Ranked Choice Voting, also called Instant Runoff Voting is an option for eliminating the expense and inconvenience of holding runoff elections when three or more candidates are on the ballot and no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. The biggest drawback of Ranked Choice Voting is that it’s possible for the candidates who received the fewest number of votes in the first round to ultimately win an election. That makes ranked choice the worst choice.
As its name implies, the ranked choice system provides voters with the option of ranking candidates in order of their preference as opposed to only voting for a single candidate. In a race with more than two candidates, voters would rate each candidate in order of preference. When ballots are tallied, if a voter’s first choice winds up with the fewest number of votes, that candidate is eliminated, and the voter’s second choice receives the votes that had been given to their first-choice candidate. The process continues until one candidate receives at least one more vote than 50% of the total vote count and only comes into play if no candidate receives more than 50% of the total vote (50% plus 1) in the initial tally. (Ballotpedia has a detailed explanation of ranked choice voting.)
Throwaway votes? Turning losers into winners
The theoretical benefits of ranked choice voting evaporate in the reality of early and election day voting. Most voters, especially in the current divided and antagonistic environment, have a single preferred candidate, and no legitimate second or third choice. Asking these voters to rank candidates is like asking vegans to rank vegetables, beef, chicken and fish. Vegetables are their only real choice, and they have no interest in any form of meat. Their ranking of beef, chicken and fish would be nothing more than the order of their dislike of each meat.
Other voters don’t understand the ranked choice process, don’t have a second or third choice or can’t be bothered to rank candidates, or care to participate. That being the case, they choose their second, third and fourth choices as randomly as pulling names out of a hat- or make no choice beyond their first. Regardless of the reason, second ranked candidates and beyond may well be the recipients of random choices made with no logical reason. The end result could consequently be elections decided by what are in essence throwaway votes.
A simple example demonstrates the way Ranked Choice Voting turns losers into winners. (The numbers are unrealistically small to simplify the example.) Candidate A receives 17 votes. Candidate B receives 10 votes, Candidate C receives 8 votes and Candidate D receives 7 votes. The total number of votes is 42, so 22 votes are needed to reach 50% plus 1. If the voters who ranked Candidate D as their first choice ranked Candidate C as their second choice, Candidate C would enter the second round of counting with 15 votes, pushing Candidate B to third place with 10 votes.
If the voters who ranked Candidate B as their first choice also ranked Candidate C as their second choice, Candidate C would then have 25 votes and would be declared the winner. Consequently, the candidate who finished third in the general election would be declared the winner.
This example may seem unrealistic because vote redistribution in the second and subsequent rounds would most likely increase the vote count of all remaining candidates. However, if you do the math, and redistribute the votes more evenly, the results could be the same. And when the vote count is in the thousands, there is a good chance that a third of fourth place finisher (in the general election) will be ranked as the winner in the final tally.
Wrong Choice in our imperfect world
Other problems with ranked choice voting include a delay in tabulating results, a consequence of counting and recounting. An example of the delay potential is Georgia’s 2020 special election (jungle primary) for senator. Of the 20 candidates listed on the ballot, only two received more than 25% of the ballots cast and 16 candidates received less than 3% of the vote. If that had been a ranked choice election, it would have taken at least 10 rounds of counting to determine a winner. Each round of counting also opens a new door to increased errors.
There have been many instances in which a recount revealed that the original vote tally was off by10 votes or more. In most cases, 10 votes won’t change the outcome of an election. But in ranked choice voting, a handful of votes can swing hundreds or thousands of votes because the error could shift all the votes given to an eliminated candidate to a candidate who finished second or third in the direct ballot count.
Typically, in a race with three or four candidates, one or two receive a very small percentage of the total vote- just enough to prevent the top vote-getter from reaching the 50% plus 1 threshold. A better alternative to ranked choice is to use a plurality of votes to determine an election’s winner- that is, the candidate who receives the most votes wins. That method is used in a variety of federal and state elections.
Another option, which would preserve the 50% plus1 format, is to eliminate the votes of any candidate who received less than 15% of the total vote and recompute the percentages based on the votes received by the top two candidates. Runoff elections would then be necessary only on the rare occasion when the vote totals for each candidate were nearly evenly split (as would be the case with three candidates each receiving approximately 30% of the total vote.
In a perfect world, ranked choice voting may be the best voting system. But in our imperfect world, ranked choice is the wrong choice.