Understanding Ranked Choice Voting

Pros and Cons of Final-Five Voting

Pros and Cons of Final-Five Voting (aka Top-Five Voting)

What is Final-Five Voting?

Before getting into the arguments for and against Final-Five Voting, it's best to define clearly what it is.

Final-Five Voting is the combination of two powerful electoral reforms:

  • Open Primaries — A primary election where all parties are on the same ballot and all voters can participate to determine who will advance to the general election.
  • Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) General Election — An election that uses ranked-choice voting to allow voters to rank their preferences amongst candidates.

In Final-Five Voting, the top five vote getters in the open primary (regardless of party) advance to the general election. Ranked-choice voting is then used in the general election to allow voters to show their candidate preferences. The winning candidate is the one that has the strongest support across the entire electorate.

What problems does Final-Five Voting address?

In 2022, just 8% of voters determined over 80% of the members of the U.S. Congress. How can that possibly be?

Well, it turns out that very few elections that year were competitive. The vast majority were in districts that were either safe Republican or safe Democrat (see the continued lack of competitiveness for 2024). In those safe districts, the eventual winner was determined by voters in the primary election (usually held in the Spring or Summer) and not in the general election held in November.

That's a problem because primaries have significantly lower turnout than general elections. And, if it's a partisan primary where only declared members of that party can vote, it's an even smaller group of people. Just a sliver of the voting population effectively ends up making the decision for everyone else.

As a result, elected officials only need to represent the sliver of primary voters that put them in office and not the broader electorate.

It's how you end up with officeholders that don't actually represent the majority of voters and don't actually get much done. Controversy and gridlock turn out to be a better primary campaign strategy than compromise and governing. Those officials only need to worry about winning their next primary — appealing to that 8% — in order to keep their jobs. That may explain why Congress can simultaneously have an abysmal approval rating (22% in November 2022) yet a sky high reelection rate (94.5% in 2022 for U.S. House).

Final-Five Voting addresses these issues by making elections more competitive — shifting where the real choice happens back to the November election — and creating greater incentives for officials to govern.

Is there something magical about the number five?

Think of five as being in a "sweet spot."

On the low end, Top-Two Primaries in California and Washington have made for slightly more competitive elections (good), but haven't done much to move the meaningful choice back to the higher turnout November election (not so good).

On the high end, voters tend to get overwhelmed when there's more than seven choices. It's the "paradox of choice." Just think of the last time you tried to buy cereal at the supermarket and you get a sense for what the paradox feels like.

So, two is too few. Seven is probably too much.

Five hits the right balance of giving voters meaningful options while not making the voting experience overwhelming. That's why five has been the recommendation for reforms in Nevada, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

Alaska uses a Top-Four open primary with ranked-choice voting general elections. It's also in the sweet spot. The reform has been shown to make their elections more competitive and their elected officials more responsive — which is the whole point!

Pros

Advantages of Final-Five Voting
  • Encourages officials to get stuff done instead of gridlock
  • Makes elections more competitive and representative of the voters
  • Allows voters to vote for who they want, not just who they think will win

Encourages officials to get stuff done instead of gridlock

Politicians elected through Final-Five Voting have more reason to pass legislation. If they don't do their job, they lose their job.

But why is that? It's all about incentives.

In the current political landscape, defined by uncompetitive districts, costly campaigns, and intense polarization, the "smart" moves for elected officials are to be controversial and ineffective. The only threat to reelection comes from the primary where the electorate tends to reward candidates who are more partisan than the current officeholder. So the incentives are to stoke controversy (drives visibility and fundraising dollars) and force gridlock on meaningful legislation to keep these controversies alive. It's why topics like immigration and the national debt are almost untouchable.

On the other hand, if an officeholder does attempt to address these issues (which inevitably require compromise and working across the aisle), they get "primaried."

This dynamic has been dubbed the "Primary Problem." If officeholders want to keep their jobs (and they do), it's best to avoid taking actions that cause their party to run a more partisan challenger in the primary.

Final-Five Voting fixes this.

By allowing all voters to participate in the primary, candidates have more reason to make broad appeals instead of narrow partisan ones. And, by having five winners, incumbents are likely to face competition from all sides of the political spectrum, not just their partisan flanks.

This mitigates the Primary Problem. The looming threat of a primary challenge isn't so much of a threat when, in order to work, it would have to entail the unlikely scenario of recruiting five new candidates that all have a more popular appeal than the current officeholder.

Elected officeholders under Final-Five Voting have more latitude to pass meaningful legislation because doing so no longer torpedoes their reelection prospects. In fact, passing legislation becomes vital to getting reelected.

