What Is Ranked Choice Voting and Can It End Negative Campaigning?

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It’s rare when we get our first choice in life. Sometimes, there’s a second or third option that we’d be ok with. But when it comes to voting, we only get a yes/no option.

Ranked choice voting, otherwise known as instant runoff voting, changes all that.

Maine started using it for some of their elections this past election cycle, and more than 20 cities around the nation use it, with New York City being the most recent addition to the list.

How does ranked choice voting work?

Say a friend calls and says they’re going to bring over some ice cream and asks what flavor you want. One might say, “I’d love mint chip, but if they don’t have that, then maybe Rocky Road, and if they don’t have that, plain chocolate.” You might not get your first choice, but you have other flavors you’d be fine with.

So imagine a primary election where there are 4 (or more) candidates running for a seat. In that scenario, it’s extremely unlikely that any one candidate gets over 50% of the vote. And the goal is to have the candidate who gets a majority of the votes win.

So voters get their ballot and what they’ll do is instead of voting for just their favorite candidate, they’ll rank the candidates. The one they like best gets #1, the one they like next best gets #2, and so forth. If there’s a candidate they really dislike, they don’t have to rank them at all. So the ballot might look something like this:

ranked choice.png

Then, when the election is over, the votes get tallied. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes (over 50%) outright, what they do is eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes. Then they look at who the voters who voted for that eliminated candidate and who they chose for their 2nd choice; then those votes are added to the remaining 3 candidates. They repeat this process until one candidate gets over 50% of the vote.

What are the advantages of ranked choice voting?

There’s some early evidence that ranked choice voting may reduce negative campaigning from candidates. Why? Well, with a large field running, candidates can’t just count on their base to give them a plurality. They will need to appeal to a much wider swath of voters to scoop up as many #2 and #3 choices as possible to get to the necessary 50%.

Additionally, ranked choice voting can be cheaper as it eliminates the need to hold runoff elections. The League of Women Voters has a longer list of advantages HERE.

As for me, when I first read about Maine adopting ranked choice voting, I thought it made a lot of sense. I also gravitate towards solutions that are very positive, and instead of thinking about the one and only candidate who will get my vote, I very much like the idea of thinking about all the candidates that I would be willing to have in the role.

Here’s a great (and short) video that explains it quite well:

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Categories: Elections, Explainers

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3 replies

  1. Thank you for explaining this! I’ve been hearing a lot about it in recent days. It’s kind of confusing at first but once you start thinking about it, it makes sense. Here’s a question though….could we do this for a national presidential election? Or, would it have to be a state by state decision?

    Liked by 1 person

    • So far this has been a state by state change. I have read that ranked choice voting has gone through numerous court challenges in various states and always wins. I don’t yet know if it could be enacted for nationwide federal elections. Personally I’d love to go into our presidential primary with ranked choice voting instead of just picking one favorite.

      Liked by 1 person

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