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What are the Critiques of Ranked-Choice Voting?

Learn about common arguments made against ranked-choice voting and how you can respond.

Change is hard

Change is always met with resistance. The shift to ranked-choice voting is no different. Resistance can be principled — a true disagreement.  Others resist out of self-interest or opportunistic reasons. And still others may simply resist due to unfamiliarity with the concept.

Whatever the reason for resistance, listen first. Then, respond. You can’t convince everyone. But, you can convince some.

Common critiques of ranked-choice voting
#1 - 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, 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 majority of the electorate’s preference was better represented. It just so happened that the majority’s preference was 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.

How to respond: Just because something has the “most votes” doesn’t mean that “most of us want it.” This is especially true when there are a lot of options. Ranked-choice voting is a way to distill what “most of us actually do want” out of that broad array of choices.

#2 - It’s too complicated

This critique points out that it is harder to rank multiple candidates in an election than it is to merely choose one and move on. While it is true that ranking takes more effort, the argument that this additional effort is an insurmountable barrier doesn’t hold.

It’s like saying that signatures should only consist of your first name because writing both your first and last names is too much effort. Yes, technically writing both names is more effort. But that additional effort is so minimal it can be ignored. Ranking is a mental activity that we perform constantly throughout the day and is not much more difficult than making a single choice.

How to respond: One option is to use these handy facts. Ranked-choice voting has been used in major cities for over 15 years and has seen little evidence of voter confusion. Turnout in the 2018 midterm elections in Maine were the highest in recent history (implying that RCV has a positive impact on enthusiasm for voting and ballot completion). 

A second option is to shift the frame out of politics. Ask about favorite movies, songs, or books of the year. If you go down the movie route, you could say, “What are your top three movies of the year?” Then say of the top choice, “You’re saying that one should win the Academy Award?” Then, “If the Academy was for some reason against that film, would you want your second favorite to win?” That’s what ranked-choice voting is all about!

Fun sidenote: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual awards (“The Oscars”) has been using ranked-choice voting since 2009.

#3 - 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. It recently showed up in a letter in opposition to North Dakota’s Measure 3 which includes ranked-choice voting. 

How to respond: “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 vote is wasted. And no person’s vote is ever applied more than once.

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