Ranked Choice Voting Is Still Mostly Useless

Duluth has some elections next week, and while I’ve handicapped most of the races at one point or another and don’t have many new things to say about them, I will spend some time on the topic that seems to generate the most debate in the social media world. That topic is…ranked choice voting (RCV). (In past posts I’ve used its other name, IRV, but I’ll use RCV this time since that’s the language on the ballot.) I went into greater depth on its flaws in this past post, and would point anyone interested in learning about RCV in that direction.

First, let’s clear up one misconception particular to the Duluth case: the initiative on the ballot, as currently proposed, will not eliminate those “costly” primary elections in Duluth. It covers only mayoral and city council elections, so the city will still need to roll out the whole show for the school board and anything else requiring a primary. Not only will there be no cost savings, it simply passes the costs off on a cash-strapped school board.

Otherwise, I’ll just point out that all of the claims for it are questionable at best. For every warm and fuzzy Minneapolis IRV election (which had lower turnout anyway), there are frustrations in Oakland. For every claim of empowerment of minorities, there’s a study pointing out that their ballots are more likely to be spoiled. For every San Francisco election (which invariably elects a popular liberal candidate, no matter what), there is another lawsuit and attempt to amend the system. Supporters and opponents can argue turnout numbers for all eternity.

It is most important to judge RCV not by its performance in obvious elections (as was the case in Minneapolis last time around), but by its performance in close ones. Here, things grow much murkier, with (right or wrong) questions of legitimacy and moves to repeal. Once RCV becomes an issue, the controversy never goes away. Just ask the one-third of U.S. municipalities that have repealed it after adoption. Is this really a debate we want to keep having every four years? Or maybe, just maybe, there are more pressing political questions to which we should devote our time and money.

Finally, there’s a claim circulating that the elected officials in Duluth who have come out against it are all just maintaining current power structures because they work for them. This is absurd. First off, most of the politicians who oppose RCV in Duluth won their elections comfortably, and would be in office with any voting method. (The lone exception, perhaps, is Don Ness, who could well have lost out in a crowded 2007 field that he did not lead after the primary.) Also, basically everyone who has come out against it for more than the most basic reasons is doing so because they were educated by a group of concerned UMD professors. (This includes me.) These professors are not politicians, and have nothing to gain personally from their campaign. They went in curious about RCV, learned more than anyone else, and came away unimpressed. Ever since, they’ve been doing their civic duty to inform anyone who will listen. This is the way local politics should work.

The only side in this election using any distinctive political muscle is the “yes” campaign, which is driven by the Twin Cities-based branch of Fair Vote Minnesota, a national organization whose ubiquity in these debates makes it hard to find any neutral voices in popular media. (Just google the term and see how many of the results include comments from Fair Vote or one if its proxies.) Naturally, they’d reject the label of an outside interest group, but that is just what they are here, as they spend a heap of money in a city they do not live in to influence an election. It’s all rather funny: I suspect most of the Fair Vote people are strong proponents of campaign finance reform and keeping big, distant, moneyed interests out of politics, and yet…here they are.

I’m sure the people of Fair Vote think they’re promoting democracy and doing the right thing, despite what the evidence might say. Their civic interest is admirable. Far less admirable is the missionary zeal with which they pitch their cause. The shrill tenor of the debate and dismissal of critics as simpletons or bigots is especially ironic, given the claim that RCV is supposed to reduce negativity in campaigns.  Somehow, RCV has become part of a religious cause; one that is incapable of self-reflection and above any criticism, and considers the cause more important than the deliberative democratic process it needs to go through to become reality. If only it were actually a cause worth fighting for.


6 thoughts on “Ranked Choice Voting Is Still Mostly Useless

  1. Can you speak to why you think RCV is unfair? So what if FairVote is an interest group! So what if it costs more? Tell me why it is unfair. Then I am interested.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever said it was “unfair,” per se, except when mentioning that people from low-income/minority groups are more likely to have their ballots ruled ineligible under ranked choice voting due to voter error. There is good empirical evidence for this, and it’s a genuine equity issue for a population that is usually underrepresented anyway.

      My overall point is that the supposed positive benefits of RCV don’t exist. The evidence just doesn’t bear it out. And in a close election, the counting algorithm gets very weird when you get deeper and deeper into it. Its ballot tables can be very hard to follow, which introduces transparency issue. There are rare but bizarre scenarios in which voting strategically for the candidate you least like can be in your best interest, depending on who gets eliminated on which ballot. Whether that’s “fair” or not is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s much more open to interpretation than a simple majority/plurality election. This has been a source of conflict in other cities with RCV many times over. Why vote for something that has no real positive effects, and introduces all of these issues?

      For a more thorough account of some of these points, see this earlier post: https://apatientcycle.com/2014/08/13/instant-runoff-voting-and-its-discontents/

  2. On October 15, I said as follows to Wy Spano at wy.spano@metrostaate.edu::

    You comment about ranked choice voting, at http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/letters/3860439-readers-view-ranked-choice-voting-makes-elections-rational. As one who appreciates Occam’s razor, this controversy about voting causes me to wonder whether the optimum approach wouldn’t be to eliminate primaries, and to simply provide for the selection of the top vote getter in an election. What’s not to like about a simple free for all?

    I have not received a response from him.

    • The cleanness of that option is certainly appealing. The counterargument you’ll likely get is that some extreme fringe figure might muster 11% of the vote and win, even though they might be loathed by the other 89% of the electorate. Even if it’s a bit forced, the primary system at least produces someone who gets about 50% of the vote in the end–there’s still majority rule. I certainly won’t say the current system isn’t without its flaws, but I’d worry a wide-open election would elect some figures who don’t even come close to representing popular opinion.

      • A fringe 11% voter getter would not win with RCV. You are not convincing me, and I want you to.

        “Algorithm” is a scare word that UMD mathematicians are using to hide the human component behind math. Humans do not vote using all possible mathematical probabilities. This flaws their mathematical explanations. I think you have been hoodwinked.

      • The 11% comment was in reference to the other commenter’s suggestion, which proposed something entirely different than RCV. It’s unrelated. He was suggesting doing away with primaries altogether and just having the person with the highest vote total win, which is neither RCV nor our current primary system.

        The UMD professors use the word “algorithm” because this is common parlance in discussions of how voting systems work; I’d use the same word to describe the mechanics behind a voting system I support. (And maybe I’m in a minority here, but I don’t find algorithms scary.) No, the vast majority of humans aren’t going to delve deep into the various probabilities. My fear isn’t people manipulating the system; it’s the unintended consequences of the system. In RCV, the order in which candidates get eliminated matters, and there’s no way to avoid that fact. Just ask the voters of Burlington, VT or Oakland, CA.

        Could you please explain why you find ranked choice voting a compelling alternative to the current system?

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