By Phillip Meylan
Ranked choice voting has taken center stage in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor. The usage of RCV in such a major race represents a milestone and key achievement in the increasing support for RCV across the U.S. From potentially encouraging more bipartisanship and making campaigning less hostile, RCV offers many advantages and is an electoral reform gaining support from both Republicans and Democrats.
But as other cities and entire states roll out RCV, state administrators must also manage the challenges that come with implementing it transparently, effectively, and securely—especially at larger levels. This includes abiding by local laws, tailoring RCV to local needs, supporting efforts to inform citizens on its mechanics and value, all the while addressing potential obstacles to a smooth operation. Getting the most out of RCV, and unlocking its democratic potential, will require getting these details right first.
Getting the Rules Right
Even if a state or city’s population approves RCV, there are often additional legal hurdles that must be overcome before it can be used. For example, states and cities often have language in city codes or state laws that require that the winners of elections have a straightforward plurality of the vote. In some cases, this may run against the mechanics of RCV, as the victor will only emerge with a plurality of votes after several rounds of redistribution. Such issues can be resolved with adjustments to language but must be done early to ensure the legality of using RCV.
States also need to pick the variety and uses of RCV that work best for them and integrate them conscientiously into existing election frameworks. Many of the success stories of RCV come from instances with centralized voting authorities, such as Australia or individual American cities, where applying a single set of approved rules to the electoral process is more straightforward. In the U.S., however, states have a wide variety of rules and voting systems are considered relatively decentralized. That means each state could pick different variations of RCV that works best for them. That can take some work, particularly as state administrators will need to balance the desire to effectively implement RCV with local considerations (e.g., rural vs. urban voters needs). If only certain elections are switched to RCV, then questions arise about the availability of appropriate equipment as well as the timely management of simultaneous but different election procedures.
Relearning to Vote
Getting the right rules in place is only part of the battle. Voters, even if convinced that RCV is a good idea, may not be fully prepared to fully engage with it effectively. The ranking of different candidates, and the process through which a winner is eventually selected, can be confusing and take time to convey to potential voters. Organizers in New York City, well aware of these hurdles, have built extensive outreach programs to explain the process to various communities, and such efforts will need to accompany other implementations of RCV elsewhere. Above all, these steps are critical for dispelling the criticism that RCV is more complicated and therefore likely to deter voters. Making the process clear from the start is the best remedy.
Likewise, education and outreach efforts need to convey the safety and transparency of RCV to voters, particularly in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. Despite very few cases of proven fraud, many voters, especially Republicans, identify election security as a top issue. The act of tabulating RCV ballots and redistributing votes based on voter preferences is not necessarily intuitive without the sufficient education and public transparency about the process. Explaining the procedures, and accompanying safety measures, early and often can help alleviate such concerns come election time.
No system is perfect, so even a well-managed rollout of RCV can encounter problems that state administrators will need to plan for. One of the biggest risks is ballot exhaustion. When a voter only ranks one or two candidates, for example, there’s a risk that those candidates are ruled out of subsequent rounds due to low overall support, meaning that the voter will ultimately not have a vote in the final count. This can be alleviated in part by more thorough education and informing voters that an incomplete ranking of candidates could lead to their vote effectively not having an impact. Unlikely potential outcomes, such as no clear winner even after redistribution of votes, must be acknowledged and planned for accordingly in ways that are clear, pre-determined, and legally defensible.
Depending on the resources available to the specific electoral system, be it a city, county, or state, actually tabulating RCV ballots may also be demanding. Cases where several elections with many candidates are occurring on the same day could lead to significantly larger paper ballots, since voters will be selecting multiple choices for each race. Entities with ballot counting machines for simpler ballots may need to secure new machines capable of handling the added complexities of an RCV ballot. For smaller entities that lack the equipment, counting by hand is still within the realm of possibility, but those who have implemented RCV have noted that the process can be both complex and time consuming. As much as the voting populace needs to be informed about how RCV works, election administrators need the resources and time to train officials on how to properly tabulate and handle RCV ballots, whether using machines or counting by hand.
Moving RCV Forward
As of June 2021, RCV is being used in the states of Alaska and Maine and is set to be used in as many as 50 cities in upcoming elections. As usage increases and best practices spread, shared resources such as the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center can provide guidance on every step of implementation, from how RCV ballots should be scored to how to employ universal counting standards.
More widespread adoption will depend on the performance and reception of RCV in major elections such as the Democratic primary for the mayor or New York City. Smooth elections with clear explanations of tallies and redistribution of votes can help build voter confidence in the process and make RCV’s case to Americans on the national stage. Likewise, demonstration that RCV works to the benefit of all Americans, and not a specific political party, can help keep support for RCV bipartisan and broad based.
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Phillip Meylan is a political analyst with The Factual, a news start-up that helps people get unbiased news on trending topics quickly via a daily newsletter, app, and website.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.