July 29, 2021

Like pie, but don't care what kind? You might like RCV

UCR experts say instant run-off voting is like coming to terms with what's not on the dessert menu

Author: J.D. Warren
July 29, 2021

Ranked-choice voting systems, or “instant run-off voting,” long ago popular in the American West, have resurfaced as a possible middle ground for political party-rancor and rampant-though-mostly-unfounded claims of election fraud.

A ranked-choice voting system, or RCV, is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference. If one of the candidates wins more than 50% of first-place votes, he or she is the winner. But if no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the No. 2 choices on those ballots are considered in the election. If the new tally now finds a candidate with more than 50% of the votes, that candidate is the winner. The process is repeated until someone has a 50%-plus majority.

Alaska and Maine use it in their elections for president, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House. Cities in Maine and Utah use the system, and it was recently employed in the New York City mayoral race. In November, cities in Massachusetts and Minnesota will also try RCV.

We asked UCR political scientists to weigh in on the growing popularity of RCV.

Shaun Bowler

Professor of political science; Dean of the Graduate Division

“Maybe a move away from primaries is helpful in coming to terms with division.”
— Bowler

Q: Opponents dismiss RCV as being too complex. How do you respond?

A: Opponents talk up the complexity as a way to try and make it sound scary and weird. But really it’s just like at Marie Callender’s. The waiter/waitress asks your order. You say “I’d like apple pie,” and he/she says, “OK, but we may not have any left. Do you have a second choice if we don’t?” And you say, “OK, if you don’t have apple I’ll have cherry. But I’d like apple if you have some.”  Right there you’ve just made a ranked choice of pies: apple No. 1, cherry No. 2. If the waiter says “You know what? We had a problem with the cherry pies. So if there isn’t apple or cherry, what would you like?” And you say: “Just ice cream.” Now you have three choices.

Q: It's said RVC would diminish the influence of primaries, taking the power away from conventions and delegates and opening the door for more centrist candidates. For instance, under RCV, many assert Donald Trump would not have prevailed as the GOP nominee in 2016, as more moderate candidates such as Marco Rubio would have been the likely No. 2 or 3 choice for most voters. How do you respond?

A: The system of primary elections has contributed to division. Consider the following:  “… the re-election rate for incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives has been 85% or higher for each of the 27 two-year election cycles between 1964 and 2018. From 2008 to 2018, the re-election rate averaged 92.1%.” That level of safety means the primary is, in effect, the “real” election: if a candidate wins the primary of the most popular party in the district, then they pretty much win the election.

And the primary election is decided by relatively small numbers of people with extreme views. That means in our current system candidates (both Democrats and Republicans) have to position themselves to the extremes to get elected. Which means, maybe a move away from primaries is helpful in coming to terms with division.

Q: Ranked-choice voting opponents make a simple argument: First choice votes should determine elections, not second or third choices. How do you respond?

A: Looking at two California primaries the winner got 28.9% in the first instance;  21% in the second. Wouldn’t it be good if we had winners who can attract a lot more support than a quarter of those who voted?

Back to a table at Marie Callender's. There are 10 of you choosing a pie. If it is “most votes wins,” then it is easy to see three people can force the table to have the no-sugar apple with no ice cream if all the others are split. But wouldn’t it be better to have a pie that more people would enjoy? 

Kevin Esterling

Professor of political science and public policy

“It’s important to remember that all voting rules create an arbitrary decision structure.”
— Esterling

Q: RCV progressively eliminates “also ran” candidates until the top-ranked candidates remain. Should we be content in believing the resulting winner is “the people's choice”?

A: In the “instant run off” version of RCV that sequentially eliminates the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes, you could think of that as having run the election under the counterfactual that the unpopular candidates never ran in the first place.

But this is true only under an assumption of the “independence of irrelevant alternatives” or IIA. Under IIA, if you say you prefer chocolate to vanilla ice cream, you will prefer chocolate to vanilla whether or not strawberry ice cream is also an option. With ice cream choices, the IIA assumption sounds reasonable.

But in politics, it could be that the third candidate makes you think differently about the other two, that the third candidate reframes the election in a way that changes some voters’ ordering among the first two. So violations of the IIA assumption lead to incoherence in the justification for an instant run-off.

I think RCV has other positive attributes, such as creating incentives for more positive and centrist campaigns, but it’s important to remember that all voting rules create an arbitrary decision structure that when examined have these kinds of logical inconsistencies.

Indridi Indridason

Professor of political science

“If the main reason for moving toward ranked-choice voting is to increase civility and make campaigns more constructive, there are other systems . . . that may do a better job.”
— Indridason

Q: An argument for ranked choice voting is that it would help stop negative campaigning. The reasoning goes that candidates will try to avoid alienating supporters of other candidates, hoping to win their second or third place votes. How do you respond to that?

A: It seems plausible that ranked-choice would generally have the effect of reducing negative campaigning, or at least shift the focus from criticism of individuals to policies. But it is possible that ranked-choice voting would in some circumstances simply function as two parallel primaries within an election, i.e., candidates within each party would feel happy slinging mud at the other party but perhaps be more cordial toward competitors from their own party.

If the main reason for moving toward ranked-choice voting is to increase civility and make campaigns more constructive, there are other systems, such as Approval Voting, that may do a better job.

Q: Opponents also say RCV can disenfranchise minority voters. Why is that?

A: One can think of scenarios where minority voters might be hurt, for example, if a single candidate represents the minority but the majority's support is split between two candidates (e.g., 40-30-30). In this circumstance the minority candidate would win under plurality rule with 40% of the vote. But with ranked-choice voting, one of the majority candidates would be eliminated and (most of) her votes would than transfer to the other majority candidate, who would then win with 60% of the vote.

But that depends on the majority failing to coordinate on a single candidate and ranked-choice voting is, in fact, intended to reduce the importance of such failures. Minorities might be better served by having candidates who realize that being the minorities’ second choice might be a good thing.

Ron Loveridge

Professor of political science

“Ten (candidates) creates noise. Two sort out reasons.”
— Loveridge

Q: Is there a way to play the system? 

A: Some people vote for one candidate only. What does that do to the system?  Also, if you favor one candidate, you can put your candidate’s biggest challenger at the bottom, like, “I want to create a ballot that I want.”

My own angst on this is I like someone winning a majority of votes. When you have 10 candidates, it’s hard to sort them out. When you have two, it’s much easier to weigh them against each other. Ten creates noise. Two sort out reasons. 

Photo: "Rank Your Vote - Minneapolis MayDay Parade 2017" by Tony Webster / flickr

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