The Liberal Case for Supporting Ranked Choice Voting
American democracy is experiencing a crisis of confidence.
63% of U.S. adults have little confidence in the future of the U.S. political system. Put another way, almost twice as many people don’t believe in the future of the U.S. political system than do.
That’s a perilous position to be in. And it can’t last forever.
The good news is that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) can help shore up democracy’s foundation. And, the reform is gaining steam.
It’s now used in over 40 cities and two states. After 2024, it could be used in over 50 cities and another two states – covering a total of 20 million voters across the U.S.
Liberals and progressives should recognize the benefits of ranked choice voting to create more confidence in the entire political system while also advancing liberal ideas of inclusivity, fairness, and equity.
- Gives voters more choice
- Promotes representation and diversity
- Counters extremism
- Reduces negative campaigning
- Revitalizes democracy
Gives Voters More Choice
A ranked choice ballot clearly allows for more choice to be expressed than on a typical single choice ballot (you get multiple choices instead of one!). But, what may not be immediately clear is that ranked choice elections make it more likely for a variety of choices to be on the ballot to begin with.
In a single choice plurality election, every additional candidate after the second is a “spoiler.” In other words, these new candidates tend to hurt the winning chances of the other candidates they most align with as well as their own chances. They split the vote.
This is why they don’t run in the first place. Or, if they do, they raise the ire of the political establishment and get attacked (which, of course, teaches future candidates to not run in the first place).
Ranked choice voting eliminates this spoiler effect. A voter can rank a progressive candidate 1st, a liberal candidate 2nd, and a center-left candidate 3rd and not worry about enabling the win of a far-right extremist also on the ballot.
The political establishment also doesn’t need to rise up against the progressive and liberal candidates on the theory that the center-left candidate is the most “electable” and any other candidates in the race will inevitably help the far-right extremist’s chances.
Taken together, voters end up with more than two candidates and an increased likelihood of having a candidate they truly want to vote for. This is critically important given the distaste voters have for their current candidate choices – just 26% of adults describe candidate quality in recent years as "good."
Promotes Representation and Diversity
Not only does RCV mean there are more choices on the ballot, but the choices themselves are more diverse.
RCV helps create the space for a diverse array of candidates to run. The fear of splitting the vote or being forced out by a party is removed. This encourages a variety of voices, particularly from marginalized communities, to join the political discourse (these communities are often discouraged from running due to “electability concerns”).
This isn’t just theory. In cities with ranked choice voting, 46% of all mayors are women (pretty close to their share of the population). In non-RCV cities, that figure is halved to 23% (nowhere close to their share of the population).
The results for people of color tell a similar story. New York City’s first ranked choice primary elections in 2021 led to a jump from 26 winners being people of color to 35. That’s an increase from 51% to 68%.
Ranked choice voting 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 a general election. But, it’s a losing strategy when RCV is used to determine who wins.
To win in RCV elections, candidates need to appeal to a broad audience. That means they need to secure 2nd and 3rd choice votes. This inherently discourages radical positions and encourages more pragmatic politics.
Reduces Negative Campaigning
Campaigns in elections using ranked choice voting have a stark difference from typical "most votes wins" elections — playing for second place is a viable strategy. This reduces the incentive to go "scorched earth" on an opponent.
Elections in Maine and New York City have already been shown to be more positive and civil once they shifted to ranked choice voting (check out this collaborative campaign ad to see for yourself). Mary Peltola's winning campaign in Alaska's 2022 Election focused on local issues and positivity while her opponents continued bashing her and each other.
How Can RCV Be Good for Both Liberals and Conservatives?
Plurality, winner-take-all, single-choice elections have taught voters to engage in zero-sum thinking. If something is good for conservatives, then it has to be bad for liberals (and vice versa).
That’s simply not true.
Ranked choice voting can be cost-saving AND more inclusive. It can lead to more women of color winning elections WHILE ALSO nominating Republicans that win elections.
These things can all be true because ranked choice voting better represents the will of the voters. And it turns out the voters aren't as easily put into Team Red and Team Blue as we've been led to believe.
It’s how you get results like what happened in the 2022 Alaska ranked choice election that scramble the “us vs. them” narrative. Liberals were excited to see a Democrat flip a U.S. House seat. Conservatives saw Republicans win the U.S. Senate and Governor races as well as majorities in the State House and Senate. Those state governing bodies then formed bipartisan governing coalitions that neutralized extreme members. All of these outcomes came from the same electorate.
In this case, both liberals and conservatives “got something” from ranked choice voting. But, more importantly, the voters of Alaska got leaders that better represent their views and a better functioning state government.
To restore faith in American Democracy, we need to renovate it at its foundation. The status quo is not sustainable when majorities of Americans find politics exhausting, their representatives uninterested, and their elected officials uncaring.
Ranked choice voting is not a panacea, but it represents significant progress on multiple meaningful dimensions.
More people running means more diversity of viewpoint, ideology, race, and gender. With no incentive for scorched earth campaigning there’s less fuel for cynicism. Less extremists in office means less legislative gridlock. And with elected officials needing to represent a true majority of their voters, there’s greater incentive to generate governing results.
That’s positive change that can pave the way for a more inclusive, representative, and collaborative political landscape. It's worth supporting. It's worth working for.