Should Alternative Parties Support Ranked Choice Voting?

By Mark Ortiz

Revision 1, July 6, 2017

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Once upon a time, a bill was introduced prohibiting the hunting of wolves. This bill included a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any violators of the ban.

The leaders of the sheep read the bill. Sheep don’t have the greatest reading and comprehension skills, so they misunderstood the wording and thought the bill instituted a reward for people who did kill wolves — so they announced that they supported the bill, and declared that any sheep who didn’t were traitors to the sheep community. Most of the sheep, being sheep, followed them.

Seeing this, the wolves decided that since the sheep were supporting the bill, it must be a bad thing for wolves, so they opposed it.

Thus, both the sheep and the wolves were on sides of the issue that were diametrically opposed to their own actual interests.

This story may seem farfetched, but in fact this sort of thing is fairly common in real-world politics.

A case in point is the idea currently promoted in the US as “ranked choice voting” (RCV) — previously promoted as “instant runoff voting” (IRV).

For those unfamiliar with RCV/IRV, the idea is to institute a system similar to that used for the lower house of the Australian Parliament, the House of Representatives. Instead of voting for one candidate, the voter ranks all the candidates. In Australia, any ballot without all the candidates ranked is considered “spoiled” and not counted. It is also possible to have a similar system, without this rule.

All ballots are first counted by first-ranked candidate. If this does not result in a majority for any candidate, the candidate with the lowest total is dropped and all ballots for that candidate are recounted by next-ranked candidate. If there is still no majority, the hindmost is dropped again and the process repeats until somebody gets a majority.

This is widely thought to be beneficial to new or alternative political parties. The Green Party has supported it for a long time, and they still do. Justice Democrats also support it. Many Libertarians support it, although to my knowledge the party has taken no position as a body. I’ve heard Nick Brana of DraftBernie say he supports it, although again that’s not an official position of the organization. The system is actually in use in the US for some municipal elections. Voters in Maine recently adopted the system by referendum, although the state’s constitution didn’t allow the resulting statute to be fully implemented without a constitutional amendment. Legal wrangling continues in Maine at this writing. The legislature nearly passed a law repealing RCV, but the House and Senate couldn’t agree on specifics so the statute adopted by referendum stands for the time being.

Most adherents of the dinosaur parties oppose RCV/IRV, because they want to maintain the dinosaur party duopoly and detest any challenges to that. They automatically assume that any idea advanced by those seeking to challenge the duopoly must ipso facto be bad for the duopoly.

Some alternative party advocates have gone so far as to blame the lack of RCV for their party’s poor showings in elections, and insist that they will never have a fair chance to win elections until the system is changed to RCV. How they propose to change the system so they can win elections, when they can’t win elections under the current system, is not too clear to me, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily make RCV a bad idea.

Adherents like RCV because it eliminates the “spoiler effect”: the dilemma of voters having to choose between voting for the candidate they like best or the “lesser evil” of the duopoly candidates. It also arguably ensures that the winner receives the votes of a majority of voters, although not necessarily a majority of their first-rank votes. This is held to be superior to the plurality-to-win or “first past the post” system we have now, in which a candidate can win despite a majority of the votes being cast for two or more other candidates.

Noting these apparent advantages, and being a long-time alternative party advocate myself, fifteen years ago I supported RCV/IRV. I have changed my mind.

The truth is that RCV/IRV is bad for any party wanting to seriously challenge the duopoly, and good for the duopoly. The situation is just like the one in my fictional allegory above. All parties in the situation, with the possible exception of Justice Democrats who want to keep progressives within the Democratic Party, are adopting positions contrary to their own actual interests.

RCV/IRV only benefits, say, the Green Party or a new anti-plutocratic party, if the party’s real objective is not to actually win seats and change laws and policies but instead merely to “influence the debate” and to provide careers for its own candidates and officers without threatening the dinosaur parties. If the idea is to actually win seats, the present plurality-to-win system is not only acceptable — it’s better!

RCV/IRV is also inferior from an election integrity standpoint. The only way to have an honest vote count, verifiable by people without special training, is to hand count paper ballots at the precinct, before the ballots have been in any unobserved custody. If all the ballots have to be counted at a central location, they will necessarily be unobserved at least while being transported, and a hand count of so many ballots will take a long time. It might be possible to do counts at the precinct, transmit the counts and publish them on line, and recount at the precincts as needed. This might be feasible for one or two races, but for a large number of races, with a large number of candidates, it would tend to be really burdensome.

An electorally weak outsider candidate has no chance of actually winning under plurality or RCV. A weak candidate might get more first-round votes under RCV than ordinary votes under plurality-to-win, but what difference does that make if the candidate is still eliminated? The actual benefit is to the duopoly candidate most likely to be the second or third choice of the outsider candidate’s voters.

An electorally strong outsider candidate has a better chance of winning under the system we have now. An example occurred in the Minnesota gubernatorial race in 1998. Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura, whose slogan was “Don’t vote for politics as usual” won with 37%. This was possible because the Democratic and Republican candidates split the remainder fairly evenly. Republican Norm Coleman had 34%. Democrat Skip Humphrey had 28%. The remaining 1% was split among four minor parties. If the election had been held under RCV, it is very likely that Coleman would have won. Based on my own experience with Humphrey Democrats, most of them would definitely want politics as usual and would predominantly have Coleman as their second choice.

This illustrates the fact that any system with any form of runoff, “instant” or otherwise, and a majority threshold for victory, tends to move outcomes toward the status quo — toward politics as usual; toward the option least disliked rather than the option most liked. Compared to plurality-to-win, majority-to-win increases the system’s stability, at the expense of responsiveness, regardless of how an eventual majority is guaranteed.

This can be good or bad, depending on the situation and one’s point of view. In a situation where somebody is trying to make major change of a kind you oppose, a system that makes change difficult is good for you. If you’re trying to make major change yourself, it’s bad. Generally, outsider candidates and parties will accept a greater risk of change they don’t like, to be able to have a better chance to institute the type of change they want.

Bottom line: if your main objective is merely to have fewer alternative party spoilers, you should want RCV. But if you want more alternative party winners, you are shooting yourself in the foot by advocating RCV.