A former member of Congress argues that the much-touted voting reform overrides fundamental features of a democratic election.
Given the state of American politics, a good many concerned citizens have formed strong opinions about what’s gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. One much-hyped proposal, ranked-choice voting (RCV), focuses not on serious election concerns—ballot access, ease of voting, ballot security, and the like—but on how we count the votes in order to produce a more “acceptable” winner.
Ranked-choice voting would have voters rank candidates in order of acceptability. As the lowest-ranking candidates are sequentially removed, the second, third, and fourth preferences are transformed into first choices, much as a riverboat gambler shuffles and reshuffles the cards until he produces a winning hand. A person who receives the most first-place votes might become a loser, and a person who gets fewer first-place votes could become the winner. Through this process we would produce a governor, a mayor, a member of Congress.
But election systems don’t exist in a void; the people we elect will be charged with actually running a government, and election systems must be based on an understanding of the purposes of elections. That is the reason why we don’t simply let groups of insiders choose our officials for us or pass along public offices as an inheritance. Our election systems must also serve the purposes of governing: They must place in positions of authority the men and women thought by the greatest number of voters to be best equipped to meet the current challenges. These are high standards, and this is where RCV becomes problematic: It is a profoundly anti-democratic system that elevates conviviality to the highest rank of qualifications for public office, and in this way treats politics and governance as parlor games.
To be clear, ranked-choice voting is perfectly suitable for low-stakes elections; the problem comes when one gets down to serious business. Electing the right people requires that voters have the ability to see and evaluate their most viable options in direct comparison with each other. That is a feature missing from, and apparently anathema to, RCV.
The key to assessing any system is to start with first principles. The most important questions to ask are, “What is it we’re trying to achieve?” and “Why is that we’re trying to achieve it?” RCV’s supporters have answers, but they’re answers to the wrong questions.
Elections are not simply a competition between individuals; more important, they are about the act of governing itself. Elections shape governments. The purposes of a government are multiple and varied but significant and essential to establishing justice, promoting the common good, and providing security for citizens. Since so much depends on how our elected officials make these choices, what should we expect elections to do?
Elections are directly tied to the central premise of American government—that the people will rule. The purpose of an election is to effectuate that promise. Part of the operating premise is that within the constraints embodied in a constitutional republic, the opinion of the majority will prevail. We must be able to know whom the majority prefers to entrust with the powers of government. One of RCV’s fatal shortcomings is that we would never know who the majority might prefer. RCV thus ignores the most basic purposes of a democratic election. For the advocates of ranked-choice voting, whom the majority prefers is irrelevant.
A second purpose of elections is to invest voters with confidence in their government. Individual voters may or may not like the outcome of a particular election; they may or may not like who will be representing them as their mayor or governor or member of Congress. But if they perceive that the election was fairly held and they had a fair opportunity to have their preferences considered, they will under normal circumstances be able to accept that the promise of democracy is valid. “The majority has spoken” has a reassuring ring to it. But if no winner has been determined other than by a shuffling of second, third, and fourth-place votes, the office in question may actually be awarded to a candidate who has received neither a majority nor a plurality of votes cast. This is not a good recipe for confidence-building.
After all, election systems, once put in place, are likely to remain in place for some time. RCV’s advocates are driven by a belief that the system will somehow prevent the election of people like Donald Trump—on the premise that the candidates who finish third, fourth, or fifth in a race will tend towards the political center. If the votes can be shuffled so as to draw a winner from that magical centrist pool, political extremism will be unable to gain political power.
RCV advocates believe this despite the fact that in the most recent New York City mayoral election, the more politically moderate candidate actually lost ground when votes were tabulated RCV-style. Ranked-choice voting, once imposed, would govern American politics long after Trump has faded from the political scene, leaving us with an America in which elections remain designed to reduce the chances that the person who receives the greatest number of votes will actually win the election.
We are a large and diverse nation. We have different views and debate them vigorously. That’s how we got Social Security, arms control agreements, and consumer safety laws. Amazingly, one aim of RCV’s advocates is to short-circuit that process by narrowing, rather than expanding, the range of views allowed into the debate. They no longer speak quite so openly as they once did about their search for centrists, although that’s really what they’re about (a strange quest since, for each of us, the “center” is wherever we plant our own philosophical feet). This obsession with a magical center is predicated on the belief that America’s primary political problem is “polarization,” the distance between contending views at the opposite poles. But if shrinking the range of acceptable views is our goal, we don’t need new election systems: We can just move to Beijing or Havana.
