In the election of November 2018, the State of Maine used a different voting system than the traditional American voting system. The system was called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), and as this was the first election that I was able to participate in, I wanted to understand why change the system; why use this different voting style? Because it was my first time voting, I wanted to ask a more experienced voter about their opinion of RCV. So I asked my grandmother, Jane Jones, who has been a town manager for several years in several towns. I thought that her experience in governmental positions, as well as her knowledge of elections, would give her a unique perspective on the recent election. “Well, it does not make sense to me. Why create more confusion during the elections than there needs to be? Why change the voting style to be different from the national voting system and the one that we have been using for such a long time?” said Jones. I found my thoughts echoing the same questions. So, after some research, I have found that Ranked Choice Voting is really not worth the aggravation of implementation.
What is ranked choice voting, anyway? Well, one pro-RCV website describes it as “a fair representation voting system where voters maximize the effectiveness of their vote by ranking candidates in single- and multi-seat districts” (“Ranked”). This basically means that the voter would choose their favorite candidate, then put them as being the number one choice, and so on until all the candidates are ranked from favorite to least favorite.
Now, this may seem like a good idea, but what are the real benefits of RCV that make it better than the system that we use in the national elections in America? The primary goal of the RCV system is to make sure that a candidate can only win with a majority vote. This would be nice, but this does not always work out. The problem with the Ranked Choice Voting is something called ballot exhaustion (Waxman). This means that if enough of the voters do not rank all the candidates, or they do not give any votes to the lower candidates, then they could fail to get a candidate who ends up the majority vote (Keller). That essentially defeats the purpose of the Ranked Choice Voting. Another issue with the RCV system is that it requires the voters and ballot counters to educate themselves about this voting style (Keller). This creates an issue where people could be misinformed about the system or the voters may have a bad experience with the voting style and not exercise their right to have a say in an election (Keller). The Ranked Choice System creates another significant issue: both the ballots and the counting of the ballots are more expensive than the majority/winner-take-all system that is already used in the U.S. (Keller). The ballots are more expensive to print (Keller). The counting process of these ballots is also expensive; either a specific computer system has to be used, or the ballots have to be counted by hand (Keller). This counting is labor intensive and there is always a possibility of human error when counting the ballots by hand. Counting the ballots by hand also creates the issue of time. Hand-counting ballots would take a great deal longer to do than the computer system. This creates a bit of a dilemma: is the very expensive computer system worth the money, or should the ballots be counted by hand and there be a risk of errors in the counting. Either option is not great.
The supports of RCV claim that RCV has many benefits. For one thing, Ranked Choice Voting is supposed to promote more positive, fair elections (“Ranked”). This means that there would be fewer of the annoying political commercials that seem to plague everything that we watch or listen to during the months leading up to an election. This is because the negative campaigns could actually hurt the candidate who is running the negative campaign by causing them to lose second-choice votes, causing the candidate to possibly lose the election (Keller). The issue is that this claim is not true. Australia uses the ranked-choice voting system, and there are still several negative political campaigns during the elections, so it does not seem to reduce the negativity in the elections (Waxman).
Many supporters of the Ranked Choice system argue that RCV allows the voters to have more options for their votes (Keller). Basically, they think that the voters can vote for the candidate that they feel is best without worrying about the spoiler effect (Keller). For those who do not know what the spoiler effect is, it is when a non-winning candidate’s presence on the ballot affects which candidate wins the election (“The Spoiler”). This basically means that the candidate who wins the election does not hold the majority vote, because the combination of the two other candidates is over 50% of the votes. For example, in Maine’s 2014 governor’s election, there was an Independent candidate on the ballot. This candidate drew 8% of the popular vote. Because the race between the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate was so close, it caused the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate to not gain over 50% of the votes or the majority vote (Conti).
