The Conservative Case for Enacting Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) has steadily gained traction across the United States in recent years. While it's sometimes pigeonholed as a "progressive" approach to elections, its merits and potential benefits aren’t confined to one side of the political spectrum.
In fact, the conservative case for enacting RCV is strong.
Ranked choice voting is fiscally responsible, anti-extremist, and has the potential to rejuvenate our democratic processes. Conservatives and Republicans would be wise to understand how this electoral reform can advance their goals.
- Is fiscally responsible
- Minimizes "spoilers" and strengthens individual choice
- Reduces gaming of the system
- Encourages civil campaigns
- Encourages pragmatic governance
- Counteracts extremism
- Is supported by leading conservative thinkers
- Is not a silver bullet, but is better than the status quo
One of the cornerstones of conservative thought is fiscal prudence and limiting unnecessary government spending. RCV reduces costs by eliminating the need for expensive runoff elections (another name for RCV is Instant Runoff Voting).
And elections can get plenty costly. The 2020 Georgia Senate Runoff was estimated to cost $75 million – with much of that falling on taxpayers. Had ranked choice voting been in place, that money would have been saved and Georgia voters would have known who their senator would be weeks earlier.
Minimizes “Spoilers” and Strengthens Individual Choice
True representation is a fundamental aspect of democracy. With typical single-choice plurality voting, a third-party candidate can split the vote, potentially allowing a less-preferred candidate to win. RCV reduces this "spoiler" effect by empowering individuals to vote their conscience, knowing that if their first-choice candidate doesn’t garner enough support, their vote can still count towards their second or third choice.
Reduces Gaming of the System
Plurality voting is susceptible to various voting games – from tactical voting to insincere voting to avoid vote splitting. At its most extreme, parties may run ghost candidates designed to split the votes for the other party’s candidate. That’s not democracy. But, it’s what can happen with plurality voting.
RCV, by allowing voters to rank candidates, mitigates the effectiveness and minimizes the appeal of these gaming strategies.
When voters can rank a candidate they believe in, without worrying about that candidate being a “spoiler,” they can be genuine in their preferences – ultimately leading to more representative elected officials.
Encourages Civil Campaigns
Personal responsibility and good character matter. RCV incentivizes candidates to campaign with more civility since they need to seek second-choice votes from their opponents’ supporters. This leads to more issue-focused campaigns rather than mudslinging.
It can even lead to typically unheard of behaviors like members of opposing parties endorsing each other when they feel it’s the right thing for their constituents. That’s exactly what Alaska Democrat Mary Peltola and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski did during their 2022 campaigns.
Both candidates won their elections.
Encourages Pragmatic Governance
Gridlock and shutdowns do nothing for the American people.
The Alaska State Legislature provides a glimpse for what a more pragmatic and responsive government might look like with ranked choice voting.
Starting in 2023, the Alaska House and Senate were composed entirely of people who had been elected through ranked choice voting. Like the U.S. House and Senate, the narrowest of majorities exist in each house (21 of 40 Republicans in the House, 11 of 20 Republicans in the Senate). That means any defections from strict partisan lines could tank a bill's prospects. That also means that individual extreme legislators have immense leverage.
Fascinatingly, instead of being held hostage by the most extreme elements of their legislature, both the Alaska House and Senate formed bipartisan governing coalitions where they have been able to pass bills and budgets.
Compare this to the U.S. House of Representatives which struggles to keep the Federal Government open or even have a Speaker.
In an era where polarization and extremism are concerns, RCV acts as a deterrent to candidates that only cater to an extreme base. Catering to that base can be a winning strategy for a “most votes wins” primary and even general election. But, it’s a losing strategy for an RCV election.
To win in RCV elections, candidates need to appeal to a broad audience. That means they need to secure second and third-choice votes. This inherently discourages radical positions and encourages more pragmatic politics.
Supported By Leading Conservative Thinkers
It’s difficult to think of ranked choice voting as a “leftist plot” when its supported by people like Walter Olson of the Cato Institute (a think tank focused on individual liberty, limited government, and free markets founded by Charles Koch) and Kevin Kosar of the American Enterprise Institute (a think tank focused on expanding freedom and strengthening free enterprise in America).
Olson’s support comes from the fact that RCV encourages stronger, higher-quality candidates to run, get nominated, and win in the general election.
Kosar argues that conservatives should not reflexively oppose electoral reform and that Republicans are missing out on the opportunities these changes open up.
What About Alaska?
Republicans like Senator Tom Cotton and Donald Trump have garnered headlines for stating their opposition to ranked choice voting after election results didn’t turn out exactly as they hoped. Their preferred candidates, Sarah Palin in the House and Kelly Tshibaka in the Senate, didn’t win. Both are Republicans. So, they claim (loudly) that RCV is biased against Republicans or "rigged."
So…what happened to Palin and Tshibaka? And how do you explain Alaska’s Republican Governor, U.S. Senator, and majorities in the state House and Senate?
The reality is that while Palin and Tshibaka were preferred by the hard right, they weren’t preferred by Alaska’s voters. Many Republicans won across the state – just not these two particular Republicans.
Palin and Tshibaka are prime examples of the type of candidate and campaign that struggles to win in an RCV election.
Both had fervent bases representing a minority of Alaska voters. But, the candidates never reached beyond that base to garner majority support. In fact, they continually demonized “the other side,” cast doubt on the electoral process, and actively discouraged voters to rank other candidates.
In stark contrast, Mary Peltola (the Democrat who beat Palin) ran a campaign focused on the very Alaskan appeal of “Fish, Family, and Freedom.” Lisa Murkowski (the Republican who beat Tshibaka) ran on her seniority, clout, and relationships in the Senate that allow her to get legislation passed.
These are broad-based appeals on issues their constituents care about. And, they’re a winning approach in elections that use ranked choice voting.
But ranked choice voting is not inherently biased against Republicans or conservatives. It's not "rigged." That’s why the same electorate that chose Peltola and Murkowski also chose a Republican for governor, 21 of 40 state House seats, and 11 of 20 state Senate seats.
It’s Not Perfect, But it is Better
The status quo isn't cutting it.
While conservatism strives to keep the best of what’s come before, plurality elections should no longer be kept just because it’s “how we’ve always done things.” If we do, we should only expect to see more gridlock, more extremism, and less representation.
Ranked choice voting represents a step in a better direction.
By embracing reforms like ranked choice voting, conservatives can more effectively achieve their goals. At the very least, it can lead to nominating candidates who can win – like Glenn Youngkin in the 2022 Virginia governor’s race. Compare that to the underperformance of Republicans in 2022 House races who were largely nominated through plurality primaries.
That said, RCV is by no means a silver bullet. Our politics will not become radically different overnight. But, piece by piece, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, it can get better. Candidates with less acrimony and more civility. Voters with less apathy and more engagement. Governance with less gridlock and more progress...
A step in a better direction.