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The Rise of Ranked-Choice Voting


— 2020 has been a banner year for ranked-choice voting.

— Several Democratic primary and caucus contests used the system, which asks voters to rank their choice and forces winners to achieve majority support, albeit through votes from those who did not pick them first on their ballot.

— Democrats seem more open to ranked-choice voting than Republicans.

The proliferation of ranked-choice voting

With everything else that’s going on, you may not have noticed, but 2020 has been something of a landmark year for ranked-choice voting — the system that allows voters to rank their favored candidates in descending order, with their vote re-allocated to their next choice if their top choice is eliminated.

The system was used for the first time, seemingly without a hitch, in four Democratic presidential nominating contests: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming. It was also used for early voting in the Nevada caucuses.

RCV, as it is known, is now used widely in Maine. Currently, ranked-choice voting is used in U.S. House and Senate races and in gubernatorial primaries, but not in races for the state legislature or the general election for governor. It’s slated to be used for the state’s upcoming voting in the 2020 presidential election, though in June, the state GOP submitted more signatures than required to set a referendum in November that would keep ranked-choice voting from being used in this year’s presidential contest.

Both the Utah Democratic and Republican Parties used ranked-choice voting for their conventions this year, while five states — Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — use it for military and overseas voters.

Meanwhile, since 2018, such cities as Las Cruces, NM, have joined others that had earlier implemented ranked-choice voting, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN, and San Francisco and Oakland, CA. Starting in 2021, it will be used in New York City, and earlier this year, Virginia enacted a law that enables cities to use it.

With ranked-choice voting gaining momentum, we thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at how it works and what its spread might mean for the political landscape.

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Generally speaking, if no candidate wins 50% of the first-round votes in a ranked-choice election, the candidate with the smallest number of votes is eliminated and their backers’ votes are reallocated to the next-highest choice. This process continues until one candidate’s votes exceed 50% of those cast.

The benefits of ranked-choice voting are clear. In a three-way race, there’s a chance that a candidate can win with as little as 34% support, leaving a solid majority of voters dissatisfied. Ranked-choice voting, by contrast, ensures that a more broadly popular candidate wins.

RCV also allows voters to vote for third- or fourth-party candidates without endangering the prospects of the major-party candidate they favor as a backup. This potentially helps both third-party candidates (by imposing less of a penalty on voters who would prefer to vote for them) and major-party candidates (who don’t have to worry as much about losing due to a “spoiler” candidacy).

That doesn’t mean that RCV lacks downsides. One is that voters need to be educated about the process. Another is that voting machines need to be reconfigured, one of several factors that could potentially add to the cost of holding elections.

Heavily vote-by-mail states, such as California, pose specific challenges, said Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne.

“There are more problems with using RCV on vote-by-mail ballots compared to electronic voting systems,” Godwin said. “If you vote on a touch screen system, you can be prompted if you don’t rank a ballot correctly. Then, only a correct ballot gets submitted and printed out. At home, you are more likely to make a mistake and have your ballot voided.”

Ranked-choice voting can get especially complicated when the system attracts large numbers of candidates. In a 2013 mayoral race, for instance, Minneapolis saw some 30 candidates run in an RCV election.

Ranked-choice voting is also vulnerable to party meddling, although regular voting systems are too.

Jim Fossel, a critic of Maine’s ranked-choice voting law, wrote in 2018 that “in the past, the two major parties either ignored minor candidates or did their best to squash them like a bug. Now they might assist them in the hope that they’ll be able to drag their candidates across the finish line by bringing out people to the polls who haven’t been inspired by their nominee. Ranked-choice voting could end up encouraging a proliferation of narrowly focused or single-issue candidates who run to draw attention to their particular cause, rather than really being in it to win it.”

How well have voters adapted to the system where it’s been tried?

When we asked political observers in areas with ranked-choice voting how well the system has been operating, they said it’s generally been welcomed by voters.

When the system was initially used in the Twin Cities, “there was some confusion,” said Hamline University political science and law professor David Schultz, who has studied the system’s implementation. “But since then, the city and the voters have adapted to RCV and largely seem to like it as an option. The initial confusion was related to the need for better voter education and ballot counting issues that have largely been resolved.”

In New Mexico, where RCV was used in Santa Fe in 2018 and Las Cruces in 2019, “the indicators are positive,” said Fred Nathan Jr., the founder and executive director of Think New Mexico, a think tank based in Santa Fe. “In both communities, government and philanthropy partnered to provide extensive voter education about the new voting system, including door-to-door canvassing, ad campaigns, mailers and many public meetings,” Nathan said.

The initial public acceptance of RCV was more widespread in Santa Fe, Nathan said, probably because the community had passed it by ballot measure and needed to mount a years-long court battle to implement it, making the concept more familiar to voters. Exit polling conducted on Election Day showed that 94% of respondents were satisfied with their voting experience, Nathan said.

Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city, had a bumpier roll-out, Nathan said. Its city council voted in 2018 to deploy RCV for the 2019 municipal election, meaning that the time to educate voters was shorter. In addition, 10 candidates were running for mayor.