Yes, the spoiler effect can happen with the voting system used in America. Yes, the candidate who wins does not technically hold the majority of the votes, but they do have a plurality. The thing is, RCV can also produce a spoiler effect (“The Spoiler”). Let’s say that there is an election with three candidates on the ballot: a bad candidate, a good candidate, and an ideal candidate. Normally with RCV, the ideal candidate would not get many votes, so would then be added to the good candidate because most of the ideal candidate’s supports would rank the good candidate as their second choice. This would mean that the good candidate would win. But, what happens when the ideal candidate actually does better than the good candidate? Because some of the voters for the good candidate could rank the bad candidate as their second choice, the bad candidate could actually win the election (“The Spoiler”). It turns out that RCV does not have the spoiler effect only when your first choice is a very strong candidate or has no chance at all in the election (“The Spoiler”). If they are anywhere in between those two values, there is a chance for the spoiler effect to happen. A similar situation to this happened during the election for mayor in Burlington, Vermont in 2009 (“The Spoiler”).
Why is this such a problem if it happens less often than the system we use for national elections? It’s not the fact that it happens that is bad, it’s the claim that it does not happen at all in Ranked Choice Voting. All the pro-RCV sources that I have read have all made the claim that RCV eliminates the spoiler effect, yet there has actually been a documented case of the spoiler effect happing with RCV. So I ask the question: Would you rather have an election that you know can have the spoiler effect happen, or would you rather be promised that a different voting system eliminates the spoiler effect and it actually can happen? Do you want to be misinformed of an already complicated voting system?
Proponents of Ranked Choice Voting also make the argument that it promotes majority leading (“Ranked”). These proponents of the RCV system say that it promotes majority support, it can also sometimes cause minority support. This is the result of ballot exhaustion (Waxman). If more and more of votes are exhausted, then the “winner” of the election can actually be the minority because they actually have less than 50% of the votes. While I have argued that this is okay for the federal voting system, it is not okay for RCV. Ranked Choice voting supports the claim that it fixes the minority leader and “promotes” majority, but this is not always true. Claiming that RCV stops minority leading is not true. Would you rather have a system that you know can sometimes produce a minority leader or a system that bends the truth about “fixing” the problem of majority leading?
The final large argument that is made in support of Ranked Choice Voting is that it saves money because there is no need to run primary elections. As for the money that could be saved because primary elections are not needed, well, counting the ballots for RCV is more expensive to do than the counting method of the voting system the United States already has in place.
How does Ranked Choice Voting actually help? It seems to me that all the promised benefits of RCV are not that significant. The problems that are pointed out with the system of voting that is implemented within the United States seem to have an easy fix or explanation of how it addresses certain issues that are brought up. When I finished talking to my grandmother she stated something that I thought summed up everything pretty thoroughly. “Why change something that has been working for us for so long? Most people have a hard time handling change, especially older generations, so why go creating issues where there are none?”
Acquisto, Alex. “How Maine Is Handling Its First General Election with Ranked-choice Voting.”
Bangor Daily News, 6 Nov. 2018. EBSCOhost.web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=c999015e-558b-43b2-8bae-139257fde6b3%40sessionmgr4009&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=2W61212366827&db=nfh. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018
Conti, Ashley L. “The 2014 Election’s Winners and Losers Beyond the Ballot.” Bangor Daily
News, 6 Nov. 2014. www.bangordailynews.com. Accessed 23, Nov.2018
Jones, Jane. Personal Interview. 22 Nov. 2018.
Keller, Betty. “Pros and Cons of Instant Runoff (Ranked Choice) Voting.” League of Women Voter
of Vermont, League of Women Voters of Vermont, www.my.lwv.org. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
“Ranked Choice Voting.” FairVote, www.fairvote.org/ranked_choice_voting_pr. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
“The Spoiler Effect.” The Center for Election Science, www.electology.org. Accessed 23 Nov.
Waxman, Simon. “Ranked-Choice Voting is Not the Solution.” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas,
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, 3 Nov. 2016, www.democracyjournal.org. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.