By Dan Sally

Many conservatives would argue one of the core principles of conservatism is the idea that the government that governs best is one that governs the least. By nature, conservatives favor as little government intervention as possible in public and private affairs and, when needed, slow and incremental changes to policy.

Given this, conservatives are reluctant to adopt reforms without careful consideration and debate, as is the case with the current movement to reform our electoral system.

In his paper, The Conservative Case for Ranked Choice Voting, Barry Fagin, Professor of Computer Science at the US Air Force Academy, makes the case that ranked choice voting is an electoral system that better embodies core conservative principles than our current system and could lead to a more strong and vibrant conservative movement.


The Case

In his paper, Fagin cites three core areas where RCV aligns with the conservative movement:

1.It embraces the spirit of free markets and competition. Fagin cites a commitment to systems that provide free and fair competition and encourage innovation as one of the conservative movement’s “True North” principles, as cited by the Heritage Foundation.

Systems that exhibit a preference for special interests, hamper competition and impair innovation run contrary to this ideal.

In America’s current first-past-the-post system of elections, Fagin sees a system that does just that. Rather than encouraging competition, our current system of elections creates artificially high barriers to those who might challenge either of America’s two major parties, shutting voters off from a wider choice of ideas and discouraging political innovation.

Fagin’s goal isn’t to provide an advantage to those who might challenge today’s conservative leaders, but to open conservatives up to a wider array of policy choices that align with conservative principles.

As Fagin puts it, “RCV by itself is not a significant threat to political duopoly, but it does permit that duopoly to be better informed and more inclusive. Voters whose views are normally shut out of the political process have more options under RCV, and more ways to communicate their preferences to the major parties.”

2.It represents an incremental approach to reforming our electoral system. As mentioned earlier, Fagin identifies a skepticism of grand social engineering schemes as core to the conservative movement. In line with their belief in free markets and open competition, innovation, conservatives argue, shouldn’t be imposed from the top down. 

Fagin sees the ranked-choice voting movement as exactly the type of incremental, bottom-up movement conservatives promote. It’s not a reform being endorsed by the national power structure of either major party but, rather, one being pushed and implemented on a state-by-state basis.

Fagin views this expansion as “federalism at its best”, with the states providing grounds that other states can adopt and model, rather than a sweeping federal effort.

3.It will strengthen a commitment to conservative principles that have been sidelined in recent years. Building on the idea that change is best implemented incrementally and at the local level, conservatism, by nature, shouldn’t be a monolithic creed, and the Republican Party that represents those principles shouldn’t be a monolithic entity.

In our current system, Fagin sees a party dominated by a segment of individuals who have been less than successful at building a Republican coalition that can compete at a national level. He sees conservatives who favor principles of fiscal conservatism and free trade and conservatives in the LGBTQ community as lacking a voice in today’s Republican Party.

Ranked choice voting, he argues, would give conservatives concerned with addressing issues threatening America’s long-term fiscal sustainability and implementing policies designed to make markets more free and competitive a more prominent role within the party.


The Critics

Fagin notes that RCV is not without its critics in the conservative movement. Highlighting a 2019 paper by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Fagin outlines how many conservatives feel ranked choice voting could distract voters from the issues with the introduction of fringe candidates, potentially disenfranchise voters who don’t cast ballots for either of the top two candidates, and remove the “genuine binary choice” argument our current system provides.

Fagin counters these arguments assume two parties should be guaranteed a seat at the table, rather than seeking to earn that place. The assumption of a “genuine binary choice” he argues, is actually a “forced binary choice”.

Fagin goes on to cite conservatives who’ve endorsed RCV, such as Stan Lockhart, former chair of the Utah Republican Party, and Jennifer Nassour, chair of the Republican Party of Massachusetts. 


A Final Note

Fagin acknowledges many Republicans remain leery of RCV due to the 2018 loss of Bruce Poliquin, a Maine Republican who held a slight margin in the first round of votes, only to lose in the second round. 

To this, Fagin offers the election of Jon Ossoff to the Georgia Senate in 2020. In the first election, Republican David Purdue failed to secure over 50%, securing 49.7% of the vote. His opponents, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Libertarian Shane Hazel, came in at 47.9% and 2.3% respectively.

If this election were decided using ranked choice voting, Perdue would have only needed to secure 12% of Hazel’s second-choice votes to win. Under the current system, it triggered a runoff, leading to the victory of Jon Ossoff and tilting the balance of the Senate in the favor of the Democratic Party. 

Fagin’s argument isn’t that conservatives should favor ranked choice voting because it gives them an edge, but because it more accurately reflects voter preference than our current system and enables the true “marketplace of ideas” conservatives hold dear. The goal of conservatives, in his opinion, shouldn’t be to embrace systems that rig the game in their favor, but those that allow the market to decide the winners, free of interference.


Dan Sally worked with digital marketing software firm, HubSpot, advising companies on how to grow their business via the web. Dan brings his passion for electoral reform, his knowledge of digital marketing to help Rank the Vote reach a wider audience online.

Dan spent 8 years pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, appearing on Comedy Central and as a finalist in the Boston Comedy Festival.

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.