By Dan Sally
Since New York City’s highly publicized use of ranked-choice voting in their most recent mayoral primary, people across the country have begun debating whether RCV could improve elections where they live. As part of that consideration, a number of issues have been raised as to whether ranked-choice voting would be an improvement against the status quo.
While we at Rank the Vote obviously fall to the other side of this debate, it’s important to address the proposed cons to provide a full understanding of the issue. Below follows some of the more common doubts people have about ranked-choice voting:
Ranked-choice voting is too complicated
This is, by far, the most common criticism of ranked-choice voting. RCV undoubtedly represents a departure from what people know, and that voter education is critical to making it work.
In fact, New York City’s efforts to educate their own voters were so comprehensive, it gave many outside the city a familiarity with the process. Exit polling also showed 95 percent of voters who participated found the ballot easy to complete.
This shows that, while voter education is an important and big lift, the task of educating them is far from impossible.
It’s important to note that voting in standard “winner-take-all” elections isn’t always easy. A research report by the Brennan Center last year found a number of common problems in ballot design that confused voters and resulted in the casting of erroneous votes. In the 2000 Presidential Election, voters in Palm Beach County complained poor ballot design led them to cast votes for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore.
Bottom line—while ranked-choice voting will require voter education, New York City has shown how this can be done successfully. What’s more, past elections have shown us a lack of voter education can make our current system confusing as well.
Another common criticism of RCV is ballot exhaustion, a phenomenon that occurs when voters don’t choose any of the top tier candidates on their ballots, leading them not to be counted in the final tally. Going back to New York’s recent mayoral primary, roughly 15 percent of ballots didn’t include either of the top two candidates in the race.
This has led many people to ask if RCV does an adequate job ensuring everyone has a voice in the electoral process.
In taking a closer look at New York’s results, a key problem with the traditional system of elections becomes clear. While Eric Adams would still have won the Democratic nomination in a winner-take-all scenario, he would have only won with a little over 30 percent of the vote.
This would have meant almost 70 percent of votes went unheard.
Results like this aren’t all that uncommon in crowded primaries, where the winner often only secures between 20-30 percent of the vote. A report by Unite America revealed this problem was so bad, only 10 percent of voters decided the winners in 83 percent of congressional races in 2020.
While no electoral system ensures 100 percent of ballots cast will ultimately decide the victor, ranked-choice voting has proven to be better than our current winner-take-all system in terms of ensuring more voters have a voice in the process.
It doesn’t do enough to promote real political diversity
While proponents of RCV tout it will be easier for candidates outside the two major parties to take part, many feel it doesn’t go far enough and will still result in elections where one of the two major party candidates wins.
This might be true. With the power of familiarity, money, and larger organizations, both of America’s two major parties have a huge advantage in any electoral system. This would take more than modifying our voting system to change.
This being said, that change starts with other parties having a voice in our electoral process. To date, it’s been far too easy for candidates and the media to write off third-party candidates as “spoilers,” making whatever platform they were running on secondary.
At the same time, many of the positions held by America’s minor parties for decades, such as an end to America’s “forever wars” and criminal justice reform, were immensely popular with voters once the major parties adopted them.
Ranked-choice voting eliminates the spoiler effect, meaning voters can cast ballots for third-party candidates without fear of inadvertently handing victory to the candidate they like the least. This gives them the freedom to actually listen to the positions of all participating candidates, as opposed to trying to determine which one of those most likely to win will do the least damage while in office.
At the very least, this would introduce a greater diversity of thought into political debates and require major party candidates adopt popular minor party positions in order to compete for votes. Over time, these parties would gain familiarity with voters and increase their chances of seeing more members in office.
One Final Note
Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.” Voting systems aren’t perfect and are only as effective as the incentives they create for those seeking power.
The reason ranked-choice voting is even being debated is because the incentives set by our first-past-the-post system have proven to be damaging to the health of our democracy. Our nation was founded on the principle that those in office should represent the will of the people, and yet our electoral system gives the advantage to the candidate who can create a winnable minority of voters by dividing and polarizing the electorate.
Rather than encouraging candidates to run against each other, ranked-choice voting encourages them to run for something and to better represent the true majority of the voters they serve.
If you have an argument against ranked-choice voting I missed, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
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.