“With a traditional ballot, all the votes are added up, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate did not win a majority of votes. This system is sometimes called ‘plurality voting,’” my colleague Harry Stevens explained. “With the ranked-choice ballot, if none of the candidates receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and her votes are distributed to her voters’ second-choice candidates. The process repeats until one of the candidates collects more than half the votes.”
As a result, New Yorkers may have to wait till next month to know the result of the heated Democratic primary for mayor, which will almost certainly decide who wins the overall election in November. But advocates of ranked-choice voting, including Democratic mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, believe this method yields fairer and more representative democratic outcomes.
It’s an argument that has significant backing from a growing cohort of political scientists, who see the adoption of ranked-choice voting, or RCV, in general elections as a means to moderate U.S. politics while also diversifying its field of participants. It’s also appealing because it is practical: States and municipalities can implement RCV without constitutional reform or federal legislation. “Political polarization is one of the greatest threats to our system today, and replacing our current plurality voting with RCV will facilitate the emergence of third parties by eliminating wasted votes or strategic voting,” political theorist Francis Fukuyama told Politico in 2019.
For the same story, Larry Diamond, Fukuyama’s Stanford University colleague, argued that RCV would soften the “ideologically militant” outcomes one sees in low-turnout primaries for congressional races. “Switching to ranked-choice voting would enable general election voters to give their first-place votes to independents and moderates who promise to defy this polarizing logic,” he said.
In doing so, the United States would be following the lead of a number of other Western democracies. New Zealand, Ireland and Australia already stage elections using forms of RCV. A system of “preferential voting” has been in place for Australia’s federal elections for more than a century, and remains relatively popular. New Zealand scrapped its “first-past-the-post” model for parliamentary elections in the mid-1990s and replaced with it a version of proportional representation voting akin to what exists in Germany. It also has staged a number of referendums using the ranked-choice model.
Even though Britain and Canada employ the winner-takes-all model in their parliamentary elections, political parties in those countries use RCV in internal party elections. Such votes ensure that leading candidates or party leaders get selected by genuine majorities, not mere pluralities. That distinction is all the more important in the American context, where the Republican Party has been pushing voting legislation at the state level that could restrict the franchise in certain states, while stymieing broader electoral reform in the Senate that would, among other things, minimize partisan gerrymandering.
“Republicans generally dislike [RCV],” wrote Vox’s Andrew Prokop, “due to either instinctive conservatism or a belief that general election vote splits generally tended to help them.” Yet the Virginia GOP deployed ranked-choice voting in its convention this year when selecting its gubernatorial candidate. Figures in the Democratic establishment, meanwhile, have also in certain instances opposed ranked-choice voting, possibly out of fear that it would strengthen their challengers further to the left.
In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) vetoed a state bill that would have enabled more municipalities and other jurisdictions to switch their elections to RCV. At the time, he argued what other opponents of the legislation contend: that the thicket of options on ballots was too complicated for many voters and would depress turnout in elections.
“College-educated progressives may appreciate the chance to list more choices,” noted the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board last year. “But for voters who favor one candidate but don’t spend as much time gaming out political possibilities, it is a burden they would rather avoid.”
Proponents of major political reform counter that it is a burden that can no longer be avoided. Political scientist Lee Drutman, who advocates implementing proportional representation voting that could lead to a multiparty system in the United States, has long argued that the country’s two-party “doom loop” is steering it down a uniquely illiberal — and dangerous — path.
“The major parties on the right in Canada and Australia have not become as illiberal as their American counterpart,” Drutman wrote last week. “Canadian politics scholars would point out that in Canada, regional identities are often stronger than national partisan identities, and this regionalism has kept Canadian politics more moderate. And Australian scholars would point out that ranked-choice voting has exerted a moderating force on Australian politics.”
In the United States, no such moderation seems possible, as one wing of the country’s political divide has effectively bought into an anti-democratic, false narrative about last year’s presidential election. “While it is both easy and appropriate to criticize Trump and fellow Republicans for their anti-democratic descent in service of the ‘Big Lie,’ it takes more work to appreciate how the structure of the party system itself laid the groundwork for the former president’s politics of loathing and fear,” Drutman continued. “A politics defined by hatred of political opponents is a politics ripe for hateful illiberalism.”