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In The Public Interest: Discussing Ranked Choice Voting And The Reality Of Majority Rules In Voting

Lisa Disch
Lisa Barry
89.1 WEMU

In this edition of "In The Public Interest," our bi-weekly conversation with the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, WEMU’s Lisa Barry talks with Lisa Disch, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan about Ranked Choice Voting.


What is Ranked Choice Voting?

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference, instead of choosing only one, even in a race for a single office.

How does it work?

It’s really pretty simple. There are two versions of RCV, one for multi-seat elections and one for single seat elections.  All of our federal-level elections, of course, are single-seat.  Many local ones are too.  When you use the Ranked Choice method in this most common kind of election, the single-seat election, we call it Instant Run-off Voting.

Let’s imagine an instant run-off vote where four candidates run for a single seat.  Voters would rank the candidates in order of preference.

  • Tally the first choice votes.  If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated.
  • Then we get the instant-run off.  If your candidate was eliminated on the first round, your vote transfers to your second choice.
  • Once we’ve redistributed all the second choices of voters whose first preference was eliminated on the first round, we tally up again and see if there is a more than 50% majority for any of the remaining candidates.
  • We keep eliminating candidates and redistributing votes until one candidate achieves over 50% of the remaining active ballots.

Two things make RCV special:

  • Voters can rank more than one candidate
  • Candidates have to win a majority of the votes to be elected

How is RCV different than the way we vote today?

Our most common method of election is plurality voting in single-member districts. We are typically asked to vote for one candidate only.  There is only one round or “tally."  And whoever receives the most votes wins, even if they do not receive a majority of the ballots cast.  This system routinely produces outcomes that many people do not think are fair.

Can you give some examples?

The two most important are what we call “wasted votes” and “plurality outcomes.”

  • Let’s start with “wasted votes.”  We all understand the principle of one-person one-vote.
  • That is not just an equity principle--the idea that everybody should get the same number of votes.
  • It is also a power principle--everybody’s vote ought to have a reasonable chance of putting someone into office to represent them.

Now, a single-member district plurality system violates that power principle in lots of ways.  For example, if you are a Republican in a district that is gerrymandered to ensure that Democrats always have a winning majority, you never have a chance of voting for a winning candidate--unless you change parties.  Gerrymandering means your vote is “wasted” because there is no mathematical way it can count toward electing your party’s candidate.  That’s not fair.
But there’s another version of the “wasted vote” problem that we’re all familiar with.  This one happens when you suspect that your favorite candidate does not have enough support to win.

Think about it.  Have you ever stopped yourself from voting for the candidate you liked most because you thought they couldn’t win?  Have you ever worried that if you went ahead and voted for the candidate you liked most you might end up helping to elect the candidate you disliked most?  This is where RCV can help.

You are perfectly safe to vote your political heart--which is to say, cast a vote that matches your values--without worrying about whether or not your favorite candidate has a chance of winning.  If you vote for your favorite candidate and they don’t win, your vote transfers to your second choice.

It can still count toward electing someone, even if that person is not your first choice.

And you do not have to worry that by voting for your ideal candidate you’d “spoil” the race for your next best and end up with the person you think would be the worst!

We choose political candidates in this country like we choose almost nothing else.  Take college for example.

  • Your kid made a list of places they wanted to go that included dream schools and safety schools.
  • How would your kid feel if they couldn’t fall back on a safety? If they had to choose between their dream school and their nightmare one?  That’s the position that plurality voting puts us in when we know that by voting for our favorite candidate we risk throwing the election in favor of the candidate we would never vote for.

How about that second problem, plurality outcomes?

  • Plurality outcomes occur in our current system when you have three people running and there is a close finish, so the winner gets elected with less than a 50% majority of the popular vote.
  • In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against President George H.W. Bush and Pat Buchanan and was elected president with 47% of the vote.  That means that a majority of the electorate--53%--voted for someone other than Clinton.
  • It’s hard to govern when you weren’t the majority’s choice.
  • With RCV, the election doesn’t end with the first person who crosses the finish line.  It keeps going until some person picks up enough support to reach a majority of the vote.
  • In 1992, Incumbent George H.W. Bush could have been re-elected if conservatives who voted for PB would have ranked him second.  Couldn’t you actually do a top-two run-off election and accomplish the same thing?
  • Turnout usually drops significantly between the first election and the run-off.
  • Advantage of RCV: runoff is instant.

Let’s talk about the downsides.  RCV seems pretty complicated.

Yes and no.  We all know how to rank things.  But ranking requires more information.  That’s a potential downside.

Current system has accustomed us to pick just one favorite—some of us do research, some of us just look at the party label on the ballot, check out the endorsements, read a newspaper editorial or chat with a trusted friend.

Ranking candidates means you need to look at more candidates carefully and you have to decide not just which one you like but which ones you like and in what order.  Cues like party ID and endorsement will take you part of the way but probably not all of the way.

When voters rank only one or two candidates in a race where several run, you end up with “exhausted ballots”--ballots that don’t make it to the final round.

  • Means that they don’t count toward electing someone.
  • Also means that the winner might end up with less than a majority of total # of ballots cast because they will finish with a majority of the ballots that survive to the last round.

We’ve talked a lot about how voters’ behavior would change in an RCV system.  How about candidates?

That’s one of the potential upsides of this system: Changes the way candidates campaign.  Competing not just to be the first choice of their base but to be the second choice of as many other voters as possible.  That encourages them to run issue-focused, non-dirt-throwing campaigns.  I’m hardly going to rank you second if you run down my favorite.

Is RCV common in the US?

  • Never been really widespread but it has a long history.
  • First used in the US in Ashtabula, OH in 1915.  Quickly caught on to other major cities in that state.
  • At its peak, in the twentieth century, it was used in 24 US cities—typically the multi-winner version.  It began to be repealed at mid-century.
  • Cambridge, MA adopted it in 1941 and has been using the multi-winner version ever since to elect its 9-member city council and school board.
  • Resurgence now--too many cities to name but some highlights.
  • 72% Voters in New York City just approved RCV for use in city elections, primaries, and special elections--they had been using run-offs for primaries.
  • Now legal statewide in ME.  First US Representative elected with this method (Democrat Jared Golden).
  • Also used for overseas and military ballots, especially in states that have runoff elections.

What about Michigan?  Wasn’t it just used on November 5 in Eastpointe?

  • Yes, but Eastpointe not the first use of RCV in MI.  Ann Arbor used it for city council and mayor in the 70s and it helped elect Human Rights Party candidates to council,
  • Eastpointe is also unique because it is the result of a voting rights case.  Justice Department imposed it to improve African-American representation.
  • On Tuesday, used multi-seat version of RCV, did not result in election of candidate of color but data not available yet to show whether the candidates who won had significant African-American support.
  • Elected their first African-American Mayor, Monique Owens, elected two years ago as first black city mayor. RCV might have been a boon for her because she won a plurality victory by just 19 votes.
  • Movement called Rank MI Vote to make it possible statewide.  Will need to change some state laws.

How is it performing in the places that have been doing it for a while?

  • Since the intro of RCV in CA, women have won more than 40% of all contests, women of color almost 25%, and people of color 60%.
  • In cities using RCV, these increases are larger (or declines are less) than in cities without RCV during same time period.
  • In addition, more people of color and women of color are running for offices.
League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area
Credit League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area / lwvannarbor.org
League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area Logo

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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