That's because general election voters tend to care more about what an elected officeholder accomplished during their term. By making both the primary and the general election more competitive, Final-Five Voting shifts the real decision of who wins an election back to the higher turnout November general election.

Makes elections more competitive and representative

When people think of what a representative democracy should look like, they'd probably say that a system where 8% of voters effectively determine over 80% of its elected leaders is not quite what they had in mind.

We can do better.

Final-Five Voting is a strong start. It opens up the primary to more voters by allowing all of them to participate regardless of party registration. So, on average, we go from that narrow sliver deciding elections to something closer to primary elections's 27% turnout rate. That's movement in the right direction. But, we can take it a step further.

The real impact comes from making the general election competitive instead of predetermined by the latest Cook Political Report ratings. General elections have averaged a 60% turnout rate since 2000. That's a much more than 8% and far more likely to represent the views of the district.

Final-Five Voting creates the conditions for more competitive elections by advancing the top five vote getters from the primary to the general election. That makes for a competitive race where Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Others can all appear on the ballot instead of just two.

And, when you layer on the benefits of ranked-choice voting, you get a high turnout general election without "spoiler" candidates that ultimately determines who the officeholder will be.

Allows voters to vote for who they want, not just who they think will win

Thanks to ranked-choice voting in the general election, voters no longer have to play pundit when voting — gaming out who is the most electable and then strategically voting for that candidate. Instead, voters rank their most preferred candidate without fear of wasting their vote any time there's more than two candidates. If their most preferred candidate isn't viable, that candidate is eliminated and the votes move to their second-ranked choices. There's no penalty for voting for whom you believe in even if that candidate is not the most likely to win.

Cons

Common Critiques of Final-Five Voting
  • Ranking is too complicated
  • It's too expensive to change
  • It only helps Democrats (or Republicans)
  • The person with the most votes can lose
  • Your vote might get "thrown away" if it's "exhausted"
  • It delays the results
  • It violates "one person, one vote"

Ranking is too complicated

Critics maintain that voters won't be able to figure out the ranked-choice ballot in the general election. They claim that it's too complicated. It offers too many options.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Yes, ranking candidates in more complicated than just selecting one.

But is it so much more complicated that it becomes a barrier to voting? Absolutely not.

It’s like saying that signatures should only consist of your first name because writing both your first and last name is too much effort. Yes, technically writing both names is more effort. But that additional effort is so minimal it can be ignored.

And this is borne out in the data. In the decades that ranked-choice voting has been in use in the U.S., election turnout and ballot completion have not been negatively impacted. In Alaska's 2022 Congressional Special Election, 73% ranked more than one candidate, 85% found ranked choice voting simple, and 99.8% of votes cast were valid. In Maine, turnout for both the 2018 (first midterm election using RCV) and the 2020 (first presidential election with RCV) elections were higher than previous comparable elections.

Plus, you get RCV's benefits of eliminating the spoiler effect and allowing voters to vote without worrying if their vote will be "wasted."

If you still think ranked choice voting sounds complicated, you can always see exactly how it works using RankedVote. Over a million people have voted on the platform without issue.

It's too expensive

This has to do with the ranked-choice voting aspect of Final-Five Voting. Transitioning to ranked-choice voting can require initial investments in updated voting equipment and training. Thankfully, the good folks at the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center have assessed each state's ranked-choice readiness. It lets you know exactly what your state needs to do to be fully ready for ranked-choice voting. Frequently, it means a handful of machines in more rural counties need an update.

While the benefits of Final-Five Voting are more than just financial, the dollars saved can be significant. Many jurisdictions require separate runoff elections if no candidate gets a majority. That often means a doubling of election costs as the operations that go into running a successful election need to be run again. With Final-Five Voting, ranked-choice voting general elections mean that voters' preferences have already been collected. There's no need to have everyone come out to the polls again.

To put real numbers to that, the cost of just one runoff election for Senate in Georgia cost taxpayers $75 million. Compare that to the 2022 Senate Election in Alaska (using Top-Four Voting), where a winner was known amongst the three candidates without the need for a separate election. That's means there's $0 additional cost to administer.

It only helps Democrats (or Republicans)

It's natural for losing campaigns to cast blame on anything other than themselves. Final-Five Voting, when used for the first time in a jurisdiction, can therefore become a scapegoat for explaining "why our candidate lost."

When Republicans lost a U.S. House seat in Alaska in 2022 using Top-Four Voting, notable party members decried it as a "rigged" and "weird" system.

Ahead of a 2022 ballot initiative to bring Final-Five Voting to Nevada, Democratic Party leaders decried it as "exclusionary" (it still passed).

