Ranked Ballots and Strategic Voting

London is considering moving to a ranked choice voting system, and I’ve shared my feelings about that before. As we near the Public Participation Meeting that is happening on April 22 (yep, it’s a Saturday), we’re getting the chance to hear more people’s thoughts on ranked ballots.

One of the ideas that’s sprung up is that even though people say ranked choice ballots decrease the need for strategic voting (see an explanation of strategic voting waaaay at the bottom of this page), they could actually increase it. That’s… just not true. Here’s why.

Assertion: ranked choices could actually increase strategic voting through “vote plumping”?

Here’s a brief explanation of what plumping votes means:

In some elections, a voter can cast more than one vote of equal value. We do this now with school board trustees. Since each area of the city elects two trustees, each voter can cast two votes, both of which “count the same.” That is, they are not ranked. The two winners are those who received the most votes. Some Londoners may remember that Board of Control elections worked the same way.
If there is a single candidate who you really want to win, you can cast just one vote for that person. You give them a point without also awarding a point to any of the other contenders. This is vote plumping, and it effectively makes your one vote count for more.

Here’s why it won’t happen:

Plumping votes is only an advantage to the voter or candidate in elections where every vote is counted equally or at the same time.

In a ranked choice vote like London is using, your second or third choice votes do not count unless your first choice is completely eliminated because he or she has received too few votes. In the second round, we only count the second choices on ballots whose first choice was eliminated.

You can better understand how this is done by watching the City’s video that explains counting the ranked choice votes:

For you as a voter, that means that you’re never effectively casting a vote against your favourite candidate because your 2nd and 3rd choice votes will only be counted if your first choice already doesn’t have a chance of winning.

For candidates, that means there is no advantage to encouraging their voters not to rank another candidate 2nd or 3rd, since if those votes are ever counted, he or she will already have been eliminated from the running.

But what if? A made-up case study where it’s a little more complicated. (i.e. pretty dry reading, really)

Say we finish the first round count with the following results:

28% Adam
23% Brenda
18% Carol 
16% Derek 
13% Eve

Eve, Derek, and Carol are eliminated from the running, one by one, as the second choice votes from their ballots are used to move a candidate toward a 50% win.

You voted for Brenda, so your vote still stays with Brenda.

But I voted for Derek, so when Derek is eliminated, I get to use my vote for my second choice, which was Brenda.

In fact, the vast majority of people who voted for Derek, Eve, and Carol first voted for Brenda as their second choice, and at the end of the 2nd round, the standings look like this:

45% Adam
53% Brenda

Brenda wins after counting the second round, even though Adam was ahead in the first round. It seems like it would have been to Adam’s advantage to discourage people from casting 2nd and 3rd choice votes because then he would have won. But, actually, if Adam’s voters didn’t cast 2nd and 3rd choice votes, it wouldn’t make a difference, since he was never eliminated. And if people who voted for Adam’s opponents as first choices hadn’t casted 2nd and 3rd choice votes, he just would have lost by a wider margin.

There is no candidate for whom it is a good idea to discourage casting a vote for 2nd and 3rd choice unless they are going to coordinate a ward-wide boycott of the entire ranked choice system… which seems difficult and risky at best.

Some ranked voting systems tally second and third choice votes right away, and they simply “count for less” than a first choice vote, so theoretically, a person with no first choice votes and many second choice votes could win. The City of London will not be using that type of system. We’ll be using the “instant run-off” system.

Note, too:
Strategic voting occurs when instead of simply voting for their favoured candidate, a person votes for another candidate who is deemed more likely to win so that they don’t feel their vote is wasted. It’s often encouraged by supporters of leading parties and candidates to dissuade voters from casting votes for challengers.

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