Ranked-Choice Voting Is Second Best

Voters in Alaska and Massachusetts weigh a wonky election change.

Originally ran in The Wall Street Journal, written by The Editorial Board.

Electoral reforms often don’t have the results proponents foresee—witness campaign-finance rules that empower wealthy candidates, or “independent” redistricting bodies that also gerrymander. So it is with ranked-choice voting (RCV), an idea that has taken hold in two dozen mostly liberal cities. On Nov. 3, RCV will face its biggest electoral test to date as voters in Alaska and Massachusetts decide whether to adopt it statewide.

As the name implies, ranked-choice voting means voters rank candidates in order of preference. Less intuitive is how this produces a single winner. It works like this: The counting proceeds in a number of “rounds.” In the first round, the candidate who has the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. For voters who ranked that candidate first, their second choice becomes their first choice. A second round of counting follows, and the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated again. The process is over when one candidate has a majority of first-place votes.

Got it? It’s confusing. But proponents claim a host of benefits. First, they appeal to moderates by arguing RCV races would be less divisive as the winning candidate would need to have broader appeal.

They also appeal to more ideological voters—especially on the left—by arguing that they can express their views with more precision in a ranked-choice system. If states used ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, for example, left-wing alternatives like Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 would be less threatening to Democrats. Their votes would presumably have gone to Al Gore and Hillary Clinton in the second round.

No one knows for sure the long-term impact of RCV on federal or state general elections. Maine was the first state to use it at that level in 2018. Democratic challenger Jared Golden trailed the Republican incumbent in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District by 2,000 votes in the initial tally, but won by about 3,000 votes when third and fourth choice candidates were included.

We don’t need empirical evidence to know RCV would make elections more difficult to navigate when trust in democratic institutions is already low. Columbia computer scientist Stephen Unger has highlighted some of the “bizarre outcomes” the iterated counting system delivers. For example, in a three-candidate race, it’s possible that if all supporters of candidate A listed him first, he would lose in the second round—but if some of them strategically listed him third, he would win, because a different candidate would be knocked out in the first round.

Whether such cases would occur often in practice is less relevant than the effect the complex system would have on voter confidence. For a 2017 paper in the journal Politics and Policy, political scientist Lindsay Nielson had volunteers do mock traditional and ranked-choice elections and surveyed them about the experience. She found “weak support for the supposition that RCV rules could increase support for election winners.” She also found respondents were significantly less likely to say RCV was “fair” than plurality voting.

As for the idea that RCV will moderate politics, San Francisco State University political scientist Jason McDaniel followed mayoral voting patterns in cities that adopted RCV and those that didn’t. RCV led to “greater racial divisions at the ballot box between white and Asian voters, and quite possibly also between white and Black voters,” he wrote in a 2018 paper for the California Journal of Politics and Policy. Faced with a more confusing set of options, voters may be “more likely to rely on candidate traits.”

In a 2019 paper, Mr. McDaniel also found RCV leads to a “significant decrease in voter turnout of approximately 3-5 percentage points in RCV cities.” College-educated progressives may appreciate the chance to list more choices. But for voters who favor one candidate but don’t spend as much time gaming out political possibilities, it is a burden they would rather avoid.

There is research pointing in both directions on RCV, and there may be circumstances where it makes sense—such as within parties in crowded primaries.

But rather than make U.S. politics kinder and gentler, we worry the effect of wider adoption would be to tear at existing divides. Major parties could be weakened to the benefit of more extreme candidates. Pressure groups and the most sophisticated slices of the electorate could increase their dominance. And political legitimacy would suffer at a time we can’t afford it.