From the edge of reason…and sanity…

Doc on…Ranked Choice Voting

[First in a series of essays on the current political climate in the United States.

Part 3: Doc on…Judicial Branch of government in the U.S.
Part 2: Doc on…the Electoral College

With a very contentious election coming up, I figured now is as good as ever to talk about some of the things that have come up a lot.

In Massachusetts, one ballot measure that is up for decision is Question 2: Ranked Choice Voting. Alaska voting on a similarly measure, and Maine has it already. It’s also used in a number of municipalities like Cambridge for certain elections, and has been used for years elsewhere like Australia. It is even used for voting on the Hugo Awards, the Oscars of science fiction fandom.

Specifically for Massachusetts, the ballot measure would enact a form of “instant runoff” voting (IRV). For elections where there needs to be a single winner, and if the first choice of everyone does not achieve a required majority (>50%) of the votes, rather than having to hold a second “runoff” election between the top two vote receivers, which costs more money, the winner will be decided via one or more “rounds” of voting based on the voters’ ranked choices.

Let’s say you have 4 candidates up for election as Governor. However, it is a very tight three-way race, with only a few percentage points separating the top candidates. In a normal election, you might see results like this:

CandidatePercent Votes
Candidate A32%
Candidate B30%
Candidate C24%
Candidate D14%

Although Candidate A has a plurality (the most) votes, she does not have the required 50%+1 votes required to win. Currently, that requires a second election, usually between the top two, and people have to vote all over again and decide between those two candidates.

With IRV, rather than just vote for one candidate, voters would rank the available candidates in order of choice. In most cases, you can also not vote for some candidates (not give them a rank.) And in some situations like the Hugos, there is even a “No Winner” option – sometimes they don’t give out an award if voters don’t deem any candidate worthy!

Let’s say Candidate D was actually my first choice, followed by B, A and then C. With IRV, when Candidate D had the least number of votes, in the second round everyone who voted for Candidate D first has their votes redistributed to their second choice, so in my case my vote now gets cast for Candidate B. Let’s see how the numbers might change:

CandidatePercent Votes
Candidate A32%
Candidate B42%
Candidate C26%
Candidate D

So Candidate B now has the plurality, but still does not have a majority. So in this case, we go to a third round, and take all the current ballots for Candidate C and distribute them to those voters’ third choice.

This is repeated until one candidate finally receives a majority – or it ends up in a 50-50 tie, which means a second election might still have to happen, but it would be amazingly unlikely…

I’ve been a fan of this system for years…back in the 90s I wrote a web application for conducting polls on the Internet and this was one of the possible systems that could be chosen. There can be some drawbacks that lead to controversies…if you look at our first example, it is possible that Candidate C, who only came in third in the first round, becomes the winner, but this is based on the people preferring that choice over the top two over their first round candidate, etc. That particular problem can be avoided if you limit the additional rounds to the top two candidates from the first round, like you would in a normal runoff election, distributing all the votes for the non-top-two candidates to their highest-ranked choice among the top two. I’m not aware of that being used anywhere, however.

I think this can also be a big win for party candidates outside of the Big Two. Currently in the United States, there is the concept of “thrown away” votes – say you are a liberal voter, but you dislike the Big Liberal Party candidate. You also would never vote for the Big Conservative Party nominee, so you might pick a small-party candidate, say the Way-Left Party. That small-party candidate has very little shot of winning, so the vote won’t count for much. But more importantly, it’s not a vote for the Big Liberal Party candidate that the Big Conservative Party candidate doesn’t have to overcome – so in a way, it’s a vote for the Big Conservative Party candidate. Reverse everything if you are a Conservative voter – it’s all the same. It does at least throw votes to the small party that helps them get more traction in future elections.

When the election is very contentious, those voters might perceive they have no choice but to pick the Big Party candidate. Moreover, voters who would more likely vote for small party candidates might feel compelled to vote for a Big Party candidate in order to prevent the other Big Party candidate from winning, knowing their first choice has no shot. This robs the small parties from votes, and thus making it difficult to participate in future elections.

With the IRV system, no vote is “thrown away”. More people might actually feel better voting for a small party candidate first, but then the big party candidate second and still count as against the other big party candidate. Small parties get more votes in the first round, which (should – I haven’t found specifically how they handle it) count towards future elections. Then maybe those small parties won’t be so small in the future…and one of them could become a long-shot winner…