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Your guide to ranked-choice voting

39 minutes

Ranked-choice voting has been in the news a lot lately. It was adopted in New York City’s November 2019 election, used for the first time in U.S. Congressional elections last year, and will be the method by which at least a few states choose a Democratic primary candidate in 2020.

But, what is it? How does it work? And, is it more democratic than the single-vote method we’re used to? This week’s guest has answers to all of those questions.

Burt L. Monroe is Liberal Arts Professor Political Science, Social Data Analytics, and Informatics at Penn State and Director of the university’s Center for Social Data Analytics. He says ranked-choice voting is is generally a good thing for democracy, but not entirely without problems of its own. We also talk about bullet voting, donkey voting, and other types of voting that have be tried around the world.

As Michael and Chris discuss, ranked-choice voting falls into a category of grassroots organizing around pro-democracy initiatives like gerrymandering and open primaries. These efforts signal a frustration with the status quo and a desire to make the rules of democracy more fair and equitable.

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Additional Information

Fairvote, an advocacy group for ranked-choice voting and election reform

Burt’s Google Scholar listing

Related Episodes

The case for open primaries

One state’s fight for fair maps

Interview Highlights [6:52] What is ranked-choice voting?

Ranked-choice voting is used to describe a lot of different systems, but mostly what people mean is something that’s usually referred to as instant run-off.  In a traditional runoff election, you vote as you normally would and if no one gets a majority, everybody but the top two is eliminated and you come back in  four weeks or six weeks or eight weeks and vote again and somebody has a majority.

Ranked-choice voting does that all at one time. Voters rank the candidates in a pure system from first choice to last choice and the votes are tallied based on the first choices and if no one has a majority, then the last place candidate is eliminated and the voters who had voted for that candidate first, their vote is transferred to their second candidate. And it goes on and on until there’s a majority.

[8:33] Does a voter have to rank all candidates on a ballot?

The only place I know of that requires you to rank everybody is Australia, which uses it for their national elections. In most places you can rank as few as you want. If you rank only one, that’s called bullet voting. Most of the U.S. variations of this, you can only rank up to a certain number. The New York one that just passed is five, I believe San Francisco’s three. But you can vote for as many as you like, just as long as you don’t vote more than one for first or second and so on.

[11:24] Does ranked-choice voting change the way a candidate campaigns?

This is one of the key points of contention about how this system works. One of the main arguments for it is that it encourages candidates to try to broaden their appeal so they can get those second choice, third choice, fourth choice. And that seems to be largely what happens. Although, there are examples where it didn’t. Fiji uses ranked-choice voting and had a lot of antagonistic ethnic based voting. In that case, the electorate was so polarized that more extreme candidates were able to get more first choices and more moderate candidates were punished and didn’t get enough first choices to stay in the race.

[14:26] How does ranked-choice voting account for third-party candidates?

If voters can be more sincere about their true preference for Jill Stein or Ralph Nader or what have you, but those candidates don’t make the cut of on the first choices, their second choices are presumably the one- the more moderate that’s closer to them. It’s very handy for elections that have lots and lots of candidates. For example, New York is anticipating 17 candidates in one of their races coming up for advocate, And so you can imagine if you’re just picking your first choice, with 17 candidates somebody could win with 5% of the vote.

[16:18] Does ranked-choice voting give an advantage to low-information voters?

Yeah, that’s definitely a thing. Even in our current system, there’s spoiled ballots that people fill out wrong. But there two ways I’m familiar with that this happens. One is bullet voting that I mentioned earlier, which is just voting for one candidate. Those votes are more likely to be, I think the term they use is exhausted. That is, their candidate gets eliminated and they don’t have a second choice for it to pass to so their vote isn’t used in the final tally. The other one I’m familiar with is Australia where everyone has to fill out he full ranking and there you get a phenomenon called donkey voting  where people rank rank just in the order they appear on the ballot paper. So if they’re alphabetical, they vote alphabetical.

[17:58] Is there an impact on voter turnout?

It’s always hard to attribute increased turnout in a particular election to one thing because many thing change, but in San Francisco there was dramatic turnout raised in the first election that used this. In some districts, it went from like 17% to over 50%. So really dramatic changes when there wasn’t much obvious else that was different about the election other than the ranked-choice option. The argument is that people want to be able to express themselves and this helps people who might otherwise want to vote for a candidate that doesn’t have a chance or they think doesn’t have a chance.

[28:10] Is ranked-choice voting more democratic?

I think the system we have now, there’s so many ways it can elect somebody that a lot of people don’t want. This is a pretty easy change to make to keep some bad things from happening and so I think it’s pretty easy to advocate for.


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