By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
Among the three voting systems used to elect representatives to public office, plurality voting and the runoff system are the ones that are more widely used. However, the third electoral system, the ranked choice, also known as the instant runoff, though hardly used at all, is the system that some people believe is the best.
How Ranked Choice Works
The voting system of ranked choice, also called the alternative vote or a transferrable vote, gives voters the chance to vote sincerely, but without the cost of potentially wasting their vote.
With ranked choice voting, voters are given the opportunity to rank all of the candidates on the ballot. One either writes their names down in order of preference, or one numbers them: first choice, second choice, and so on.
The ballots are then effectively laid out in different piles, based on the top choice on each ballot. We put all the John votes here, all the Paul votes here, George votes here, and Ringo, and so on. And then we look at the candidate who got the fewest first-preference votes—the smallest pile.
Let’s say it’s Ringo. Ringo comes in last place.
But now, instead of just throwing the Ringo ballots away, we look to see who the Ringo voters put as their second choice, and we redistribute the Ringo ballots accordingly.
And so, if somebody had Ringo as a first choice but George as a second, we now put that Ringo ballot in George’s pile. If they had Paul as their second choice, we put it in Paul’s pile. And so on. (The second choices are essentially the candidates who those voters would have voted for if Ringo wasn’t in the race in the first place.)
And then we re-count the piles, and we see if there’s a majority.
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If there isn’t a majority, we repeat the process: We look at the smallest of the remaining three piles—let’s say it’s George—and we look at who those voters put as their next choice, and we redistribute the ballots again.
Eventually, we’ll make our way through the list, eliminating one candidate at a time, until just a single person has a majority. And that candidate is declared the winner.
If one thinks about it, this is the same thing that would have happened if we held sequential runoffs, eliminating the lowest candidate after each round. Only this approach allows us to do it all at one go—instantly, so to speak—and not have the voters return to the polls multiple times. And with computers, the process of counting up the votes really is instant. The ballots can be tallied up and counted pretty much as soon as they come in.
Problems with Instant Runoff System
The instant runoff does have some problems, beginning with the fact that it’s complicated to explain. That’s precisely why so few places use it: Ireland, Australia, the US state of Maine.
It’s worth saying that these are all stable democracies with educated populations. We probably wouldn’t want to use this system in a developing democracy, where there might be a lot of mistrust of the democratic system.
But in a way, that’s too bad, because the system has some real advantages, too. And people are starting to give ranked choice voting a second look. And that’s because, in addition to doing away with the spoiler effect, ranked choice voting also has a tendency to produce moderate candidates, and to punish divisive ones.
Advantages of Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked choice system does away with the spoiler effect because our candidates are ranked. We rank our choices exactly as our conscience dictates—sincerely. And then, even if our first choice was for someone who loses, we know that our ballot will be transferred to our next-best choice among the remaining candidates. With ranked choice voting, our vote essentially never gets thrown away.
But the real advantage of ranked choice voting is that it encourages moderation and compromise. With ranked choice voting, candidates know that if they’re not a particular voter’s first choice, they might still benefit by being that person’s second or third choice. And so, it’s not unusual for candidates in ranked choice elections to compete by trying to be conciliatory—trying to seek out compromise and points of agreement, even with other candidates.
If one can benefit by being somebody’s second choice, the last thing they want to do is be divisive. That might excite their base, but it’ll have a tendency to put off everyone else and basically ensure that voters are going to rank them last.
Changing Voting Systems
So, if ranked choice voting has so many advantages, why don’t more places use it?
Well, that’s the funny thing about electoral reform. Generally speaking, established politicians are reluctant to change the way that elections are held. And it’s easy to see why: Politicians in elected office are in elected office because they won an election using the electoral system that’s already in place! In other words, the current system has proven its value to the politicians who are already in power. And so, while voters might see the benefits of changing electoral systems, successful politicians—on both the right and the left—tend to like things as they are.
This is particularly true when a political system consists of two dominant political parties. Even if they disagree on everything else, the dominant political parties probably agree that they don’t want spoiler candidates entering the fray.
So, that’s why alternative voting systems are unlikely to gain much traction. Voting systems do change, but change is slow and rare.
Common Questions about Ranked Choice
In ranked choice voting, voters are given the opportunity to rank all of the candidates on the ballot. One either writes their names down in order of preference, or one numbers them: first choice, second choice, and so on.
A real advantage of ranked choice voting is that it encourages moderation and compromise. With ranked choice voting, candidates know that if they’re not a particular voter’s first choice, they might still benefit by being that person’s second or third choice. And so, it’s not unusual for candidates in ranked choice elections to compete by trying to be conciliatory—trying to seek out compromise and points of agreement, even with other candidates.
Ranked choice voting system is used in Ireland, Australia, and the US state of Maine.