How can this be?

Final-Five Voting doesn't structurally favor any particular party. But, it does put pressure on the status quo. That's why you'll sometimes see those that benefit most from the status quo resisting, criticizing, and scapegoating the reform.

If there's any group that's favored by Final-Five Voting, it's the voters.

Looking at the 2022 Alaska General Election results, you'll see that voters had more choice and expressed a more nuanced voice than in a typical election.

First off, there were more than two candidates to choose from in the major House, Senate, and Governor races. That's more choice. No one had to force candidates out of the race for fear of "splitting the vote." Multiple candidates from a party could run (and did). Voters didn't have to strictly choose between Team Red and Team Blue. And, voters didn't have to worry about "wasting their vote." They could rank the candidates they most preferred.

And you can see those preferences in the final results. Alaska voters didn't break down neatly into Red and Blue categories. Across three major statewide elections for House Representative, Senator, and Governor, they elected:

  • Governor: Mike Dunleavy (R) - The incumbent Republican governor endorsed by Donald Trump.
  • Senator: Lisa Murkowski (R) - A moderate Republican who has represented the state for over 20 years.
  • House Representative: Mary Peltola (D) - A moderate Democrat who ran on a platform of fish, family, and freedom.

That's not a clear Team Blue or Team Red narrative. Alaska's voters voted for the candidate they most preferred to represent them and it turns out that leads to a mix of parties and ideologies in office.

Final-Five Voting simply doesn't give one party advantage over another, but it does help voters elect leaders with the strongest support and gives them the incentives to govern.

The person with the most votes can lose

This critique relies on a person’s lifelong familiarity with plurality-based voting (most votes wins) to imply that the general election with ranked-choice voting can lead to “unfair” outcomes. It implies that somehow only the first round is “real” and the follow-on rounds are “changing the outcome.”

A data point cited as proof is the 2018 Maine 2nd Congressional Election.

This critique takes one of the main advantages of ranked-choice voting and casts it as a negative.

The Maine election had Bruce Poliquin leading in the first round with a plurality of votes (45.6%) amongst four candidates. He was leading, true, but didn’t command a majority. So, ranked choice eliminations took place. 8.1% of the total votes went to candidates that weren’t viable. When those candidates were eliminated and votes shifted to next ranked choices, Poliquin ended up with 49.5% of the vote, short of the majority needed to win (Jared Golden won with 50.5%).

In this case, ranked choice voting worked as intended. The electorate’s preference was better represented and a majority preference was found. It just so happened that the majority’s preference was initially split amongst the many candidates in the field.

And, for what it's worth, Poliquin eventually changed his tune on ranked choice voting after initially blaming it for his loss — describing it as "really easy."

Your vote might get "thrown away" if it's "exhausted"

A New York Times piece by polling expert Nate Cohn brought attention to how the concept of "exhausted votes" could impact the New York City mayoral election.

An exhausted vote happens in ranked choice voting when ALL of the candidates a voter ranks are eliminated. At that point, there's no stated preference by the voter amongst the remaining candidates, so the vote doesn't go toward any of them.

In Cohn's definition, an exhausted vote "no longer factors into the election." And, for him, this becomes problematic when a voter does not rank the candidates that happen to be in the final two. Had the voter known who those final two would be and selected between them, the outcome of the race might have been different.

Leaving aside that this is asking voters to yet again play pundit instead of voting for their true preferences, what's important is to compare the ranked choice scenario to the status quo.

In a status quo "most votes wins" election, votes can still be exhausted — we just don't call them that. We call them "wasted" votes when a voter chooses someone who's not in the final two. Well, it turns out that ranked choice voting is three times less likely to result in wasted/exhausted votes than a typical election when there are five or more candidates (like in the 2021 NYC Mayoral Democratic Primary, which had 13).

This is significant movement in the right direction! While not perfect (no voting system is), ranked choice voting makes it more likely that an individual voter's preference is represented in the final count.

It delays the results

This critique suggests that ranked choice voting is the cause of results not being known immediately after the polls close on Election Day. The idea is that if ranked-choice voting is complicated, then it must take longer to count.

So, what's going on here? Does ranked choice voting delay the results? And why does it take Alaska, which began using ranked choice voting in 2022, longer to call their elections?

Let's break it down into three parts: perception, laws, and mechanics.

Perception
The way elections are covered in the news has trained people to think in terms of "Election Day." It's an event, it happens all at once, and the results are known about an hour after the polls close.

But, that's an illusion. Over the past 30 years, "Election Day" has become something closer to "Election Season."

