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Ranked-Choice Voting Is More Democratic, Not Less

Ranked-Choice Voting Is More Democratic, Not Less

The authors respond to Congressman Mickey Edwards’ recent article by countering that RCV enhances, rather than detracts from, democracy’s most important characteristics.

Peter Ackerman, Larry Diamond, Cara Brown McCormick

Mickey Edwards, who served as a member of Congress for sixteen years from Oklahoma, has performed lifelong service to American democracy—including his opposition to “sore loser” laws that, in forty-seven states, prohibit candidates who lose party primaries from running as independents in the general election.

In 2006, Joseph Lieberman lost to Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Democratic senatorial primary. Because Connecticut does not have a “sore loser” law, Lieberman then ran in the general election as an independent—and won. Many who voted for Lamont in the primary may have switched to Lieberman in the general election to ensure his victory over Republican Alan Schlesinger. Thus, Connecticut’s Democratic primary voters had the chance to vote for more than one candidate. That is what ranked-choice voting (RCV) lets voters do—and what the current system, first-past-the-post voting (FPTP), does not.

We were surprised, therefore, to see Edwards, in his recent essay for American Purpose, reject RCV as a replacement for FPTP.

We think the current voting system, with its two-party duopoly, poses a growing threat to American democratic stability. It reinforces the country’s polarization by reducing elections to a bipolar struggle between the tribal attachments of the two dominant parties. Voters have no incentive to consider alternatives, because a vote for a third alternative would be “wasted:” In fact, it might help elect the major party candidate whom the voter most strongly opposes.

Moreover, the polarizing effect in general elections is intensified by low-turnout party primaries, which are increasingly dominated by partisans. As a result, the candidates on offer in the general election reflect a logic that rewards partisanship and obstructs compromise.

Finally, the current system, like all duopolies, inhibits competition while discouraging Americans from voting—because they want more alternatives.

In late 2020, the Chamberlain Project Foundation polled 50,000 Americans and asked whether they wanted more independent candidates winning elections. Nearly 7 out of 10 said yes. For Americans younger than 40, the number was 8 out of 10. The only way to give them what they want is with an electoral system—ranked-choice voting is the most viable—that does not force them into a single choice between a Republican and a Democrat.

Edwards’ principled view is that a two-round runoff election is superior to ranked-choice voting because it gives voters a chance to take a “second look” at the final two candidates. A “second look” is valuable, but it asks a lot of voters, who must turn out again for the runoff, which would be the third election of the year. Also, because it involves just the two highest first-round vote-getters, it does not fully account for voters’ preferences.

RCV includes more comprehensive “instant runoffs:” If no candidate “wins” the first round, the candidates with the fewest “wins” are eliminated. Their votes get transferred to the next-preferred candidates. These instant runoffs continue until a candidate wins a majority. This means candidates can come from behind to win, because they appeal to more voters than anyone else.

RCV also gives independents and third-party candidates a better chance to get a “first look” from voters. Thus, RCV does more to stimulate democratic competition.

Edwards’ preference for the two-round system is a step in the right direction; it is much better than first past the post. But the California-style “top two” system that he favors has done little to abate political polarization and nothing to break the two-party duopoly—partly because the final two candidates are chosen in a low-turnout primary months before the general election. In fact, it decreases competition by narrowing the field early on, when most voters aren’t paying attention.

Edwards’ arguments have other flaws. He states that elections are “directly tied to the central premise of American government … [that] the opinion of the majority will prevail.” But RCV, even if it has to conduct several instant runoffs, ends by electing a candidate with majority support.

The first statewide congressional general election using RCV took place in 2018 in Maine’s second congressional district. In the first round of voting, Republican candidate Bruce Poliquin received 134,184 votes; Democrat Jared Golden got 132,013 votes. Since no candidate received a majority, the two independents were eliminated. Voters who picked them had their second choices count, and these second choices went overwhelmingly for Golden. Under FPTP, Poliquin would have been elected with 46 percent of the vote; but RCV elected the candidate who was more broadly appealing.

Edwards calls RCV “anti-democratic” because it elevates “conviviality to the highest rank of qualifications for public office.” We think this gets things backwards. The logic of RCV is not to elevate conviviality but to punish gratuitously polarizing candidates who might mobilize an intense first-round following but are unacceptable to most of the electorate. That is a democratically worthy goal.

