Advancing Democracy: Ranked-Choice Voting

One of many ways to improve democratic practices is ranked-choice voting, principally because it’s more thorough in capturing voter preferences. Alaska is probably the best laboratory for testing ranked-choice voting, and the November elections showed its value in moderating outcomes.

In ranked-choice voting, voters indicate not only their first preference, but also their second and sometimes other preferences. In races with more than two candidates, if no candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the least first-choice votes is eliminated and their second-choice votes are distributed to the candidates higher on the list. This is done until a candidate receives a majority of the votes.

The use of RCV gained national prominence in the New York Mayor’s race in 2021, in which 13 candidates were on the ballot for the Democratic primary. In this case, voters were asked to rank their top five preferences, and Eric Adams won after many elimination rounds. Adams had also led in the raw count before the ranked-choice process began, with 30.7% of the first-choice votes, compared to his nearest competitor, Maya Wiley, who had 21.6%, but fell to third place in the final count.

The effects of ranked-choice voting are magnified in Alaska, since elections also feature open primaries that result in the top four candidates advancing to the general election. According to Fulcrum, the system resulted in the election of a “conservative Republican for governor (Mike Dunleavy), the more moderate Republican incumbent senator (Lisa Murkowski), and Democratic Rep.-elect Mary Peltola, who defeated Sarah Palin by 10 percentage points and has become the state’s most popular politician.”

RCV can often moderate election results by keeping more extreme candidates from winning. This was demonstrated in November in Alaska’s Senate District E, where the general election featured a Democrat and two Republicans, one of whom touted himself as the only “real” Republican and criticized his opponent, moderate candidate Cathy Geissel, for working with Democrats. In the end, Geissel won the race, thanks to the distribution of second-choice votes from the Democrat. In the previous election for Senate E, occurring under the old voting system, the more conservative candidate had beaten Geissel in the Republican primary and then won in the general election.

A prominent source of support for RCV is FairVote, which says that “as of December 2022, 63 American jurisdictions have RCV in place, reaching approximately 13 million voters. This includes 2 states, 2 counties, and 59 cities.” FairVote criticizes commonly used “’choose-one’ elections,” saying that they “deprive voters of meaningful choices, create increasingly toxic campaign cycles, advance candidates who lack broad support and leave voters feeling like our voices are not heard.”

One institution where moderation through RCV could help is Congress. As Pew Research has pointed out, the House of Representatives has become more polarized, as more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats are elected. Fulcrum points to the appeals made by U.S. Senators and Representatives in Alaska to voters for their second-choice votes, which may have required the candidates to moderate their messages to appeal to a broader cross-section.

Beyond electing candidates that appeal to a broader cross-section, another benefit of RCV, as reflected in FairVote’s statement above, can be less negative campaigning, as candidates who want their opponent’s supporters to select them as their second choice would not want to alienate those voters by criticizing their preferred candidate.

In some cities and towns, mayors are selected by the field of candidates by plurality, while in others they are selected in a runoff election. In the first case, RCV has the advantage of creating a majority for the ultimate winner and resulting in a mayor who has broad support both from voters who like them best and voters who consider them their second choice. For the runoff system, RCV prevents a costly, head-to-head contest in which there is more likely to be negative campaigning.

The good news for democracy is that an increasing number of people are running for local offices. What is sometimes an unfortunate result is that either people win with a smaller plurality or in an expensive and sometimes negative runoff. Ranked-choice voting can address both of these problems, particularly when coupled with other election reforms, like open primaries and processes to make voting more accessible.

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