The Unsettling Uncertainties of Ranked-Choice Voting

by | Nov 8, 2023 | Opinion

Guest post by John Lore

Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), or instant runoff voting, has been promoted as a means to revitalize the democratic process. However, upon closer scrutiny, this system reveals significant flaws that could potentially undermine the very principles it seeks to uphold. By introducing complexities that could confound voters, disincentivizing broad-based campaigns, and potentially obscuring the true democratic will, RCV could be a step backward, not forward.

One of the most critical concerns surrounding RCV is its complexity. Unlike the straightforward process of choosing a single preferred candidate, RCV requires voters to rank candidates in order of preference. This system presupposes that voters have a nuanced understanding of all the candidates on the ballot, which, given the often crowded field of contenders, can be an unreasonable expectation. Moreover, the process of tabulating votes in successive rounds until a candidate secures a majority can be perplexing. This complexity can lead to voter confusion, potentially discouraging voter participation or leading to ballots being filled out incorrectly and thus discarded. A simplified voting process is crucial to ensuring voter engagement and inclusivity, which RCV could jeopardize.

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Furthermore, proponents argue that RCV encourages more civil and issue-focused campaigns as candidates vie for second and third-choice votes. However, this system could dissuade candidates from articulating bold, distinct positions for fear of alienating voters whose primary preferences lie elsewhere. In striving to be a palatable second or third choice to a broader swath of the electorate, candidates may resort to vague, centrist positions and avoid tackling controversial issues. This dilution of substantive discourse undermines the robust debate essential for a thriving democracy.

Additionally, RCV’s premise of eliminating ‘wasted votes’ and the ‘spoiler effect’ can be misleading. In a traditional voting system, a vote cast is a direct expression of voter preference. In RCV, however, a first-choice vote for a lesser-known candidate could eventually be reallocated to more popular candidates in subsequent rounds. This process could distort the true level of support for outside candidates, making it difficult to gauge the electorate’s appetite for alternative ideas. Moreover, the notion that RCV allows for greater representation of minority opinions is challenged by the fact that the ultimate winner is determined by accumulating a majority of preferences, which may still sideline minority viewpoints.

Critics also point out that RCV can produce paradoxical results. It’s possible for a candidate who is the first choice of a majority of voters to lose if enough voters rank them lowly as a second or third choice. Such counterintuitive outcomes can erode trust in the electoral process and leave voters feeling disenfranchised.

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The implementation of RCV requires a substantial investment in voter education and updated voting systems capable of handling the more complex balloting and tallying process. These costs, both financial and in terms of human resources, are significant, especially at a time when many municipalities are facing budget constraints.

Lastly, the experiences of locales that have implemented RCV have not always yielded positive results. For example, the city of Burlington, Vermont, reverted to its previous voting system after an RCV election resulted in the election of a candidate whom many viewed as a compromise rather than a true reflection of the voters’ will.

While the intention behind Ranked-Choice Voting—to create a more nuanced and inclusive electoral process—is commendable, the potential downsides are considerable. The complexity it introduces, the dilution of political discourse, the potential distortion of voter intent, and the significant costs associated with its implementation are hurdles that cannot be easily dismissed. As we contemplate electoral reforms, it is imperative to weigh the unforeseen consequences and practical challenges posed by RCV carefully. A rush to adopt a system that appears progressive on the surface could, in reality, set back the cause of true democratic representation.

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