I like the idea of ranked-choice voting. It works like this: You can vote for multiple candidates in ranked order. After all the first-choice votes are tallied, whoever comes in last gets eliminated, and supporters of that candidate have their second-choice votes counted instead. The “instant runoff” process continues until someone gets a majority of the vote. In this process, I get to share more information about my preferences, and the odds I will have some say in final outcome increases.
Moreover, as with a traditional runoff system, in ranked-choice voting the final winner still has to attract the support of a majority, it’s just that the majority can be a coalition of first-, second-, and third-place votes. In electoral systems without any sort of runoff, the winner of a race with several candidates may have only plurality support, leaving the majority of the electorate in the cold.
And yet, having seen ranked-choice voting in action this year, I’ve concluded that the claims of both the system’s biggest boosters and detractors are overblown. Supporters say it will diminish the influence of big donors. Critics say it is antithetical to basic democracy. But ranked -choice voting doesn’t transform our politics, either for good or bad. Where it has been put in place, democracy looks pretty much like it looked before, albeit with a few extra quirks.
This system is receiving a fresh wave of attention because Maine voters last week affirmed their support for it in a referendum, while also becoming the first American voters to use it in statewide primaries. How did it work? Not like its backers advertised.
Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, in an ad drumming up support for the referendum, argued the system gives “candidates with the best ideas, not the biggest bank accounts … a fighting chance.” Yet in the gubernatorial primaries, the Republican who raised the most private cash, Shawn Moody, won in a landslide. On the Democratic side we don’t have a final winner yet, but the top two finishers, state Attorney General Janet Mills and attorney Mark Cote, were also the biggest private fundraisers.
Two of the more progressive Democratic candidates who also earned the backing of the economic populist Working Families Party, Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet, tried to work the ranked-choice voting system to their advantage. They endorsed each other on camera and encouraged supporters to rank them both in the top two slots. Presumably, these were the kind of idea-driven candidates that RCV advocates thought would get a “fighting chance” under the new system. (Also giving Sweet a “fighting chance” was Maine’s voluntary public campaign financing system, which gave her $700,000 in taxpayer funds and allowed her to outpace Mills in overall donations.)
Yet in the first round of tabulation, Eves and Sweet came in third and fourth, each with less than half of the first-place votes that pace-setter Mills received, making it doubtful their progressive voters can band together and catapult one of them to the nomination. Mills and Cote, meanwhile, are considered moderates, and Mills – who looks poised to claim victory – comes out of the same state Democratic establishment that produced the last two gubernatorial nominees.
Maine was not the only place this month where ranked-choice voting disappointed progressives. In San Francisco, another progressive duo – former state Sen. Mark Leno and city legislator Jane Kim – cut an ad urging their supporters to vote for the both of them, so the people would “pick the next mayor, not the billionaires.”
That was a not-so-subtle swipe at London Breed, the candidate with the most financial backing from the technology and real estate sectors. (However, Leno’s and Kim’s combined fundraising haul by the end of May -- $4 million -- was more than Breed’s $3.2 million.) The strategy almost worked; Kim came in third place, and 80 percent of her second-choice votes went to Leno. But Breed, who had the most first-place votes, still got 20 percent of Kim’s haul, enough to beat Leno by a single percentage point.
Despite San Francisco’s left-wing reputation, Breed is just the latest in the city’s long run of business-friendly Democratic mayors going back to 1992. The introduction of ranked-choice voting, beginning with 2007 mayoral election, didn’t do anything to break the streak.
These examples are not the basis of an argument for or against ranked-choice voting. They only show that an alternate voting system doesn’t automatically alter the basic political dynamics of a city or state.
Of course, there are a few historical examples of atypical electoral results thanks to RCV. Burlington, Vermont voters were so unhappy after an unpopular incumbent mayor won re-election in 2009 with only 29 percent of the first-place votes that they repealed the entire RCV system in 2010. And in a recent column, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown was still grousing about a crowded 2010 city legislative race in which the eventual winner only won 12 percent of the first-place votes.
These fluky outcomes might make you sour on RCV. But you can get fluky outcomes in any voting system – like, say, the Electoral College. The point is that democracy remains intact. The whole premise of American democracy is to guard against a tyranny of the majority, and spread power diffusely so all political factions have some power and get some say. The occasional fluke election does not undermine our Founders’ vision.
So let us not go overboard in the debate over ranked-choice voting. Wherever it may be used, democracy will still work as well as it can, in all of its imperfect glory.
Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.