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Noah Diekemper: Ranked choice voting offers promises it can’t keep

Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper

Ranked choice voting has been in vogue across the nation, with many cities and some states changing their elections to incorporate it.

Alaska recently used it for the first time to elect someone to its at-large congressional district. But while the new system has gained traction in some places, including Maine and New York City, it has met resistance in others, such as Massachusetts and Missouri. And for good reason: It’s being pushed with promises it can’t keep.

Proponents of ranked choice voting suggest it’s a solution to our current elections — which, as one advocacy organization put it, “deprive voters of meaningful choices, … advance candidates who lack broad support and leave voters feeling like our voices are not heard.”

Those promises are falling flat. The Alaska results, for instance, call into question just how broad the support of winners in ranked choice elections is going to be. The winner of that state’s election was Mary Peltola, a Democrat who was ranked as the first choice of just 39.7% of voters. Subsequent rounds eliminated her competition and transferred votes until Peltola had a lead of 51.5% of remaining ballots. But it’s not clear that counts as a “majority” of support except in an unhelpful, word-game sense of the term.



And the worse news for the ranked choice paradigm is how those Alaska runoff rounds proceeded. Of the three major candidates, the first one eliminated was the Republican widely considered to be politically in between Peltola and former Gov. Sarah Palin.

The ranked choice idea is that candidates are supposed to win by appealing to lots of voters. But ranked choice works by eliminating candidates with the fewest first-place votes in each round. Imagine a personally affable moderate and good communicator with a compromise platform, but who isn’t hardline on any bloc’s key issue. He or she could be the second choice on every single voter’s ballot ? and be eliminated immediately.

That’s not what happened in Alaska. But it is the general pattern, and it won’t be surprising to see it replicated elsewhere moving forward.

Some proponents have tried to adapt their arguments and make the case that, despite Alaska’s eccentric result, ranked choice will still be beneficial because it will “change who winners are [incentivized] to represent.”

But that’s not anything new. In the days of Obamacare, when Republican Scott Brown won a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2010, he legislated and campaigned for all Bay Staters. And two years later, he earned substantially more support than Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did on the same 2012 ballot.

Brown did lose his seat in 2012 to Democrat Elizabeth Warren. But a few years later, Brown’s fate didn’t stop Democrat Doug Jones from winning a U.S. Senate seat in conservative Alabama and then working tirelessly all across his state like someone, in the words of statistics blog FiveThirtyEight, who “thinks he’s supposed to be here.”

Zooming out, the real issue is that any way of summarizing an electorate’s preferences is going to leave something to be desired. This was illustrated powerfully by the mathematician John Allen Paulos back in the 1990s. He presented a hypothetical election where one candidate won under our usual plurality system, a different candidate won under ranked choice, and a third won under a runoff between the top two vote-getters. Yet some other candidate was preferred by a majority of voters to any of those three.

There isn’t a right way of electing someone to office. There are just different ways. And when comparing systems, we need to be careful to distinguish what’s a shortcoming of a particular system versus what’s just a part of the environment.

Many Americans feel their voices aren’t being heard because public opinion in this country is deeply divided. Significant percentages of Americans disagree with each other on topics including the environment, abortion, foreign policy, immigration and gun control.

Under such circumstances, very few people are going to see their ideal policies become law, so they will understandably feel like their voices aren’t heard. That underlies a lot of political divisions, and ranked choice voting isn’t going to change any of that. 

Shifting from one electoral system to another isn’t worth the energy, cost and potential chaos — especially when that shift is being pitched as a cure-all that it isn’t.

Diekemper is a senior research analyst for The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in Milwaukee:

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