Moreover, if we want to avoid “anti-democratic” methods, what is more anti-democratic: a candidate winning an election with just a plurality of the vote, or a series of instant runoffs that produces a majority winner?

Edwards dislikes the notion that “a person who receives the most first-place votes might become a loser;” but the two-round voting that he favors can produce a similar result, less efficiently than RCV does.

Edwards claims:

[M]any of the people who voted for a ‘third choice’ or even a ‘fourth’ choice knew very little about that candidate other than his or her name. It’s a bit like selecting a governor or member of Congress by throwing darts at a dart board.

This is unfair to Maine’s voters—indeed, to all voters. There is no evidence that voters are intellectually incapable of evaluating more than two candidates. If voters decide to rank only one candidate, they are no worse off in their electoral influence than they would have been with the single choice offered in first-past-the-post.

In fact, there are many good reasons why voters might want to express their second, third, or even fourth preference in an election. A voter might want to support an underdog candidate to help boost that candidate’s ideas, particularly if the candidate presses a specific issue about which a voter feels intensely. In 1992, for example, Ross Perot, supporting federal debt reduction and a balanced budget, got 19 percent of the vote. But all Perot’s votes were “wasted” because his voters couldn’t transfer these votes to a second preference.

Edwards also claims that RCV’s goal is to elect “not the best candidate … but the least objectionable.”Yet how can anyone say that these qualities are mutually exclusive? And if a candidate is really just an “empty suit” whose only virtue is being unobjectionable, the candidate is unlikely to survive until later rounds. Finally, a winning candidate’s ability to govern or even to represent a district will significantly benefit from the legitimacy that comes from winning an electoral majority. RCV is the best way to ensure that legitimacy.

This was one of the great benefits of RCV in the 2021 New York Democratic primary for mayor. The candidates who came in second and third promptly acknowledged the winner—who, far from Edwards’ description, was a moderate, tough-on-crime candidate who had been a police officer for more than twenty years.

We agree with Edwards that “interplay among diverse opinions is a central feature of democracy.” But what if that interplay takes only one of two polarized paths? Today’s bipolar system shuts out not just moderate opinions by independents but voices of third-party candidates, like Libertarians or Greens, who are deprived of a serious hearing because of the “wasted vote” problem. In this circumstance, it is hard to conclude that RCV narrows the “range of views allowed into the debate.” It is the current system, plus low-turnout, polarizing party primaries, that puts—to use Edwards’ words—“democracy in a straitjacket.”

New evidence suggests that the public agrees. Recent polling by the Program for Public Consultation of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy has found that six in ten voters, including majorities of both parties, favor using RCV in federal elections. Large majorities found the principal arguments for RCV convincing, while none of the arguments against RCV attracted majority support. Edwards argues that elections in a democracy are about two things: enabling the people to rule and the people they elect to govern. We agree, but we think both features of the democratic bargain in the United States are deeply broken today. Public trust in politicians, elections, and in government is at historic lows. A December 2021 poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans saying that “American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing.”

Our deepening democratic dysfunction has more than one cause, but we think a key one is the current polarizing electoral system. This is also the factor we can most readily address, by mobilizing more states to follow Maine and Alaska and adopt RCV, as voters in Oregon and Nevada are now circulating petitions to do. RCV is a political reform whose time is coming, and none too soon.

Note: Peter Ackerman passed away on April 26, shortly after this article was completed. For his two co-authors, and for everyone who knew him and worked with him in the causes of challenging tyranny through nonviolent civil resistance and improving American democracy through reforms like ranked-choice voting, his untimely death represents a devastating and irreplaceable loss. We take this opportunity to celebrate his brilliance, courage, and deep devotion to democratic principles, and to express our profound gratitude for his friendship.

–Cara McCormick and Larry Diamond

Peter Ackerman was chair of the Chamberlain Project Foundation. In 2010 he founded Americans Elect to create a nonpartisan pathway to the presidency. Until his death he served as co-chair of the international advisory council of the U.S. Institute of Peace and on the executive committee of the Atlantic Council. Larry Diamond, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Cara Brown McCormick is co-founder of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting and the Chamberlain Project Foundation. She has worked professionally on U.S. political campaigns in every election cycle for the past thirty years.

United StatesDemocracy