfully implemented without much confusion or disruption. Once the voters get used to it, they will see how easy it is and the advantages of ensuring that only candidates with widespread support get elected. The delay in the New York City tabulation is not due to the use of ranked-choice voting, but because of the need to wait until all the votes, including all those mailed-in ballots, are received. Once all the votes are in, it only takes a few nanoseconds for the computer to determine the winner under ranked-choice voting.
We like to think of the United States as that “shining city on a hill” as President Reagan said, yet our democracy has serious drawbacks and disadvantages. A combination of our traditional plurality voting system, especially as used in primary elections to defeat more moderate candidates, along with gerrymandering, influencing politicians through massive campaign contributions, and other aspects of partisan politics, has produced a much less attractive version of democracy. The widespread use of ranked-choice voting could be one step in the right direction toward correcting these deficiencies.