"Ranked Choice" Voting - A Serious Look. And You'd Better Look Closely.

It Has Benefits, But It's Complicated; OK for Primaries, But Not General Elections.

Having just returned to the Commonwealth of Virginia, I was surprised to find out that the candidates facing off in our May 8th Republican “Drive-By” Convention (Virginia and New Jersey have odd-year state elections) for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general will be chosen via “Ranked Choice Voting” or “Instant Runoff Voting.”

Those who follow or participate in Maine and/or Alaska politics or local elections in dozens of other states are familiar with this fast-growing electoral method. It works like this: Your ballot gives you the option of “ranking” your choices, 1st through how many other candidates are on the ballot, perhaps up to four. Rules vary, but in Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial ballot, I will have 7 candidates to pick from. Still, the attention has focused on four: St. Sen. Amanda Chase, former House Speaker Kirk Cox, and businessmen Pete Snyder and Glenn Younkin (disclosure: I’m for Youngkin).

When I get my ballot, I will be afforded the option to rank my choices. My first choice will be Glenn Youngkin. I may choose Kirk Cox as my second choice. I may then list “this is Pete Snyder; when you know who I am, you call me back” (who apparently needs Democratic US Senator Mark Warner’s approval before making financial contributions to some GOP nominees) as the third choice. No way I’ll cast anything looking like a vote for the unelectable Amanda Chase. Virginians may be finally learning, after two horrific consecutive governors, that general elections have consequences.

I am inclined to appreciate ranked-choice voting, at least in this instance. If the nomination was “first past the post” - he or she who has the most votes wins, no matter the winning percentage - there is an excellent chance Chase would be the nominee. It’s happened in Virginia as recently as 2018 when the controversial Corey Stewart was chosen as the GOP nominee for US Senate. His campaign crashed in flames and proved to be a drag on the rest of the ticket (in fairness, it was a bad year for Republicans everywhere). And the format - a convention versus a real primary election - always brings out the noisiest, most active, and fringy-ist voters.

Just ask Denver Riggleman, the one-term Republican congressman from the sprawling Fifth District, elected in 2018. A jovial distiller and libertarian-leaning, the pro-business conservative from near Charlottesville was unseated in a Drive-By convention in the Lynchburg hometown of his opponent, Bob Good (also home of the late Rev. Jerry Falwall’s Liberty University) by his more culturally conservative primary challenger. Make that, freshman Congressman Bob Good. It seems many GOP convention voters there in 2020 were not impressed by Rep. Riggleman, who likely would have won a primary election, officiating a gay wedding.

Riggleman is now weighing revenge by possibly running for Governor as an Independent. He would come nowhere close to victory, but it would probably siphon enough votes to ensure the return of the smarmy, New York-born, Clinton bagman, and progressive Democrat, ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It would also destroy Riggleman’s future in politics and likely do harm to his business. He may not care. McAuliffe’s term (governors here may not run for a consecutive term) is best remembered for granting more than 200,000 felons voting rights in plenty of time to help his then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeat my friend, Ed Gillespie, in the 2017 governor’s race. It is hard to think of any other “accomplishments.” Northam has proven a worse governor than McAuliffe, bringing us recreational marijuana legalization and all manner of meaningless gun control laws. I could go on.

While an election primary remains the best way for parties to nominate the most electable candidates (Democrats figured that out a long time ago), the GOP’s noisy fringe has powered their way to keep inaccessible conventions as their primary nominating tool. That’s where they get their power. How has that worked out for the party and the state? (FWIW, I think “Coonman” Northam is the person in the pointy hat.)

But this time, with ranked-choice voting, whoever wins has to capture a lot of first, second, and maybe third-place choices. Chase may win the most votes on the first count, but won’t likely win 50%. The last-place candidates then fall out, becoming a process of elimination. The “dropped off” candidates will see their “first place” ballots counted again for their second choice on the second round, and so on. This is where either Younkin, Cox, or Snyder may eclipse Chase (whose voters may not have an acceptable second choice), and we begin to get down to a final one-on-one ballot. If Virginia Republicans are smart, Glenn Youngkin will be the nominee.

Chase’s second ballot voters will have a say, and Snyder, the 2016 state Trump campaign chair, could be best positioned to win her voters’ second choice. The attacks between the candidates are very muted right now - they may want to attract “second favorite” status among their opponent’s voters. Backroom deals will likely be made.

That’s the kind of politics that likely drove the Conservative Party of Canada’s ranked-choice convention to pick their new leader last year. First-place finisher Peter MacKay, a former defense and foreign affairs minister in previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, was seen as to the left of his three more conservative challengers. MacKay captured 43% in the first ballot, leading the field. But the handwriting was on the wall. Member of Parliament Erin O’Toole eventually coalesced the votes of his two major right-leaning competitors to earn the job on the third ballot. MacKay’s strategy of capturing 50%+1 on the first ballot clearly failed. And he likely knew it was the end of his campaign.

