Ranked Choice Voting: Breaking the Duality

By Kevin Cunningham and Matthew Dahlberg

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is one of a few different electoral systems, or models of voting, that can be used to help determine the candidate that people like best. In this model, voters still have one single vote, like under the system of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting we presently use, but they can add conditions on how this vote is used, to say ‘this is the candidate I like best, second best, third best…’ and so on.

The following example helps outline how this works. Here, we will be voting on our favorite President on a coin: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, or Roosevelt. Each stack of coins represents a voter’s choices in order from first (top) to fourth (bottom).

First round – No majority has been reached, so an instant run-off occurs. The candidate with the least votes (Jefferson) is eliminated from the stack and we go to those voters’ second choices.

Those voters’ second choices add two votes for Lincoln and one vote for Washington.

Second round – Again, no majority has been reached, so the instant run-offs continue. Roosevelt is eliminated from the stack and we go to those voters’ second choices.

Two of those voters’ second choice was Jefferson, so we eliminate those and go down to their third choice.

Lincoln gains four more votes while Washington gains one. This gives Lincoln the majority.


You can also have multi-winner results. For instance: 

Some countries have their primaries set up so that once all remaining candidates are above a certain percentage of votes, but there is still no clear winner, then all candidates proceed to the general election.

As we can see, RCV can often create scenarios where the person who has the strongest initial support isn’t the final winner; Washington was the most initially popular candidate, and would have won in a FPTP election, but Lincoln is a better ‘compromise’ candidate for many people, and would win in this RCV election.

This method gets more interesting when we consider how people may have chosen to vote entirely differently in a FPTP system. If voters did not get to rank their candidates, they might engage in a practice called ‘lesser-evil voting,’ where rather than voting for the candidate they like best, they vote against the candidate they like least, and so choose someone they consider ‘safe’. To go back to our example, people who dislike Washington may decide that Roosevelt is the most likely to beat him and vote for Roosevelt, even though they would prefer Lincoln. This is, in part, because voting is what political scientists call a ‘coordination problem”: you may change your own voting behavior because you’re not sure how other people will vote.

With ranked choice voting, the duopoly is broken and third party and independent candidates have a more credible chance.

The introduction of RCV would therefore have big impacts on how voters feel able to vote – and consequently, how campaigns are run. Candidates would not be able to assume support from certain political groups because they are the ‘lesser evil’ to these groups, and will have to actively court them in order to retain their support. Candidates would actually have to appease a wide variety of voters instead of assuming a certain portion will automatically vote for them. This might cause candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters. This could mean candidates having to make substantive policy promises on real issues, in order to persuade voters that even if they’re not their personal ideal candidate (first choice), they’re someone who can be compromised on (second or third choice). RCV also incentivizes voters to take greater interest in politics now that the usual parties aren’t the only choices – because their issues can no longer be assumed to be ‘niche’ issues, they will feel they are getting heard, and be more likely to participate as a result.

With RCV, the duopoly is broken and third party and independent candidates have a more credible chance. By eliminating the largest push towards lesser-evil voting, people are more free to vote their conscience and on the issues that matter most to them. This creates the real possibility that regional parties might emerge – Midwest Parties and Southern Parties and New England Parties to best deal with the issues their constituents in their areas face, rather than the twin monoliths of the Republican and Democratic parties. The current winner-take-all voting system is strangling democracy into submission because the chance of a third-party candidate winning a national election of any sort is essentially non-existent. Even Bernie Sanders understands this: as a Senator, he is an Independent, but for his Presidential campaigns, he is registered with the Democratic Party.

RCV is by no means perfect, but it is far better than our current system and indeed, some of these flaws can be addressed as part of designing the system. One possible but rare drawback is having too many candidates to put on a ballot like the Minneapolis mayoral election in 2013 which had 35 candidates, primarily due to only requiring a $20 filing fee to get on a ballot and nothing else “just so people can see the thrill of having their name on a ballot” (they have since changed this). This problem can be ameliorated with a limit to the number of choices; giving people only 5, or even 10 slots for particularly large races, in which to rank candidates usually means the people who are running as a joke are very quickly eliminated.

This also helps illustrate why mail-in voting is so important. Having an official ballot mailed to your residence a few months before voting day gives you an official list of all the candidates, giving you all the necessary time to research them. This both incentivizes voters to take a greater interest in politics and helps keep voters informed about what elections are happening. There have been several times I’ve gone to vote and was totally unaware of a circuit court judge or alderman contest occurring in my area. When I’m unaware of these elections but expected to vote on them regardless, I do what many Americans do, and pick candidates based first on party affiliation, second on whether I like their name or not, or third on whose name comes first on the ballot.

This highlights part of the fundamental use of political parties; they give us shorthand for what policies, platforms, and beliefs individual candidates from that party hold, and provide a structure where people who have similar policies, platforms, and beliefs can cooperate. This is why parties mainly focus on two things: winning elections to gain control of the government for the party and enacting policies that better serve the party. 

All this means that a party should be putting candidates forward that best align with the voters to get elected, right? Not necessarily. Some people are still convinced that backroom dealings in the Democratic Party are what cost Senator Sanders the nomination for President in both 2016 and 2020. Allegations like these aren’t new, either to American politics or even the Democratic Party itself.

In the Democratic convention of 1944, the vice-presidential nominations were underway between Harry Truman and then Vice-President Henry Wallace. Several powerful politicians didn’t want Wallace to win, as they thought him too progressive on subjects like fair wages for all and internationalist policies. Fearing for Roosevelt’s health, they didn’t want Wallace to automatically become President should he die in office. Before the vote to officially nominate Wallace occurred at the convention, they called for a vote among the audience to adjourn. The vote publicly failed nearly unanimously and yet the delegates adjourned that night anyway. This gave time for deals to be cut overnight and Truman to be nominated the very next day by bussing in Truman “supporters” early and packing the convention hall with them before the Wallace supporters showed up.

This is just one of many examples in American history that highlights how the officials and career politicians that run the two main parties can submit candidates for office that don’t really represent the people’s, or even their base’s, priorities. The justification made to the population at large is always ‘they’re not the ideal candidate, but this election is simply too important for ideological purity; we have to defeat the dangerous communist/fascist from the Democratic/ Republican party!’ But the drift from the ideals of the base grows larger and larger over time, to the point where Stephen Colbert could quip in 2006 that “Nixon was the last liberal president. He supported women’s rights, the environment, ending the draft, youth involvement, and now he’s the boogeyman? Kerry couldn’t even run on that today.”

The Democratic Party is no better. Rather than a progressive candidate with ideas that are supported by the majority of Americans, we have a nominee who is a Reagan-era Republican. In the 2020 election, we have Republican-Lite vs. the KKK. It is first-past-the-post elections and lesser-evil voting that got us here. But ranked-choice voting can help fix this. It can allow more representative candidates, more political parties to be relevant, and ensure that a greater proportion of our republic knows someone in office shares their values and makes them feel represented. Not only is this the path to more democracy, it is the path to better democracy, and a path that can save our country from all the lesser evils we have elected to lead it.

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