In June’s primaries, Maine became the first state to use ranked choice voting in a statewide election.
First proposed in 2001 and adopted through a series of referendums, Maine will now use ranked choice voting for all state elections. In thus joins Australia, Malta, and Ireland — which use the method for parliamentary elections — as well as Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Cambridge, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other U.S. cities, which use it to elect mayors and city councilors.
Under ranked choice voting, instead of voting for one person and one person only, voters have the option to rank candidates by preference, with as many options as candidates. If no candidate obtains an overall majority based on first-place votes, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and their votes get redistributed to the voters’ second choices. The elimination continues until one person gets a majority or only two candidates remain.
According to FairVote, an organization advocating for ranked choice voting throughout America, wider adoption would result in less polarized elections with more moderate or third party victories, mitigate gerrymandering, and be more representative overall.
However, according to Simon Waxman in Democracy Journal, the benefits of ranked choice voting touted by organizations like FairVote aren’t evidence in places that use it. Polarization, Waxman argues, comes from campaigning, especially by outside interest groups. Ranked choice voting in Australia has not resulted in any government formed by third parties.
As Waxman wrote, “failures of representation don’t stem primarily from flawed voting procedure.” For example, politically moderate candidates don’t attract voters because most voters are motivated by the economy and identity, rather than policy.
Ranked choice voting probably wouldn’t address the disproportionate representation inherent in America’s electoral map. In the New York Times, political scientists Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden reported that simulations showed that Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 2014 because their voters are more widely distributed while Democrats are more concentrated. According to Chen and Rodden, across thousands of simulations under various non-partisan redistricting proposals, Republicans still would have won a majority.
Additionally, ranked choice voting could encourage the rise in tactical or strategic voting, where candidates encourage each other’s supporters to rank them second to block an undesirable alternative. Earlier this year, Supervisors Mark Leno and Jane Kim did this in an attempt to prevent London Breed from being elected mayor of San Francisco. It didn’t work. In Maine, Democrats Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves attempted a similar gambit, but they finished third and fourth.
However, in 2010, strategic voting likely helped Jean Quan defeat Don Perata in a race for mayor of Oakland, California. While this is a perfectly democratic outcome — the winner was the person able to achieve some sort of consensus — it strikes some as wrong to win that way.
Then again, part of the reason for adopting ranked choice voting in Maine was that divisive governor Paul LePage won two terms without a majority.
While Maine’s change means that future party nominees and elected officials will have a majority behind them, this may not reduce political polarization or make elections less divisive. Despite ranked choice voting, San Francisco’s recent mayoral election was very divisive. According to Wired, it was “distorted by attack ads” and “misleading Facebook posts funded by dark money.”
One advantage of ranked choice voting is avoiding expensive run-off elections. But if that’s it, there seems to be little point in adopting the method, especially in places like Maine that didn’t have run-off elections to begin with. Perhaps the best fit for ranked choice voting is in elections with more than one winner.
Consider the experience of voters in Boston, Massachusetts, with a population of nearly 700,000 and nearby Cambridge, home to about 120,000. In Cambridge, which has a council-manager system, the nine members of the city council are all elected at-large every two years using ranked choice voting. In Boston’s strong mayor system, however, only four members of the city council are elected at-large and nine are elected from single member districts. In addition, the mayor’s term is four years, while all the councilors have two-year terms.
Both cities have significant populations of students and renters, lean heavily Democratic — though Cambridge is somewhat more progressive — have definite neighborhoods and are highly educated. Boston, however, has a starker economic and demographic divide, which is manifested geographically.
Of the two cities, one would expect that Boston, with its larger and more diverse population, would have a more vibrant political culture, but the opposite is true. Elections in Cambridge involve more candidates and have higher turnout. In Boston the incumbent mayor holds so much power that challengers are rare and few people pay attention to off-year city council races. In most years, the only drama comes from races for at-large council seats.
Having more than one winner in an election seems to encourage interest and participation, as well as increasing competition. Perhaps instead of the meager benefits of ranked choice voting, reformers should focus on proportional representation.
In 2016, just 40 of 435 House seats in 2016 were competitive. As Lee Drutman argues, “our electoral rules are now gasoline for the current conflagration of partisan polarization.”
Proportional representation would help make races more competitive, reduce wasted votes and push politics towards compromise. Electoral reformers should focus on that, rather than ranked choice.