National Policy
July 12, 2022

Majority over Popularity: Ranked Choice Voting

Written by

Consider the following scenario: nine friends get hungry after hanging out for a while and decide to go get some lunch. They first take a vote to determine where they will dine. After some nomination and debate, the group narrows its search to three options: Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Burger King. The vote is conducted, and the results are as follows: 

  • Chipotle: 4
  • McDonald’s: 3
  • Burger King: 2

From these results, the group could conclude that Chipotle would be the best choice; after all, a plurality of those in the group had Chipotle as their preference. However, there is an obvious problem with this scenario: at the end of the day, five members of the group would have elected burgers and only four members of the group wanted Mexican food. As a result, a majority of the group members would have been unhappy with the winner of the vote, creating a divide amongst the friend group. Obviously, when our case study is nine friends, we can feel fairly confident that the divide will not last long. Unfortunately, most American voting systems are all too similar to the example above, and America’s divide has only worsened, largely because of that system. It is time for change, and that change should come in the form of ranked-choice voting. 

The procedure of ranked-choice voting is fairly simple: voters rank all the candidates on a scale from 1-n where n is the number of candidates on the ballot. If any one candidate wins a majority of the votes (>50 percent, as opposed to the mere plurality needed in non-ranked-choice voting), that candidate wins the election. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes, the voters who voted for the candidate with the least number of votes get their second-choice votes added to the existing counts. The process continues until one candidate possesses a majority of the votes. 

Ranked-choice voting would widen the field, providing more options for voters to choose from. Oftentimes, particularly in partisan presidential primaries, certain individuals may feel pressured not to run, as their candidacy would take some votes away from seemingly favored candidates with similar ideologies. Even if those smaller candidates decide to get on the ballot, voters are often compelled to cast their vote for the “establishment” candidate or the candidate favored to win, citing the rationale that their vote would otherwise be “wasted,” as Andrew Yang, one of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls and founder of Humanity Forward, notes.  

Yang of all people knows this well. In the recent Democratic primary, he and Joe Biden both marketed themselves as more moderate compared to many of the other 27 candidates. Of the two, Yang was seen as a visionary while Biden was seen as a mere placeholder. While the visionary may have been more appealing to many voters, a large number of those voters likely voted for Biden because they thought that Yang did not have a shot. Ranked-choice voting would allow that population to cast their first choice vote for Yang with the full confidence that if Yang did not do well, their vote would go to someone else who they would be willing to back. This type of voting, which allows genuine choices to be reflected in outcomes, is favorable to lesser known candidates like Yang and would make politics more accessible. 

Additionally, ranked-choice voting would increase political transparency. When a candidate is forced to cater not only to diehard supporters but also to like-minded voters who might prefer a different candidate, that candidate is subjected to more scrutiny than in normal voting. The math is simple: it is more difficult to convince a majority rather than a plurality of anything. 

Consider one example. Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential primary by a significant margin (1,542 delegates, where 1,237 were needed to win). A poll where registered Republicans were asked to rank their choices provides insight into potential primary results had ranked-choice voting been implemented. Trump received 34.79 percent of first-choice votes, consistent with his primary victory. But, a mere 10 percent of participants listed him as their second choice, and 22.31 percent of participants made him their last (11th) choice. If the results of that poll were used for the primary election with ranked-choice voting implemented, Ted Cruz would have beaten Trump 50.68 percent to 49.32 percent. Obviously, the primary process is not this simple, as states hold their own elections to send delegates to the convention, but the poll is illustrative nonetheless. 

Trump ran a campaign that was heavily focused on riling up those who already supported him while neglecting members of his party who were not fully convinced. Cruz, by contrast, did an effective job of getting most of his party on board with him, even if he was not everyone’s first choice. Our current system rewards the candidates who are not able to establish relatively uniform positive support—those who are either adored in a cult-like fashion or hated. Our system should instead promote people who care about satisfying the concerns of the greatest possible number of citizens, right? Our system should favor those candidates who run transparent, well thought out campaigns, right? Ranked-choice voting would accomplish these important goals.  

Although the examples provided have fallen on the national scale, ranked-choice voting can and should be implemented for smaller elections as well. In addition to widening the field for more candidates and incentivizing candidates to run more ethical campaigns—both of which are also applicable on a smaller scale—ranked-choice voting would streamline local elections. Instead of holding two elections—one to narrow the field and one to choose the winner—one ranked-choice election would serve both purposes. This would save money and contribute to higher voter turnout since more citizens are likely to show up if there is only one election as opposed to two. 

Let’s return to the nine friends deciding where to dine. If they were smart, they would conduct a ranked-choice vote. Since none of the restaurants received a majority of the votes, the restaurant that got the least number of votes, Burger King, would be eliminated. As a result, those who voted for Burger King would have their second choice counted. It seems safe to assume that Burger King voters would prefer McDonald’s over Chipotle, so McDonald’s would win the vote 5-4. The group would go to McDonald’s, happy with their decision to do a ranked-choice vote and wishing that America would have the same willingness to consider ranked-choice voting as well.