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Ranked-choice-voting reality: Theoretical ‘perfect case’ doesn’t happen

A crowded field of Minneapolis candidates and only three ranked choices make it likely the new mayor won’t garner a majority of all votes cast.

REUTERS/Derek Hauck

Second in an occasional series on ranked-choice voting.

If you haven’t experienced it or find it hard to grasp, here is how ranked-choice voting (RCV) works, in the theoretical perfect case.

Suppose there were five candidates running for mayor of your city. The ballot would enable you to rank them, one through five, in the order in which you would prefer each of them to be mayor.

In our perfect case, every voter would rank all the way from one to five. If a candidate was chosen as the first preference of a majority of those voting, he or she would win and there would be no need to do any further counting.

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In the (fairly likely) case that no candidate was the first choice of a majority, the candidate who finished last (fifth, in our example) in the number of first-preference votes s/he attracted would be eliminated. If you had voted for that candidate, your support would be transferred to the candidate whom you had ranked as your second choice. If the counting of those (relatively few, since this candidate ran fifth) second-preference votes pushed one of the remaining candidates above the 50 percent mark — game over, a mayor is elected who was at least the first or second choice of a majority of voters.

If not, the candidate who finished on the bottom (fourth place, in our example) in the second round of counting would be eliminated and those votes would be credited to the highest-ranked candidate who was still in the race. If still no one had a majority, the bottom finisher would be eliminated, and his/her supporters would be counted as supporters of the remaining candidate who was ranked highest on those ballots. And so on.

RCV produces series of instant runoffs

 (Perhaps this makes clear why ranked-choice voting is sometimes called instant-runoff voting. It’s as if, in a theoretical sense, you had gathered all the voters and asked them whom they would support if these five candidates were their options. Then the last-place finisher would be eliminated and you would ask the still-impaneled electorate: “And now whom would you support if you had only these four choices?” And so on, with each round of counting functioning as a runoff election among the surviving candidates.)

Back to our theoretical perfect example: If no one achieved a majority after three rounds of counting, then only two candidates would be left standing and every ballot would be assigned to whichever of those two had the higher ranking on every single ballot.

 So, on the fourth round, unless those two tied exactly, one of them would have a majority and be the winner.

Video RCV demonstration

In case you prefer to visualize this, with music and narration, rather than just read my (oh-so-20th-century) typing, here is a charming, short (less than two minutes) film explaining the system. It was made by FairVote Minnesota, the chief group promoting ranked-choice-voting in our state.

In our theoretical perfect example, and in the Fair Vote film (even though the candidates there are running for best-president-ever) the new mayor would have at least a sort of majority of the vote — and whatever advantages that creates for the real or perceived legitimacy of his or her mandate to lead the city.

It is in the eye of the beholder whether a mandate achieved this way is more legitimate than one achieved through the pre-existing, first-past-the-post, plurality winner system. At the least, as I mentioned in the first installment of this occasional series, supporters of the runner-up would be less tormented by the belief that their candidate would have won if only third and fourth candidates hadn’t been drawing a portion of the vote.

Rice an outspoken opponent

But I keep calling the above example theoretical and perfect because, in the real world, there is no guarantee that the mayor-elect could claim a true majority of all the voters who turned out. This seems to be one of the key shortcomings of ranked-choice-voting in the eyes of Devin Rice, who sits on the Minneapolis Charter Commission.

Rice, one of the most outspoken opponents of RCV, has written for the Strib op-ed page criticizing the new system. He told me that although he has not tried to introduce a charter amendment to repeal RCV, he is open to the idea and will reassess after this fall’s big trial of the new system.

 One thing that sets Rice off is the claim (he calls it a “myth”) by proponents that RCV guarantees a majority mandate for the winner. In fact, in 2009, the first time Minneapolis used the new system, the race for Park and Recreation Board in the 5th District produced a winner who received support – any rank of support – on just 46 percent of the total ballots cast in the race. In San Francisco and Oakland, which have used RCV longer, Rice said there have been instances of races being won by candidates who received support on 43 (San Fran) and 42 percent (Oakland) of all ballots.

