Ranked-Choice Voting: How and Why?

Image: “Never Trump! I’d Rather Die!”

A few states have recently opted to change their elections process to Ranked-Choice voting, a method which, its proponents say, is designed to give third-party candidates a better chance of winning, or, failing that, at least an honest share of the vote.

Opponents have raised objections ranging from the process becoming too complicated to the contention that it’s no longer “one person, one vote”.

We’ll deal with the pros and cons later, but first, let’s talk about what exactly Ranked-Choice voting is.

What It Is

Ranked-Choice voting is, simply, the ranking of your different choices in an election, from first to last. We do it all the time in our daily lives — buying a shirt, renting a car, and so on — and yet for some reason people have difficulty applying the concept to picking a candidate in a political race.

Imagine a dozen family members coming over for holiday dinner, and you ask everyone what kind of pie they want — and get twelve different answers, none of which being the cherry pie that you yourself secretly adore. Well, obviously, you’re not going to bake thirteen pies for thirteen people; that would just be silly (no matter what Cousin Joel says, he’s not eating thirteen pies). So either you ask them all again, in some way that limits their choices, or you compare the list and decide for them, and either way a lot of people will be disappointed — including you, especially after dinner when someone asks, “But why didn’t you bake cherry? Everyone loves cherry pie.”

So next year, thinking ahead, you ask people to list their favorite pies in order. Those who don’t really care may put down one or two; the serious pie enthusiasts will have fifteen or more, all precisely graded as to flavor and texture. (If you don’t believe there are people that serious about their pie, all I can say is, you’ve been going to the wrong diners, much less family dinners.) Then what you do is, you forget about the ones that get mentioned only once, like mince and rhubarb and coconut crumble and vinegar pie, and you look at those that everyone wants — including you, oh cherry pie lover. When the day arrives, you’ve got three empty pie plates and a lot of satisfied diners, and guess what? Your cherry pie was delicious.

Honestly, I’ve always thought that if more people were to habitually rank their choices, their daily lives would improve a great deal. For one thing, the evening discussion with the wife that consists of two people endlessly repeating “I don’t know; what do you want to eat?” would proceed much more smoothly.

Of course, there are differences when you’re electing someone.

How It Works

For an example, let’s take the French presidential elections from 2022. Now, the way they do things in France right now is, they hold a standard, first-past-the-post election between every qualified candidate, and then two weeks later they hold a run-off because since they began, nobody yet has won a majority the first time around. Folks end up having to go back to the polls and pick again.

This past election was between the incumbent Macron, nationalist Le Pen, socialist Melenchon, and nine other candidates of various stripes. In the first round, the top three each passed 20%; the next behind them got two and a half million votes, or a bit over 7%, and none of the rest really scored much. They way they work things, only the top two qualify for the runoffs, which was Macron and Le Pen. Two weeks later, everyone trooped back to the polls and voted again, and Macron was re-elected. And, as you may recall, there were a few protests and just a bit of rioting, and the second round had the lowest participation percentage in modern history, because while more people despise Le Pen than Macron it’s a close-run thing.

Results might well have been very different with ranked-choice. The fourth-place candidate, for instance, was a nationalist much like Le Pen, and there were a total of six different flavors of socialist or communist. Once each of those minor candidates were eliminated, rather than wasting their votes, their supporters would have picked someone else as a backup. Exit polls suggest that the eventual victor would have been Melenchon instead of Macron, because far more people would have had their preferences count.

For a practical example, let’s return to choosing pies, because it’s easier to understand and there aren’t so many hard feelings if you lose. In the following table, I’ll select my favorites. (We’d let you do it, but that’s a paid widget, and donations have been slim lately.)

Pies \ Rank12345678
Banana Creamx
Lemon Meringuex
Chocolate Creamx

Now, you’ll notice I’ve left my 8th and 9th choices blank. That’s because I detest cherry pie and could never in good conscience vote for mincemeat. That’s my perfect right as a voter and pie lover. A lot of folks would disagree with me — which, come right down to it, is the whole reason we’re voting.

