The real advantage of ranked-choice voting: No more games

MinnPost photo by Joel Kramer
While RCV is not the panacea its proponents claim it is, it contains, at its heart, a very powerful concept that has the potential to result in election outcomes that better reflect voters' true feelings.

This post is a continuation of my very topical series on Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). A series that began with a post tiled, “Ask Me Anything: Ranked Choice Voting,” where I pleaded with readers to ask me questions about Ranked Choice Voting so that I could turn around and use those questions to create hot political takes for the purposes of posting on this very blog.

The hot political takes started with; “Ranked Choice Voting Question Time: Majority Winner,” a political take so hot that it spawned two response posts, the first regarding responses to the original hot take, and the second involving responses to that response. The second RCV hot political take posted was “Ranked Choice Voting Question Time: 35 Candidates and Vote Ranking.”

All of which brings us to hot political take three; which I will now allow a couple of our very astute readers to set-up.

RCV alleviates the need to vote for a candidate you don’t prefer just because they can beat others you like less. With RCV you can vote your true preferences without fear of “wasting” your vote. This is good for independents and small-party candidates, and also avoids a situation where two “good” candidates split the vote and a “bad” candidate wins.

Probably the biggest benefit is that it allows you to vote your conscience with the hope that other people agree with you, but if they don’t, you can throw your support to someone else who you might consider the lesser of the evils remaining (no umbrage intended). That is, assuming that whoever you have ranked downballot is still in the running. The most common idea, I think is if you have a R, D, and I candidate. A voter’s preference is actually I > D > R or I > R > D. However, D & R usually run neck-in-neck, and in the winner-take-all system, the voter risks getting his/her last choice as winner if he/she casts a vote for I and takes support away from their second choice. So they play the game of actually casting a vote for their second choice. If a plurality of people actually do prefer I, then the intent of the voters is thwarted by the protective calculus of the voters. That is the scenario that RCV is intended to remedy.

So the correct frame of mind is not “majority rule!” but “preferences sorted!” Not as catchy, but more accurate.

To me, this is the one tangible advantage that RCV has over a classic election.

The thing that RCV actually does, that a classic election doesn’t, is eliminate most of the game theory considerations from voting and allow people to vote for their actual preferences without fear of helping a less desirable candidate win.

This is a very powerful concept and for a liberal town like Minneapolis, it allows people to cast ballots for candidates whose liberalism most aligns with theirs while still being able to rank the lesser of two evils candidate second or third.

And from the very earliest implementations of RCV this has been its purpose, from Wikipedia:

IRV was introduced nationally in Australia in 1918 after the Swan by-election, in response to the rise of the conservative Country Party, representing small farmers. The Country Party split the anti-Labor vote in conservative country areas, allowing Labor candidates to win on a minority vote. The conservative government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting as a means of allowing competition between the two conservative parties without putting seats at risk. It was first used at the Corangamite by-election on 14 December 1918.

Not coincidentally, the campaign for RCV in Minneapolis gained steam as the Green party started making waves in the early aughts and won a couple of city council seats. The big fear was not that Greens would keep winning seats, but rather that a split DFL-Green vote could result in the unthinkable in Minneapolis, a Conservative victory.

And while changing the voting system to prevent Conservatives from winning elections in Minneapolis seems cynical, it actually gets to the heart of what elections should be about, reflecting the desires of the voters.

In the situation where you have two threads of the majority ideology threatening to split the electorate and deliver the election to the minority ideology one of two things will likely happen: voters will engage in strategic thinking and vote for the most electable candidate rather than the one they truly want, or the minority ideology will win the election. Neither of these outcomes is a good representation of voter intent.

When a person’s vote is compromised due to strategic thinking, the outcome of the election is not a reflection of voters’ true feelings, but rather their worst fears. I don’t think this is hyperbole; we take a lot of care in our election system to protect voter secrecy because any lack of secrecy can result in voter intimidation. But a different kind of voter intimidation is at play when voters are forced to vote for the lesser of two evils out of fear of the greater of two evils.

The fear of “spoiling” an election by voting for a third party candidate is a more subtle and accepted form of voter intimidation, but it’s voter intimidation nonetheless. And while RCV is not the panacea its proponents claim it is, it contains, at its heart, a very powerful concept that has the potential to result in election outcomes that better reflect voters’ true feelings.

This post was written by Tony Petrangelo and originally published on LeftMN. Follow Tony on Twitter: @TonyAngelo.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/28/2013 - 10:17 am.

    Two mayoral elections

    that make a joke of RCV will be held in Minneapolis and St. Paul next week: 35 candidates in the first and 4 in the second.

    Two of the four in St. Paul clearly are buffoons and the divide between the remaining candidates is so large as to effectively eliminate either as being a voter’s second choice.

    Give me blanket primaries, with the top three going on to the general election and then I’ll consider RCV. Until then, it’s simply an invitation to indulge oneself.

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