Effective DemocracyHow is this possible? There are two keys ways that RCV can fail to produce a winning candidate who received support on a majority of all ballots cast.

 The first way is that a voter could fail to rank all of the candidates. Then, if their ballots ran out of ranked preferences before the final round of counting, their ballots would be what, in RCV talk, is called “exhausted.”

Back to the example above. In the perfect case, five candidates on the ballot and each voter ranks them all the way from one to five in order of their preference. But in reality, many voters will not rank five choices. Perhaps it is a lot to ask of an average voter to know the field well enough to actually have ranked feelings across five choices.

In any event, a voter who ranked fewer than five will have his or her vote counted until the count reaches the point at which there is no candidate still alive in the counting for whom that voter has expressed any preference at all. That voter’s ballot is deemed to be “exhausted,” meaning there is no way to count it in the final determination of a winner. Once you start having ballots that can’t be counted in the final round, you can’t be guaranteed that the ultimate winner will have at least some measure of support from a majority of all the voters who participated in the election.

FairVote’s response

In a Strib op-ed responding to Rice’s op-ed, Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota wrote:

 “As to the concern that RCV does not produce majority winners, the winner — in a single-seat race — is always the candidate with the majority of continuing ballots in the final round. In some situations, as in the case Rice points to, this is a plurality of initial ballots cast because some voters express only one preference and don’t have a candidate in the race in the final round of counting. This is the will of the voter.”

When I talked to him, Rice was particularly exercised about the “majority of continuing ballots in the final round” language, which to him is a fancy way of dismissing those whose ballots have been exhausted and fuzzing up the basic idea of a majority mandate.

“A majority means 50 percent of all the ballots,” he said. “No, Bigfoot isn’t real. Yes, our president was born in Hawaii. Global warming is real. We descended from apes. And no, ranked-choice voting does not assure majority outcomes.”

It is, of course, true that the traditional first-past-the-post plurality system is fully capable of producing winners with less than a majority of votes and, in Minnesota’s recent history, often has, especially in the high-profile statewide races for top offices. If you accept the validity of counting second- and third-preference votes, RCV seems substantially more likely than the traditional system to produce majority winners, even under Rice’s stricter (but reasonable) definition of what constitutes a majority.

But there is one last problem we should touch on before we wrap up for the day.

Massey correctly notes that a voter who ranks only one preference has (more or less, depending on what level of understanding you attribute to this theoretical voter) made a choice that if his or her first choice is eliminated, not to express a preference among the remaining candidates. That’s what she meant in the excerpt above by “This is the will of the voter.”

But in this year’s big Minneapolis mayoral race, it is quite possible (and very likely to happen) that some voters will fill out their ballots fully and still not have their preference counted in the final round.

Two key numbers

That’s because of two numbers: 3 and 35.

Thirty-five, rather amazingly, is the number of candidates who will appear on the ballot for mayor of Minneapolis. Three is the number of ranked preferences that the ballot will allow each voter to express.

At the very least, it is very possible that a voter (and perhaps more than a few) will actually rank three choices and — not because they chose not to rank any more but because they couldn’t — their ballot will nonetheless be “exhausted” because none of their three choice were still alive in the final round of counting.

True, Massey acknowledged when I asked about it. But this is not because of any inherent flaw in the RCV idea. Minneapolis has chosen to allow anyone to run who pays $20 and wants the fun or ego trip of seeing his or her name on the ballot. Most cities have higher requirements, such as the ability to gather a certain number of signatures, that would surely have discouraged some of the most frivolous of the Minneapolis 35, and Massey’s organization thinks Minneapolis should.

The administrators of the Minneapolis election have decided to limit voters to three choices. Massey wishes they had gone to at least six but sympathizes with the various contingencies that led to the decision to limit it to three, for this election. She said the experience of jurisdictions that have been using RCV suggests that almost no voters would have their choices involuntarily exhausted if they could rank six preferences.

The city’s new more-computerized election machinery will make it easier to handle six rankings and she hopes the city will expand the number of choices in future elections. “The trouble is,” she added, “there won’t be another mayor’s race like this for a long time.”

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.