Why is ranked-choice voting (RCV) a bad idea? What drawbacks have critics identified? How successful has RCV been in elections so far?
Ranked-choice voting is a system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots, and it’s gaining popularity across the United States. However, critics say ranked-choice voting is a bad idea due to its complexity and potential to waste votes.
Keep reading to learn why critics say ranked-choice voting is a bad idea for the U.S.
Why Is Ranked-Choice Voting a Bad Idea?
While ranked-choice voting (RCV) may sound promising, critics point out that it entails risks. According to them, ranked-choice voting is a bad idea primarily because it’s complex, both to carry out and to educate voters (and candidates) on. Although some have pointed out that the Electoral College is also complex and hard to educate voters on, and yet it’s widely accepted. This complexity might cause some voters to forgo voting altogether.
Some research has found that RCV reduces voter turnout, even in high-turnout cities. Instead of giving a voice to more voters, this might lead to more-politically active groups having a disproportionately large impact on election results. Along the same lines, some argue that RCV is unconstitutional because it goes against the “one person, one vote” principle, diluting the power of an individual’s vote.
The complexity of implementing RCV is also more demanding for cities and states that decide to switch to this system. It can put pressure on local governments to invest more resources in new machines and educational campaigns. As was seen in Alaska and New York City, the difficulty tallying RCV ballots adds to the existing difficulty of processing, for example, mail-in ballots. This leads to final results taking much longer to be confirmed and shared with the public, which can foster distrust of the electoral process, especially considering how difficult it can be for government workers to explain a particular result.
Less Polarization, but Still No Consensus
While proponents of RCV argue that it will lead to less polarization, critics argue that ranked-choice voting is a bad idea, “rigging the game” so that polarizing but popular candidates can’t win. While fringe candidates can be upsetting to the people who disagree with them, opponents of RCV argue it’s better to find ways to bring more people out to vote rather than stifle the choices voters can make. Otherwise, you end up tamping down on candidates with strong but controversial stances and rewarding those who don’t make many waves but also don’t speak to what voters truly want.
Further, even though candidates win by eventually securing a majority, a stronger mandate is not a given. Since candidates need to convince voters who support opposing candidates to choose them as their second choice, they might end up watering down their platforms and positions to appeal to a broader coalition. And even if they win, their mandate is a sort of decoupage of first, second, and third-choice supporters, not necessarily founded on consensus.
More Identity Politics and Confusion Rather Than True Diversity
Another reason critics say ranked-choice voting is a bad idea is that the system might devolve demographic diversity into simple identity politics. Research has suggested that the wide range of choices in RCV ballots leads voters to make decisions based on demographic features rather than ideology or policy. This results in demographic groups making starkly different decisions and ultimately being more divided. Others argue that the complicated nature of RCV alienates minority voters, disenfranchising them.
In terms of ideological diversity, some believe that the two-party system gives voters enough clear-cut options. RCV would make it harder for voters to make those clear-cut choices and, for example, hold a party accountable when it goes against voters’ wishes. Others argue that RCV will predominantly benefit one side of the two-party system: the Democratic Party. They claim that states that have switched to RCV have trended blue, and that the switch is just a way for the party establishment to gain an advantage.
Regarding third-party options, it’s not clear that RCV will actually benefit them. For example, Maine’s third-party candidates had more success prior to ranked-choice voting being implemented.
Lastly, voters who come out on Election Day might not get a say on the final result. If they don’t rank all the candidates and instead only choose one or two, they might end up not influencing the election result if their choices get eliminated. This is known as “ballot exhaustion.”
Alaska’s Experience With Ranked-Choice Voting
On August 16, 2022, Alaska elected its US Representative through RCV. It was a special election: The winner would fill the seat vacated by Don Young only until November. Young (R) was Alaska’s representative for almost 50 years until his death in March 2022.
This election was the first time Alaska implemented RCV since approving it by ballot measure in 2020 with 51% approval. For context, most Alaskans identify as or lean Republican (39%), but a sizable 29% identify as independents.
The winner was Mary Peltola, the first Democrat to win the seat since 1973. There were three candidates: Peltola and Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich.
In the first round of the general election, Peltola developed a 9-point lead in first choices, but it wasn’t enough to secure a majority (she received 40% of first choices, compared to Palin’s 31%). Since Begich earned the least first-choice votes, he was eliminated.
In the second round, Begich’s second-choice votes were distributed and this secured Peltola’s win. Although 50% of Begich’s votes ranked Palin second, 29% ranked Peltola. Added to Peltola’s first-choice lead, those second-choice votes were enough to earn her a 51.5% majority. Runner-up Palin got 48%.
However, looking at first-choice votes alone, Peltola got 39.7% while Palin and Begich added up to almost 60%. This made the Democratic win a tough pill to swallow for many Republicans.
Participation and Complexity
Turnout was 32% of registered voters, the highest in Alaska since the 2014 primary.