When the Associated Press calls an election, it does so using predictive models that include the votes counted so far, the voting method (in-person, mail, etc.), county precinct and more. This allows for election results to be "called" once the margin of victory is so large that the trailing candidates have no way to overtake the leading candidate.

Calling an election is more straightforward when over 90% of voters vote in-person on the last day of the election. Those votes are tabulated almost immediately once the polls close. And that's exactly how things looked in 1992. Even in 2006, nearly 80% of voters still voted in-person on the last day.

But, by 2016, in-person voting on Election Day was only 60% of all votes cast. In 2020, during the pandemic, it constituted just 31%.

Most votes are now cast at some time other than Election Day. And, those votes are governed by many different statutes that can impact when those votes are counted and considered official. This makes it much less likely that races are called on Election Day — whether ranked choice voting is used or not.

Laws
Each state has its own particular mix of history, geography, and circumstances that shaped their laws for how votes are counted. These laws can make it more difficult to know results on Election Day.

Sometimes, a state's laws haven't quite caught up to the change in voting behavior. In Wisconsin, mail-in/absentee ballots aren't allowed to be counted until Election Day even though they arrive days or even weeks before.

In Alaska, a sparsely populated state with four times the landmass of California, merely collecting the ballots is logistically difficult. Dozens of villages have no road access. Some are north of the Arctic Circle. As a result, laws there dictate that absentee ballots must be counted no later than 15 days after the general election — giving those ballots time to arrive.

Again, laws like these make it less likely the race will be called on Election Day. But, that's true whether a state uses ranked choice voting or not.

Mechanics
A key aspect of how ranked choice voting works is eliminating the candidate with the least votes. Once that candidate is eliminated, voters who ranked that candidate first have their votes move to their second ranked choices. The elimination process repeats until one candidate receives a majority.

This mechanic leads to the key benefits of ranked choice voting: voters can choose the candidates they think are best without worrying about spoiler effects, more candidates are likely to run (giving voters more choice), and those candidates have less incentive to go "scorched earth" with negativity in their campaigns.

It also means that if a race doesn't have a clear winner from first rank votes, then you need to make sure all votes have been collected before doing the eliminations.

In Maine, which uses ranked choice voting, the 2022 governor's race had a clear first round winner in Janet Mills with 55% of the vote. That race was called an hour after the polls closed on Election Day. One of its U.S. House seats did not have a clear majority winner and went to ranked choice eliminations. That race was called on November 16th, about a week after Election Day.

A better comparison — 2022 Senate Races in Alaska and Georgia
So, the "delayed results" that people experience are due more to a shift in voting behaviors and slow-to-change vote counting laws than whether a state uses ranked choice voting.

If you still want to argue that ranked choice voting delays results, then you need comparable data. The 2022 Senate races in Alaska and Georgia provide about as good a recent case study as any.

Both races had more than two candidates. Neither race had a single candidate get more than 50% of the vote in the first round. Therefore, both races go to a runoff.

By law, runoffs in Georgia happen as a separate election 28 days after the general election. The runoffs tend to be lower turnout (11% fewer voters participated in 2022) and costly. The 2020 senate runoff cost taxpayers $75 million (a similar analysis hasn't yet been done for 2022).

Alaska uses ranked choice voting and knew its results at the end of the 15-day period required to receive absentee ballots, with the same turnout as the general election, and at no additional cost to taxpayers.

In other words, Alaska's method is faster and more representative while being far, far less expensive.

It violates "one person, one vote"

This phrase, sometimes referred to as the “equality principle,” is about how each citizen’s political power, their vote, is equal. It’s good stuff. And it’s been used as a rallying slogan to argue for better representation and equality for disenfranchised groups throughout history.

The use of it as a critique for ranked choice voting, however, attempts to make it sound like each person is voting multiple times. In an election with five candidates, the ballot is mistakenly claimed to have five votes. In reality, what ranked choice voting does is clarify the voter’s preference amongst those five candidates of who should receive the voter’s one vote.

The use of it as a critique for ranked choice voting, however, attempts to make it sound like each person is voting multiple times. In an election with five candidates, the ballot is mistakenly claimed to have five votes. In reality, what ranked choice voting does is clarify the voter’s preference amongst those five candidates of who should receive the voter’s one vote.

Applying this critique to ranked choice voting is a bit disingenuous, but it does happen. In 2020, it showed up in a letter in opposition to North Dakota’s Measure 3 which included ranked choice voting.

“One person, one vote” is about fairness and representation. Ranked choice voting makes it more likely that each voter’s views are represented in the eventual winner. No person’s vote is ever applied more than once.

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