In Maine, you’re now allowed to indicate your second choice on your ballot — and with “ranked choice voting,” your second choice might make the difference in who is elected. We’re considering it in Massachusetts, too. Let’s take a look at how ranked choice voting works, and how it might save us from elections with two unpalatable choices.
What is ranked choice voting?
In ranked choice voting, also known as “instant runoff,” each voter can indicate their first, second, third, and possibly other choices for each race. In any given race, if the leading candidate does not have a majority (50% plus one vote), then the vote tallyers look at all the ballots from the last-place candidate, and distribute those votes to whatever candidate they indicated as second choice. If there’s still no majority winner, the new last-place candidate’s votes get distributed to the second-choice votes on those ballots. This continues until one candidate gets a majority — that candidate is the winner.
Unlike the current system in most locations, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, ranked choice voting ensures that the winning candidate has majority support. It also reduces “strategic” voting in which people who prefer a given candidate decide to vote for somebody else because they’re worried their candidate can’t win.
Here’s an example of an election that ranked-choice voting could have helped with — the primary for the Democratic nomination to succeed Joe Kennedy as Representative for the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District. Here are the final vote results:
As you can see, Jake Auchincloss beat Jesse Mermell by about 2000 votes, or 1.3%. But Auchincloss received less than one-fourth of all the votes. In this race, David Cavell and Chris Zannetos actually dropped out close to the election and endorsed Mermell. If their supporters had all actually voted for Mermell, she would have won. Ranked choice voting could have delivered a majority of votes (including second choice votes) to one of the candidates.
Let’s see how this might work in a general election campaign. You’re voting for president in an imaginary state called New Hamster that uses ranked choice voting. There are four candidates: Don, the Republican; Joe, the Democrat; Bernie, the Democratic Socialist; and Jorgy, the Libertarian. (Any resemblance to actual candidates is for amusement purposes only.)
When the final votes are tallied, here’s how the first and second choices look:
If you look at the columns under “First Choice,” you can see the results if this were a traditional election. The percentages under “Second Choice” show the distribution of second-choice selections of the voters backing each of the candidates.
In a traditional election, Don would win, because he has the most votes, 40%. But Don does not have a majority. So we need to eliminate the last-place candidate, Jorgy, and redistribute her votes to Don, Joe, and Bernie. In this case, Don gets an additional 3% (that is, 30% of Jorgy’s 10%), Joe gets an additional 5%, and Bernie gets an additional 2%.
So in the second round, the chart looks like this:
Once we eliminate Jorgy from the race, her votes go to other candidates. Also, in any case where she was the second choice on someone’s ballot, now we need to get a new second choice (whatever candidate was previously listed as the third choice). This accounts for the slight shifts in both the First Choice and Second Choice parts of the chart.
No candidate has a majority, so again we need to redistribute votes for the new last-place candidate, Bernie. Bernie contributes 5.5% (that is, 25% of his 22%) to Don and 16.5% to Joe.
So the final tally looks like this:
Joe wins the presidential election in New Hamster with a majority of 51.5%.
Is this fair? After all, Don got more votes in the first round.
That’s true, but look at how Joe won. He got 30% of the first choice votes and 21.5% from second choices from Jorgy and Bernie. Don, on the other hand, got 40% of first-choice voters but only 8.5% from second choices. Clearly, Don is a polarizing candidate, because very small numbers of voters for other candidates are willing to choose him as a second choice. But Joe is more of a unifying candidate, since he appeals broadly to voters for other candidates.
Joe will be able to govern knowing that a majority of voters back him at some level. In the old system Don would have won, but would not have the support of a majority of voters.
The end of the “least objectionable candidate”
In the early days of television, programmers created the idea of the “least objectionable program.” In any given time slot, viewers watching TV would choose the program they liked best — or in some cases, disliked least. The only thing a program needed to do to win the time slot was to be better than whatever crap was on the other channels. (Large numbers of choices on cable, and then on-demand viewing, made this concept obsolete, of course.)
We remain in the era of the “least objectionable candidate.” Realistically, in nearly all general elections in America, only two candidates can have a reasonable expectation to win. Votes for other candidates are “protest votes” that indicate disgust with the system, but don’t contribute to the final result of the election. As a result, many people hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils — the “least objectionable candidate.” “What else could I do?” they ask. But their faith in the system and the parties continues to erode.
In primary elections like the Massachusetts Fourth, we have the opposite problem. Candidates can win with minimal support — they only need to do better than everyone else. The result is candidates who may actually be objectionable to a majority of voters in the district.
Ranked choice voting eliminates both of these problems.
Voters are free to vote for candidates that they don’t expect to win, knowing that their second choice votes will still help elect someone. They can thus register their preference in a measurable way without inadvertently contributing to the election of someone they despise.
Elections in America in 2020 are, for the most part, a zero-sum game. This contributes to negative campaigning. You win by making sure people won’t vote for the other person.
With ranked choice voting, negative campaigning is less effective. Instead, you win by appealing to voters who might favor another candidate. You’re better off getting the second choice on those ballots than alienating those voters completely. This means that candidates with broad appeal are more likely to win, which is, after all, the objective of democracy.
Our current electoral system disfavors third parties, because they are seen as “spoilers” whose only role is to draw votes away from a major candidate, helping to elect that candidate’s rival. But in a ranked choice voting system, third parties can gain influence and more easily sway the agenda of a major party. Not only that, if such a third party were to become more popular — especially if its positions are more moderate than those of either party — it could actually rise to displace one of those major parties. Or there could be a future in which three or more large parties are all viable, winning local elections in different states.
Does ranked choice voting have a chance?
Election rules are set in localities and states. As a result, the rise of ranked choice voting depends on changes on a state-by-state basis.
When it was put forth in Maine, it survived a number of court challenges. It’s a ballot question in Massachusetts in 2020. It has been used in local elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 1941, and is also in place for local elections in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. New York will begin using it locally in 2021.
The main drawback of ranked choice voting is that it is slow. Sometimes it takes a few days to determine the winner of an election. It’s also confusing until people get the hang of it. It requires voter education.
In 2020, if you vote for president, you may be excited about the candidates — or you may be choosing the one that is least objectionable. If you are like me, you believe the political parties deserve some competition, and more candidates deserve a chance to make their case to the voters. So long as the person with the most votes wins, even if they do not have a majority, we will be stuck with an unresponsive and repressive two-party system. Ranked choice voting deserves to spread. It’s a better and more nuanced way to tell the people in power what we want.