Here’s the thing: Alaska and Maine don’t just have ranked-choice voting to help parties elect candidates. They use it in the general election. Most notably, ranked-choice voting was how Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) was unseated in 2018 by Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME). Even though Poliquin won the most votes on election day, he didn’t capture 50%. When the “second choice” votes of the two losing and very fringe independents were counted, Golden narrowly won. Let’s consult, advisedly, the notoriously unreliable and leftist Wikipedia:

“In the 2018 United States House of Representatives elections in Maine, though Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin led by 2,171 votes in the first round of vote tabulation in the 2nd Congressional District, he did not have a majority of the votes, initiating the ranked-choice tabulation process. Poliquin filed a lawsuit in federal court on November 13, seeking an order to halt the second-round tabulation of ballots and declare ranked-choice voting unconstitutional, but his request for an injunction to halt the counting was denied.[28][29] On November 15, the Maine Secretary of State announced Democratic candidate Jared Golden as the winner by 3,509 votes, after votes for independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar were eliminated and ballots with these votes had their second- or third-choice votes counted.[30]

“Poliquin requested a recount of the ballots just before the deadline of November 26.[31] On December 14, with almost half of the votes recounted and with the result not being significantly changed, Poliquin ended the recount after incurring $15,000 in fees.[32][33]

“Poliquin also continued his lawsuit[34] and asked the judge, Lance Walker, to order a new election be held should he decline to hold ranked-choice voting unconstitutional.[35] Judge Walker ruled against Poliquin on December 13, rejecting all of his arguments.[36] Poliquin appealed to the Court of Appeals in Boston and requested an order to prevent Golden from being certified as the winner, but that request was also rejected.[33] On December 24, Poliquin dropped his lawsuit, allowing Golden to take the seat.[37][38][39][40]

“As a result, Poliquin became the first incumbent to lose the 2nd Congressional District since 1916, whereas Golden became the first member of Congress to be elected via ranked-choice voting (along with 1st district Representative Chellie Pingree and Senator Angus King, who won with majorities that did not require subsequent rounds of counting).”

There are good arguments against ranked-choice voting. They come from both conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Alaska Policy Forum. Alaska’s perspective is helpful because they used RCV in 2020, across the board. Pay careful attention to some of their analysis (emphasis added):

“When individuals leave columns blank on their ballots, and the candidate(s) they vote for are eliminated from contention, their ballots are not counted in the final tabulation. Therefore, if these voters only choose one candidate on their ballots, they are more likely to become exhausted, thereby giving those who fully complete their ballots more influence over the electoral process. In other words, African Americans, Latinos, voters with less education, and those whose first language is not English are more likely to be disenfranchised with a ranked-choice voting system.

“Further, in his analysis of San Francisco elections between 1995 and 2001, Jason McDaniel, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, found that ranked-choice voting is likely to decrease voter turnout, primarily among African Americans and white voters.[15] McDaniel also found that ranked-choice voting increases the disparity between “those who are already likely to vote and those who are not, including younger voters and those with lower levels of education.”[16] In short, the complexity of a ranked-choice ballot makes it less likely that disadvantaged voices will be fully heard in the political and electoral process.[17]

Well. I can’t wait for all these virtue-signaling CEOs, celebrities, and academic blowhards to weigh in.

Yet, guess who is most actively promoting ranked-choice voting? You guessed it, Democratic-leaning election “reformers.” From City Journal (again, emphasis added):

“Calling it the “master reform,” proponents argue that RCV can boost voter turnout, reduce the power of money in elections, improve campaigns’ substance, eliminate extremists, and encourage new political parties.”

“But scholarly evidence that RCV increases turnout is thin. FairVote, an advocacy organization that promotes preferential voting, analyzed turnout in six jurisdictions in California, Minnesota, and New Mexico, finding an increase after the implementation of RCV. However, a scholarly study of San Francisco found that RCV diminished turnout among black and white voters, while another study found that turnout remains mostly the same under RCV.

“And even if it bolsters turnout, RCV invites the problem of “ballot exhaustion,” which occurs when too many voters rank too few candidates such that their vote is not counted in the final runoff. Consider an election where five candidates are running but a voter ranks only three, all of whom get eliminated before the final tally. Since none of his votes will have gone to either the winner or the runner-up, his ballot is effectively discarded. A study of San Francisco’s 2011 mayoral contest found that 27 percent of first-round ballots were exhausted before the last round, meaning that those voters’ ballots had zero impact on the final vote distribution that decided the election. That so many votes were not part of the final tally does not bode well for such a system inspiring confidence in election outcomes. It also undercuts the reformers’ argument that, unlike plurality systems, RCV yields winners with clear majorities behind them.”

The Heritage Foundation is even tougher, in an analysis authored by former Federal Election Commissioner Hans von Spakovski and J. Christian Adams, President of the estimable Public Interest Legal Foundation.

“Ranked-choice destroys clarity of political debate and forces voters to cast ballots in hypothetical future runoff elections. When we have Republicans versus Democrats versus Greens and Libertarians, we know who is running against whom and what the actual distinctions are between the candidates on issues. Second- or third-choice votes should not matter in America; they do not provide the mandate that ensures that the representatives in a republic have the confidence and support of a majority of the public in the legitimacy of their decisions.

“Not only is ranked-choice voting too complicated, it disenfranchises voters because ballots that do not include the two ultimate finalists are cast aside to manufacture a faux majority for the winner. But it is only a majority of the voters remaining in the final round, not a majority of all of the voters who actually cast votes in the elections.”

Ranked-choice may be a great option for parties to consider during open, competitive primaries, but for a general election, when real votes are counted for real government policy-making positions? No. Between voter confusion, disenfranchisement, and “ballot exhaustion,” among other issues, Maine and Alaska should repeal their RCV voting systems for general elections and jurisdictions everywhere should eliminate them. Let parties decide how they pick their nominees, but when real ballots are cast for real positions of consequence, ranked-choice voting just doesn’t work.