Voting I: Ranked choice voting is the real thing

As published in Grinnell Herald Register on July 9, 2018

The Washington Post recently published an article entitled Give ranked choice voting a shot.  Believe me if we do we’ll never go back.  Ranked choice voting (RCV) is better by orders of magnitude.  The idea of ranking your choices in order of preference is really not that hard for voters to understand.

As a matter of clarification RCV is not the same thing as instant run-off voting (IRV) as implied in the article.  RCV is simply the format of the ballot allowing us to rank our choices whereas IRV is the algorithm most commonly used for sorting out the winner.  The algorithm states,

“The candidate or choice with the fewest top place ranking is eliminated.  This is repeated in rounds (instantaneously) until someone gets a majority.”

Your vote gets used in every round.  Should your first choice be eliminated your vote will then go to your second choice or to the highest ranking candidate remaining on your list.  Still some will ask, “What’s wrong with the way we do it now?”

Here’s a little story to show you.  Your spouse gives you a dollar and sends you to the store to buy a certain brand of bread which is on sale.  You take a loaf to the clerk and give her your dollar, but you picked the wrong brand so you don’t have enough.  The clerk takes your dollar anyway and you walk home empty-handed wondering how you will explain this to your spouse.  Of course none of us would leave without getting our dollar back or the bread on sale.  But that’s exactly what we do when we go to the polls and vote for a losing candidate; your vote gets wasted.  Unlike traditional plurality voting RCV is transactional (like money) and your vote keeps working for you in every round until someone gets a majority.

With an RCV ballot

  • you can put your preferred (but lesser-known) candidate at the top of your ballot without worrying that your vote will be wasted.
  • Two similar candidates won’t have to worry about splitting a majority of voters who may like them both.
  • The instant run-off vote has been adopted for both primary and general elections across the country, but barring an exact tie, this method will always find a majority winner in a single election regardless of the number of candidates.  Certainly, getting the job done in a single election is going to be less expensive and increase voter turnout.
  • Perhaps the most important benefit is how it can prevent the extreme polarization we have seen in recent years.

Imagine you’re a diehard Democrat voting in a Republican stronghold district.  You might as well stay home on Election Day, right?  But this time it’s a single election using RCV ballots, so you go.  You rank all Democratic candidates first followed by a ranking of all Republicans.  Predictably all the Democrats are eliminated with only a few Republicans remaining.  Now every Democratic voter’s ballot is “casting votes in every round” for the most moderate Republican remaining.  Even though you didn’t set out to elect a Republican you still get a say.  Effectively you will have teamed up with moderate Republican voters to sway the election to elect a moderate Republican who would have otherwise been eliminated in the Republican primary.

What’s important here is not that it changes the way voters think, but that it changes the way candidates react to the voters.  Imagine you were candidate Trump facing a single RCV election in 2016.  You would probably drop your “aggravate the Dems” strategy which would only guarantee you many last place rankings.  You would realize that most Democratic voters will rank every other Republican ahead of you. So regardless of where a candidate lies on the political spectrum he will likely moderate his position or his tone to stay off the bottom.

On the downside it could threaten to bring this 24/7 reality-show we call politics to an end.

Footnote:  By ranking these 17 Republican candidates, I have identified myself a moderate Republican.  In 2016 I knew who I liked most and who I disliked the most, but I was surprised that I had no trouble ranking 16 of these candidates (I didn’t know enough about Mr. Gilmore who ended up in the center).  The reason I didn’t know it would be so easy is because I’d never been challenged to do it.