Boots & Sabers

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0700, 04 Mar 21

Ranked choice voting should be the last choice

Here is my full column on Ranked Choice Voting that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier in the week.

A bipartisan handful of Wisconsin legislators have introduced a bill to implement a ranked-choice voting (RCV) system for the elections of federal legislative offices. RCV is also referred to as “instant runoff” or “final five,” but irrespective of what one calls it, it is bad policy that contorts our electoral process and obfuscates the will of the governed.


Under an RCV scheme, partisan primaries are abandoned in favor of a primary in which the top five candidates advance to the general election. For the general election, voters rank the five candidates in order of preference starting with their most favored candidate and ending with their least favored candidate.


When the ballots are counted, if no single candidate has a majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is removed from consideration and that candidate’s voters’ second choices are redistributed among the remaining candidates. If there is still not a candidate with a majority, then the next candidate with the fewest votes is removed and the votes redistributed again. The process continues until a candidate has a majority of the remaining votes and is declared the winner. Complicated, eh? That is the point. This complicated process creates several problems. First, it is confusing to voters. This is the reason cited by two Democratic governors of California when they vetoed attempts to expand RCV in their state. No longer does a voter simply have to choose the candidate that they support. Instead, they must study the candidates and rank them in order of preference to make an informed ranking. To work correctly, RCV requires much more effort on behalf of the voters. This leads to the second flaw with RCV. When implemented in other states, there is a large degree of ballot fatigue. Voters walk into the voting booth knowing who their top candidate is and maybe their second choice, but after that, they are fairly indifferent. The result is that many voters only fill out their top choice, or maybe top two choices, and leave the rest blank. When the ballots are taken to be counted and candidates are eliminated from consideration, some voters are also eliminated. Remember that in this system, the winner is the candidate who has a majority of the remaining ballots — not of all the ballots cast.


The third flaw with RCV is that is requires voters to engage in intricate game theory instead of just voting for their favorite candidate. Imagine that your favored candidate is third in the polls and your least favorite candidate is leading. You might decide to cast your first choice for the second-place candidate in the hopes to prevent the leading candidate from gaining a clear majority and that the fifth-place candidates voters’ second choices will fall to your favored candidate. Is this really how we want to think about elections?


The biggest problem with RCV, however, is not about the actual mechanics of the voting process. It is that the voters are denied the opportunity to make a clear choice. Under our current voting system where the candidate with the most votes wins, each candidate attempts to clearly communicate his or her experience and position on the issues to draw a distinction with their opponents. Sometimes that communication is strident, but the voters generally cast their ballots knowing where each candidate stands.


With RCV, candidates are not just campaigning to be the voters’ first choice, but their second or third choice. The result is a watering down of the rhetoric and muddling of the issues where candidates are not campaigning to be the one that most people support, but the one that most people can live with. If we want a nation run by mediocre drones that people do not like but can tolerate, RCV is the way to get it.


The proponents of ranked-choice voting see it as a means to reduce the rancor that we see in our politics today. What they seem to forget is that acrimony, forceful rhetoric, and gridlock are not a bug in our political system. It is a feature. It shows that it is working. After all, we have imbued these politicians with the power to restrict our rights and confiscate our property. We do not want them to do that lightly where submissive agreement is a greater priority than good public policy. The process should be difficult and discordant opinions should be forcefully expressed.


We are a nation with an endless spectrum of political philosophies and social values. In a representative government, we want all of those philosophies and values to be vehemently advocated in the public square so that they are included in the creation of public policy. Ranked-choice voting serves to silence the philosophical diversity that makes our nation stronger.


0700, 04 March 2021


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