“Initially, voters and candidates were skeptical,” Nathan said. “A lot of public education was required, including editorials, community presentations, and a televised town hall to answer voters’ questions.” Ultimately, 85 percent of exit poll respondents said they understood RCV, although only a small majority of respondents — 53% — said they would support the future use of RCV.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the city council in New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque, voted down a shift to RCV.

Maine has also faced some turbulence implementing RCV, though voters seem to be warming to the process.

After RCV was approved by Maine voters in a 2016 ballot measure, it faced constitutional challenges. Multiple inconsistencies within the language necessitated involvement by both chambers of the legislature, the secretary of state, the supreme judicial court, and the voters.

A 2018 Bangor Daily News exit poll found that 53% of respondents wanted RCV expanded, another 7.5% wanted it kept in place for the races it’s currently used for, and only 39% wanted to end the practice.

“I think Maine voters have adapted fairly well,” said University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. “One of my concerns was that there would be a fair amount of confusion, but that has not happened. Maine has a pretty high level of civic engagement, so that likely helped.”

The partisan division was stark, however: About 81% of Democrats wanted to expand RCV, while 72% of Republicans wanted to stop it entirely.

That likely stems from Republicans seeing RCV as a reaction to the 2010 victory by Republican Paul LePage, in which he got just 38% of the vote in a race with three major candidates. LePage won reelection in 2014, but with only 48% of the vote. Intensifying Republican frustration was the 2018 loss by GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) after Poliquin had finished atop the field in first-place votes with 46.3 percent, to 45.6 percent for Democrat Jared Golden.

As for states that hosted RCV presidential primaries in 2020, political observers said the systems worked well there, despite the states’ lack of experience using RCV in prior elections.

In Alaska, which switched the Democratic nominating contest from a caucus to a primary this year, participation roughly doubled, without significant confusion about the ranked-choice voting system, observers said.

Ranked-choice voting “appealed strongly to the younger party members, who are increasingly filling leadership positions,” said University of Alaska political scientist Gerald McBeath. “They are more likely to use Facebook and other social media. For them, RCV is a good way to choose a candidate who will have broad appeal.”

In Kansas, which shifted its primary to all-mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, the election went “pretty flawlessly,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. “There seemed to be no confusion at all regarding RCV, and the people I observed marking their ballots enjoyed it.”

Meanwhile, in Nevada, organizers of the Democratic caucuses for the first time harnessed RCV for early voting. Doing so enabled early voters to participate in much the same way as those taking part in the same-day, in-person caucuses. Under the caucus system, supporters of candidates who fail to meet viability thresholds are allowed to realign to stronger candidates, much as ranked votes under RCV are reallocated.

Nevada saw improved turnout for its caucuses compared to 2016, and observers credited that to the addition of early voting. In its post-mortem of the caucuses, called ranked-choice voting one of the “winners” of the caucuses.

What have the results shown?

The outcome of the Golden-Poliquin race, with a switch between the first-round winner and the ultimate victor, is unusual among recent contests.

In Alaska’s Democratic primary, the voting went eight rounds. In the first round, Joe Biden secured 49.9%, with Bernie Sanders at 39.3%. After all votes were reallocated, Biden defeated Sanders, 55.3%-44.7%.

In Hawaii’s primary, where the voting went 10 rounds, Biden led Sanders 56% to 31% after the first round and ultimately defeated Sanders, 63% to 37%.

In Kansas’ primary, the voting went only four rounds. Biden took the first round over Sanders, 70% to 18%, with Biden winning the fourth and final round, 77% to 23%.

And in Wyoming’s caucus, where the voting went eight rounds, Biden was leading Sanders 66% to 24% and ultimately defeated him, 72% to 28%.

It’s hard to tell whether the existence of RCV has changed the strategy and tactics of campaigning, experts say.

In the Twin Cities, Schultz said, “it has changed strategy in terms of making it less likely that candidates will attack one another, for fear that negative attacks will alienate voters whom the candidate may want to list them as a second choice. There is evidence, although not conclusive, of increased candidate civility.”

Nathan of Think New Mexico said that “anecdotally, voters and election observers report that candidates are more policy-focused and less adversarial in an RCV election than a traditional one.”

What are the prospects for RCV spreading elsewhere?

Ranked-choice voting will likely see additional gains, but it probably isn’t going to be adopted everywhere, experts say.

“I think the system fits well in Maine because of the highly participatory political culture we have and would not be as popular elsewhere,” said University of Maine political scientist Kenneth Palmer. “Maine has long been willing to experiment with governmental processes that differ from those of many or most other states.”

Republican doubts about the results of the Maine congressional race are likely to be amplified by the generalized questioning of election reforms by President Donald Trump.

In Minnesota, for instance, “there seems to be a partisan divide, with the GOP opposed to ranked-choice voting,” said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. “That makes statewide adoption unlikely as long as Republicans control the state Senate.”

RCV has tended to sprout in bluer, more urban enclaves. In California, for instance, “RCV has been a slowly diffusing, mostly Bay Area phenomenon, so far,” Godwin said.

Ranked-choice voting, Schultz added, “has mostly been implemented in the more liberal enclaves where there is a high degree of political consensus on values and issues. What is left to be seen is how well it works in more politically diverse or contested races.”

Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and was senior author of the 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions of the Almanac of American Politics and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.