Ranked Choice Voting

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Podcast Transcript

All around the world, more jurisdictions are implementing a voting system known as ranked choice voting. 

Ranked choice voting is very different from voting for a single candidate. 

As such, many people who have been voting for years don’t understand how ranked choice voting works or why it is being implemented. 

Learn more about ranked choice voting, how it works, and its drawbacks and benefits on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into the details of ranked choice voting, I first have to back up to explain a major problem with all systems of voting. 

It is impossible to implement a voting system that always reflects the general will of the electorate.

This isn’t an opinion, it is actually a mathematical proof. In fact, the man who came up with the proof, Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University, was awarded the 1972 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on voting systems.

Without getting into the mathematics, the implication is that the voting system you use can result in different outcomes, even if the preferences of the electorate don’t change. 

To understand why this is the case, it is easiest to understand it by providing some hypotheticals. 

For starters, voting is not transitive. In mathematics, if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C.

However, voting doesn’t work that way. If candidate A is preferred to candidate B, and candidate B is preferred to candidate C, it is not necessarily the case that A is preferred over C.  The situation could be something more akin to rock/paper/scissors.

If you have an election with just two options, then there isn’t a problem. Everyone votes for one option or the other, and whatever gets the majority of votes will win. 

Problems come into play when you have more than two options. 

Let’s suppose you have an electorate that is generally split 60-40. However, the 60% in the majority split their support between two different candidates. 

If you have a first past the post election where whoever gets the most votes wins, The two candidates that represent the majority would split the vote and get 30% of the vote each. The person who represents the minority but doesn’t have someone from their side splitting the vote, will get 40% of the ballot. 

In such a situation, the person with 40% of the vote would win, even though the majority of the votes don’t want that person to win. 

The more options you have on the ballot, the worse the situation gets. 

While Kenneth Arrow formally stated the problem and gave it a mathematical underpinning, he was hardly the first person to realize there was a problem with voting systems. 

There has been a series of attempts at voting reforms going back centuries to try to find something better than first past the post, winner take all systems.

There were early experiments with voting systems in the 13th century in Catalonia. This system was a series of two-way elections between candidates, not a ranked choice voting system.

In 15th century Germany, there were experiments with a system known as the Borda Count. The Borda Count was discovered multiple times in multiple places, and it is basically a system where you award points to various candidates.

It gets its name from Jean-Charles de Borda, a French mathematician who published his system in 1781.

In the Borda Count system, if you had four candidates, you could award 3 points to one candidate, 2 to another candidate, and 1 to still another.  Zero points would be awarded to the 4th candidate, and any candidate who didn’t receive a vote would also get zero.

Another system known as Single Transferable Vote was designed in Denmark in the 19th century.  

An American Unitarian Minister named Robert Ware developed a variant of Single Transferable Vote called Instant Runoff Voting. 

The first place to actually implement any sort of ranked choice voting was Tasmania, Australia, in 1890, and it was implemented in other parts of Australia in the early 20th century. 

This system spread to a few cities in Ireland and South Africa in the 1920s and then to some cities in Canada and the United States afterward.

There has been a resurgence in ranked voting in the last several years. There have been various jurisdictions that have adopted rank choice voting as their way of resolving elections.

This includes states, municipalities, and even associations. 

So what exactly is ranked choice voting? 

Ranked choice voting is where you rank all the candidates presented to you instead of just voting for the one person you want to win. 

Let’s take a simple hypothetical election with three candidates: A, B, and C.

In such an election, there are six possible preferences. 







When the ballots are tallied the first thing which is looked at the number of ballots on which a candidate was ranked number one.

The election is over if one candidate receives more than 50% of the top ranks. 

However, if no candidate is ranked first on 50% of the ballots, you then move to the next round. 

In round two, the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences is eliminated. On any ballot they were ranked number one, the top rank is now transferred to whoever was ranked number two. 

In this example, there would only now be two candidates left in round two, and one of the two would have to have a majority now.

If there are more candidates than three, you just iterate this process over and over until there is just one candidate that has the majority of top ranks. 

So, what is the point of this system of voting? 

For starters, it works much better in a system where many candidates are running in a single election. For example, you might have over a dozen candidates in a primary.  The top vote-getter might only be listed number one on 30% of the ballots or less. 

When you have so many candidates, it is a way for people to still have their preferences count, even if their number one candidate doesn’t win.

The second benefit is that it has a tendency to reduce extremism. You aren’t just ranking who you like, but also ranking low the candidates you don’t like. 

It is entirely possible under this system of voting that someone could win who wasn’t the first choice of very many people, but also wasn’t ranked last by very many people. The winner of an election could be the person who just acceptable to the largest number of people.

The other major benefit is that it opens up elections to third-party candidates. 

In a two-party system like in the United States, many people are reluctant to vote for a third party because their odds of winning are low. However, your vote isn’t all or nothing in a ranked choice system. You could still vote for a major party candidate first but then vote for a third party candidate second.  

As I just mentioned, if someone just is acceptable to most people, that might be enough to win.

So what is the downside to this system? 

For starters, it is more confusing and complicated than regular first-past-the-post voting. First-past-the-post is very simple. You vote for one person, and the person who gets the most votes wins.  Yes, it doesn’t reflect the wide range of preferences in a multi-candidate race, but it is simple to understand.

The other downside is that you can’t necessarily get election results as quickly. If all you are doing is counting ballots, it doesn’t take much time to declare a winner.

With ranked choice voting, running all the iterations could take a day or two. Moreover, it pretty much has to be done with a computer as doing it by hand would be even more time-consuming.

The other big downside is the potential violation of keeping votes secret. 

The number of potential ways to rank candidates is finite and gets larger the more candidates that run. In the 2021 New York Mayoral Primary, there were 14 candidates on the ballot. 

That means there were over 87 billion different ways to rank the candidates. That number is much higher than the number of people who cast ballots. 

That means there will probably be a lot of ballots with a unique ranking, and it could be theoretically possible to tie an individual ballot to the person who cast it.

As of right now, rank choice balloting is still only used in a handful of locations. It is used in Australia, Ireland, Slovenia, Nauru, Malta, and some parts of the United Kingdom

In the United States, it has been fully adopted only in two states: Maine and Alaska

Other than that, it has mostly been adopted at the city level in cities like New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as a handful of smaller towns.

Both supporters and detractors of ranked choice voting have come from both sides of the political aisle.  Australians seem to like using it, and they have been using it for decades. 

It isn’t known how widespread ranked choice voting will become. Many jurisdictions are still experimenting with it, and many places which have tried it have abandoned it.

If you should encounter ranked choice voting, hopefully, now you’ll have a better understanding of what it is and how it works.