It turns out that only five pies got number-one votes. Nobody picked mincemeat, lemon meringue, or apple as their favorite — which would never happen in a major election, but this is pies. So we discard those three entirely and move on. Here’s the votes for the remaining five:

Pies \ Number of Votes
Banana Creamxxxx
Chocolate Creamxx

You’ll note that banana cream is in the lead, but none has a majority. We’ll keep going until one pie scores at least half. The next candidate to get eliminated is pecan, with just one vote.

Now it so happens that our pecan lover had cherry as his second choice, which is bad for me but good for the cook, who loves cherry. The count now looks like this:

Pies \ Number of Votes
Banana Creamxxxx
Chocolate Creamxx

The next to get eliminated is chocolate cream. Now, we revisit those two ballots.

This one had pecan as his second favorite, but that’s no longer eligible, so we move on to the next choice… mincemeat. That doesn’t count either so which is his fourth choice? Turns out it’s cherry.

The next is simpler; banana cream is choice number two.

Both of the chocolate cream votes have moved, one to cherry and the other to banana cream, like so:

Pies \ Number of Votes
Banana Creamxxxxx

And now pumpkin just got eliminated. You remember my ballot; banana cream is my third choice, but it’s the only one left that’s eligible. The other two both went to cherry, because they’re silly people.

Pies \ Number of Votes
Banana Creamxxxxxx

And we have a winner! President Cherry Pie is the top choice!

A lot of people are disappointed, but it turns out the cook is a traditionalist, and picked the second-place pie as our Vice President just as they did in our earliest elections in this country, and most everyone who doesn’t care for Cherry is pretty happy with Banana Cream.

Notice too that we didn’t have to vote five times to get a winner, or even twice like the French might. Instead, we cast our votes just once and all the rest is counting our ballots. Every vote gets counted, and everyone that wants has a say.

Pros and Cons

In most of our elections, once you get past two candidates, it’s very possible for someone to win with a very narrow plurality. In Maine in 2010, Paul LePage squeaked in for a win at 38% even though exit polls showed that almost 55% would have preferred any other candidate. However, since the second-place (37%) was an independent, his loss meant LePage’s win (poor Libby Mitchell didn’t quite get half as many votes). In Ranked-Choice voting, it seems certain the results would have been entirely different — which was a major driver behind Maine adopting the Ranked-Choice system not long after. Interviews said they decided that way because they wanted the majority choice.

A second motivator in Maine and Alaska was the repugnance of the idea of the so-called “wasted vote”. Critics of Ranked-Choice mention that someone’s vote won’t count if it’s “exhausted” — once all the selected choices have been eliminated — but that’s far less likely than wasting a vote in the old system.

One of the stranger objections I’ve heard lately came from a fellow who dislikes Ranked-Choice because “it’s not traditional”. Now, it is true that Ranked-Choice is a new system, but that’s not unique; First-Past-The-Post was once a new system. There was a time when state legislatures chose Senators without referring to voters at all — and even the legislatures were often unelected bodies. It hasn’t been long since women gained the right to vote, and before then it was restricted to people that owned substantial property — and, in much of the country, who had a certain skin color. Come right down to it, in the pie example above, we mention the Vice Presidency, which went to the second-place candidate until after the Twelfth Amendment was ratified — an early form of Ranked-Choice put in place by the Founders themselves.

There is one counter-argument that carries some weight, to wit: It is more complicated. This is tough to dispute; once we get extra options, it does require more thought to pick between them. On the other hand, there’s a lot of us out there who are getting sick of picking either cherry or banana cream — or, more to the point, Biden versus Trump. Besides: Studies in Maine and Alaska show that there is no measurable decrease in voting accessibility.

This last is the most telling point: We’re informed by Democrats that, if Donald Trump somehow makes it back into the Oval Office, it’ll be the end of our democracy. To that one might well ask: If that’s really the case, what is a democracy for? If we’re forced into picking between two absolutely terrible candidates — and Joe Biden, while a decent enough fellow, is hardly the best man for the job — what sort of freedom do we really have?

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