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Ranked-choice voting makes promises it can’t keep

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Americans are frustrated with politics. According to the results of an NBC poll in January, 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that America has become so polarized that the government no longer can solve the major issues facing the country. 

One of the ideas to fix some problems with politics is ranked-choice voting, where voters list their candidates of choice in the order of preference — this way, more than just two big political parties could field viable candidates. If any candidate is the first-place choice of a majority (more than 50 percent) of voters, he or she wins — and if not, then whoever received the fewest first-place votes is out of the running and everyone who voted for them has their ballot transferred to their second-place choice. This is repeated until a winner emerges with more than 50 percent of the ballots.

Ranked-choice voting has been approved in Maine, Alaska, New York City and several other, smaller jurisdictions across America. Advocates promise that it will lead to more genial political discourse, offer voters more choices, and elevate more broadly acceptable candidates to office. However, according to a recent study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, it isn’t that simple.

Critics of our two-party system claim that its “races to the bottom” often leave us with unlikable candidates for whom we vote only because we really don’t want the other guy to win. But ranked-choice voting has its own flaws. Chief among them is that when there are more political parties, each party feels less inclined to compromise: the Green Party, Teachers’ Union Party, and so on would promote the starkest version of their priorities.

America’s existing two-party system, as legal scholar Tara Ross has pointed out, already maximizes the compromise and collaboration in our politics. Often, these compromises are uneasy and lead to intra-party factions, sure, but the upshot is more moderate parties — parties that more broadly reflect where the nation stands. 

What’s more, the fact that America has no viable third parties does not mean that the two parties are static in their coalitions and platforms, or even that voters disaffected with both have no power. Ross reminds us that a major campaign issue of the Reform Party in 1992 (the most recent prominent third-party run at the U.S. presidency) was fiscal responsibility — and we then saw both major parties pushing for fiscal responsibility in the midterm elections of 1994. We remember former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” but the Democratic coalitions in power in 1993 passed a fiscally responsible Budget Reconciliation Act that led to the 1998 budget surplus, the first in decades. 

So, our existing system has ways to let independents make themselves heard and for mainstream actors to compromise. But under ranked-choice voting, would the discourse at least be less hostile?

Early trials of ranked-choice elections don’t seem to be panning out that way. Nathaniel Rakich, an analyst with the statistics blog FiveThirtyEight, called the ranked-choice race in New York City “a nasty affair” and noted that the Maine gubernatorial race in 2018 still had “plenty of negative campaigning.”

This pattern shows up over and over with ranked-choice voting’s promises. There is no guarantee that more broadly acceptable candidates will win office. A candidate who is genial, well-liked, and moderate could be literally everyone’s second choice and be eliminated immediately. One well-known hypothetical election compared the winners of different electoral systems, including ranked-choice and (our typical) plurality methods, and found that the ranked-choice winner was voters’ fourth choice out of five most of the time.

Less hypothetically, it seems plausible that most voters will have strong feelings about their first choice, or maybe their top two choices, and really dislike everyone else. This is reflected by how often, in ranked-choice elections, voters don’t rank all the candidates. For example, in Maine’s highly contested 2018 general election for the 2nd Congressional District, only 38 percent of voters filled out all three ranks on their ballots.

This kind of dovetails into why American politics is as divided as it is: Americans disagree, strongly, about a lot of things — the role of government, taxes, the burdens of steep medical bills, gun control, how to police violent crime, border control, abortion, and so on. Some structural reforms could alleviate some of the argumentative heat, but rejiggering our electoral system is not a promising way to do that.

Ranked-choice elections so far have failed to make political speech kinder, and politics fully remade in ranked-choice’s image is likely to provide voters with options that are less compromising and more inflexible than our two parties seem now. Ranked-choice voting, overall, would trade away the (unnoticed, underappreciated) benefits of our current system for promised benefits that appear unlikely to materialize. American politics has enough broken promises already.

Noah Diekemper is the senior research analyst at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a free-market policy organization. Follow him on Twitter @NoahDiekemper.

Tags America divided Electoral system hyper-partisanship Newt Gingrich Ranked choice voting

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