In fact, the primary problem in American government is not polarization but something entirely different—partisanship, squeezing options into competing party menus as part of an uncompromising power struggle. The vigorous interplay among diverse opinions is a central feature of democracy, yet this is the piece of American politics that RCV supporters attack—while they ignore the problem of party-dominated government. It is partisanship, not polarization, that produces gerrymandered congressional districts; it is partisanship, not polarization, that limits voters’ final choices to the candidates whom party loyalists have anointed. In Congress and state legislatures, it is partisanship, not polarization, that stacks legislative committees, limits the witnesses who can offer expert testimony, and precludes hearings, amendments, and legislative consideration of unwelcome views.
Voters in California and Washington state understood this distinction. They created an election system based on allowing diverse views into the competition, then forcing a final choice that would ensure a winner who had actually received a majority of votes cast. This is the direct opposite of an RCV system—and the right way to overcome the deficiencies in American governance.
What, then, are the arguments RCV’s advocates ask us to consider?
First, they say the possibility of winning just by being more generally acceptable will entice more citizens to run for office; more, the fact that a lesser-known candidate might have a better chance of winning will encourage more citizens to vote. But this is a solution in search of a problem. In last year’s New York City mayoral election, with ranked-choice voting, thirteen candidates ran in the Democratic primary for mayor (the Democratic primary being the only one that really matters). But in the previous election eight years earlier, there were nine candidates—without ranked-choice voting. In 2020, 801,829 votes were cast in the primary; but 691,520 votes were cast eight years earlier in the pre-Trump, pre-Black Lives Matter, pre-pandemic era, with four fewer candidates and a population nearly a quarter-million people smaller.
Second, RCV fans argue that ranked-choice voting will cause candidates to avoid attacking their opponents because they want those opponents’ supporters to list them as a second or third choice. There are some eye-rollingly serious problems here. Yes, having “nice” campaigns would be—well, nice. But we’re not choosing the winner of a congeniality contest. Campaigns are serious conflicts about serious things with serious consequences. Who wins actually matters. That’s why political campaigns unfold the way they do—and did even when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were running nasty campaigns against each other two centuries ago. Candidates will always try to lessen the support enjoyed by their strongest rivals and, in elections with runoffs, court the supporters of weaker rivals in the likely event that these supporters’ preferred candidates will be eliminated in the first round.
Third, ranked-choice voting’s supporters are fixated on supplanting the candidate who gets the highest number of votes with the person who is “most broadly acceptable.” RCV’s goal is to elect not the best candidate for the task of governing but the least objectionable, the candidate who will make the fewest waves, rock the least number of boats. It is democracy in a straitjacket. In electing someone to deal with the most important challenges of a community, there is a considerable difference between electing “the best for the job” and choosing the blandest or least known.
Among the ways in which RCV supporters reveal their distaste for democracy is their insistence on pairing it with “instant” or “virtual” runoffs—shuffling the cards until the first, second, or third-place votes candidates have received have been re-allotted so as to put a candidate over the 50 percent mark and thus provide a winner, even if many 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.
In short, ranked-choice voting simply doesn’t take elections seriously. Elections are not television reality shows, with viewers deciding which cast member is most congenial or whom they’d most like to vote off the island. People who want us to replace our current election systems with ranked-choice voting try to mitigate this fatal anti-democratic flaw by gimmickry—for example, a “runoff” between a top four or top five. If that “runoff” is virtual—a second round of shuffling, but among a smaller number of “finalists”—nothing will change except the time it will take to determine a “winner.”
But even if it’s a real runoff, with a second round of campaigning and voters going to the polls again, if there are more than two candidates, there will be no way to evaluate one’s actual options fairly and determine who is preferred by a majority of participating voters. Unless the final round of voting is pared down to two candidates, we will have locked in election by plurality, undermining one of the most basic concepts of liberal democracy: that the people rule and the will of the majority determines who will make the important decisions in a government of free people.
I’m not sure why this simple idea—this fundamental element of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people—seems so unacceptable to RCV’s champions; but it’s the failure that ultimately makes ranked-choice voting a very bad idea.
Mickey Edwards is John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs & Co. Visiting Professor and Visiting Lecturer at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. He served for sixteen years as a member of Congress from Oklahoma and is author of The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans (2012).
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