At its peak, there were 29 people seeking the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination. While the field narrowed as some candidates were able to garner more support than others, there were still 20 options on my primary ballot. Since I’m registered in California, I dutifully made my choice and dropped my ballot in the mail. A few days later, however, I was disappointed to discover my candidate of choice dropped out of the race and endorsed someone else—this happening before Super Tuesday. My thoughts turned to my ballot, which was now essentially wasted. With a few prominent candidates dropping the day before Super Tuesday, I’m sure many mail-in or early voters were caught in similar predicaments and unable to lend their vote to a viable candidate. Various frustrations with the voting process can be mitigated by a different form of voting: ranked choice voting (RCV).
How does RCV work? Instead of choosing one candidate, voters rank the candidates in the order they prefer, with the first choice being the most favorable and the last choice being the least favorable. In an election, the first candidate to a majority wins. However, if no candidate clinches a majority then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the second choices of the voters who supported the eliminated candidate will be redistributed to the remaining candidates. This will continue until a candidate wins a majority.
A few places have started utilizing RCV in different types of elections. For example, Alaska, Kansas, Nevada, and Wyoming are using RCV for democratic presidential nominations. Cities in 11 different states—including San Francisco, Cambridge, MA, and Minneapolis, MN—are using RCV for local elections .
Although the idea of RCV has been around since the 19th century, it’s gaining traction in today’s political environment where polarization is rampant and intraparty division grows within parties . In the 2020 Democratic race there is a divide between progressive and moderate candidates, and the race is coming down to who can build the broadest coalition of support. Many voters expressed difficulty choosing just one candidate, but with ranked-choice voting they could express support to multiple candidates. This highlights one benefit of RCV, the mitigation of decision paralysis. It also eliminates the problem of votes being “wasted” if one’s prefered candidate exits the race before voting day.
The alleged benefits don’t stop there. Proponents of RCV say that under such a system campaigning will be less divisive since candidates can fight for people’s first, second, or third vote choice, requiring them to appeal to a larger demographic. RCV may also increase voter turnout since the “lesser of two evils” phenomenon is eliminated due to the wider variety of choice.
Opponents of ranked choice voting argue such a change may have unpredictable consequences and claim it’s a way for “reformers…to tinker with and manipulate elections” . Furthermore, opponents say RCV disconnects voters from the issues and allows candidates with marginal support from voters to potentially win. Others argue that the added complexity of RCV will decrease voter turnout. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have expanded RCV, saying it was “overly complicated and confusing” and “deprives voters of a genuinely informed choice.” Generally, RCV seems to be supported by those on the left and opposed by conservatives, so it was unexpected that Brown, a Democrat, would oppose such a bill.
Another concern voiced by some is the potential for RCV to hurt minority candidates such as candidates of color [NYT]. However, research conducted in California’s Bay Area found that there were better outcomes for women and candidates of color under the system. Specifically, support for candidates of color rose to 25.59% in an RCV election in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro compared to prior support levels of 17.18% . Research studies, however, can only reveal so much about RCV’s influence in locales across the country. As more cities and states adopt RCV, it will be easier to analyze its effectiveness.
Another issue is “ballot exhaustion,” a phenomenon where people fail to rank all the candidates, such as only ranking their top choice or two . As soon as one’s ranked candidates are knocked out, that person’s ballot is useless. This can lead to situations where candidates with only a small percentage of the initial vote count can actually end up winning an election, like the Oakland mayor’s race in 2010. This could potentially be mitigated by providing voters with information about each candidate when they vote.
With the recent disastrous Iowa caucuses and the tiring campaign season, discussion of vote reform is a hot topic. Andrew Yang emphasized ranked choice voting, and certainly candidates in that tier of popularity would have benefitted from such a policy. Although it faces some opposition, democracy in both the U.S. and the world stand to benefit from ranked choice voting.
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