Surveys and ballot analysis suggest that voters were comfortable with the new voting system: 85% of voters referred to RCV as “simple.” Most voters (66%) ranked multiple candidates, and 75% of those who didn’t said it was because they only liked their first choice, not because they were confused about how to rank them. The ballot acceptance rate was 99.8%.
The winner was declared 15 days after the election, seven days later than the latest elections in 2020.
Because it was a special election, Peltola only fills the seat until November, when the three candidates face each other again, joined by independent Chris Bye. Palin called on Begich to drop out of the race, in an effort to avoid splitting the Republican vote. However, the deadline for dropping out of the November race passed and Begich remained steadfast in his intention to beat Palin and Peltola.
Why Peltola Won and Republicans Lost
Pundits have offered several explanations for Peltola’s win:
- Peltola focused on the issues. Peltola’s campaign messaging focused on the issues, especially fisheries and oil and gas exploration—both crucial topics for the Alaskan economy. She campaigned across partisan lines with a “Fish, Family and Freedom” platform.
- Peltola kept her campaign positive. She was friendly toward her competitors despite being the only remaining candidate from her party.
- Palin disincentivized RCV. Palin made her anti-RCV stance clear from the beginning, which disincentivized Begich’s voters from ranking her as their second choice and ultimately cost her the seat. She also went negative against Begich, further disincentivizing his voters from ranking her as their second choice.
The Election’s Impact
Observers note a number of likely outcomes of Alaska’s election:
- RCV harmed public trust. The 15-day delay in confirming results plus the difficulty in understanding them harmed the public’s confidence in the electoral system and promoted conspiracy theories.
- RCV benefited Alaskan voters. Having three candidates offered Alaskans more choices than a traditional partisan battle.
- RCV successfully weeded out the most polarizing candidate. Although Palin has a strong base of supporters, she has a larger base of detractors, and RCV fulfilled its promise of electing a middle-of-the-road candidate versus a popular but controversial one.
- Republicans need to learn how to make RCV work for them. They should focus on building coalitions between voter blocks instead of antagonizing some to appeal to others.
Australia’s Experience With Ranked-Choice Voting
Ranked-choice voting is only one of Australia’s voting innovations. Besides preferential voting—the local term for the voting system—Australia was a pioneer in granting voting rights to all adult men without property and later to women, as well as in adopting the secret or anonymous ballot.
Australia’s adoption of preferential voting resulted from two conservative parties splitting the conservative vote and losing to the left. The new system allowed both parties to compete locally and rally nationally in opposition to the Labor Party.
Preferential voting works the same way as ranked-choice voting in the US, with some differences:
- A full preference count is always completed to make it clear how people voted, from their first to last choices.
- In Senate races, candidates must win a quota rather than a 50% majority. The quota is known as 50% + 1: The total number of ballots is divided by the number of Senate seats plus one, and one is again added to the result. That’s the minimum number of votes a Senate candidate must secure to win the seat.
- In House of Representative races, voters must rank every candidate on the ballot. In Senate races, they must rank at least six parties or 12 individual candidates.
- Allied parties strike deals to encourage their voters to rank each other second.
RCV Helps Moderates Win Elections, Even in Polarized Societies
Australia is a polarized country, just like the US and many other democracies. However, moderate candidates still win elections, thanks to RCV.
For example, in May 2022 independents and Green Party candidates managed to break into parliament by focusing on the environment, a pressing issue for many Australians. The independents were known as “teal independents” because they supported climate policies but were otherwise conservative (blue is the color of conservatives in Australia). They won by beating the Labor (left) candidates in the first choices. Then, support from Labor voters who ranked them second secured their wins over the more right-leaning candidates. In a traditional election, the right-leaning candidates would have won with the support of the largest minority. RCV provided voters with a choice that fell between two extremes.
RCV Encourages Negative Campaigning
Parties cannot campaign affirmatively in RCV because the voting system rewards centrist positions and rejects those that veer too far from the middle, even if they have good ideas. Unable to use bold policy ideas to set themselves apart, candidates resort to running negative campaigns that energize the electorate through rage rather than hope.
RCV Makes Room for the Complexity of Politics
RCV allows Australian voters to convey the complexity of their interests, worries, and hopes by clearly signaling how comfortable they are with every option on their ballot. Candidates and constituencies know exactly how they arrived at the final result and how people feel about each candidate and party. That’s because Australian ballots require voters to rank all or a certain minimum number of candidates and votes, and results reported after the election include every last rank on the ballot. This allows voters to show how they feel about the parties currently in power, for example, and punish them at the ballot box if they’re unhappy with them. It also allows voters to elevate ideas from independent or non-major parties, even if they don’t get enough votes to win an election.
What Might Be Next for RCV
As both supporters and opponents of RCV ramp up, here’s what might be next for the voting system:
- More US cities could adopt RCV for local elections. Nine municipalities will vote on the system on ballot initiatives in upcoming elections.
- A coalition of bipartisan and independent activists will bring a ballot initiative to Nevada’s November vote in an attempt to embed RCV in the state’s constitution.
- Hawaii has plans to implement RCV in federal and county special elections.