Pros and Cons of Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV)
Clearing Up the Confusion
Change is hard. The shift to ranked-choice voting is no different.
As more cities and states shift the way they vote, critiques of the process will naturally pop up. Below, you'll find a catalogue of common critiques made of ranked-choice voting and explanations of where they fall flat.
But first, it's important to keep in mind ranked-choice voting's numerous benefits.
- Determines the candidate with the strongest support
- Encourages civil campaigning
- Reduces wasted votes
- Eliminates the need for multiple elections
Determines the candidate with the strongest support
Ranked-choice voting reveals the candidate with the most support across the entire electorate, not just the most passionate base.
Once there's more than two candidates in a typical "most votes wins" election, it's very easy for the "winner" to have a weak plurality of support. It's entirely possible that the winning candidate only commands 38% of the vote when a majority of the electorate would have preferred someone else (not a contrived example).
Ranked-choice voting allows the will of the majority to emerge.
Encourages civil 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. Just check out this collaborative campaign ad to see for yourself.
Reduces wasted votes
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. 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.
Eliminates the need for multiple elections
In elections that have runoff requirements, ranked-choice voting allows a winner to be found in a single trip to the polls for voters. In fact, another name for ranked-choice voting is "instant runoff." This saves money for the jurisdiction, reduces hassle for busy voters, and removes the distortions caused by the differing electorates between the general election and the (typically lower turnout) runoff.
- It's too complicated
- The person with the most votes can lose
- Your vote might not count if it's "exhausted"
- It violates "one person, one vote"
It's too complicated
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. For example, 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.
If you still think ranked-choice voting sounds complicated, you can always see exactly how it works using RankedVote.
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 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.
Democracy’s legitimacy and strength derive from two key concepts: consent of the governed and majority rule. Ranked-choice voting is an approach that makes it more likely that the majority’s voice is heard.
Your vote might not count 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 has 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 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.
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.