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The Heritage Foundation Attacks
Ranked-Choice Voting
by Lionel E. Deimel

My ability to predict the next target of “conservative” ire is woefully inadequate. I did not anticipate campaigns against drag story hours or Judy Blume books or public libraries generally. The rule seems to be that if something is objectively beneficial to society, especially if it is supported by Democrats, the right will be against it.

A few days ago, I received e-mail from The Heritage Foundation promoting its “factsheet” attacking ranked-choice voting (RCV), “Ranked Choice Voting Should Be Ranked Dead Last as An Election Reform.” (I have written earlier about problems addressed by RCV and the solution that RCV provides.)

Wikipedia describes The Heritage Foundation as “an American conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. that is primarily geared toward public policy.” The foundation describes itself this way:

Heritage’s mission is to formulate and promote public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

Heritage argues that RCV is being promoted by “mega-liberal political donors and other political activists.” (Interestingly, I have never before encountered the term “mega-liberal.”) Although I disagree with virtually all the arguments made by Heritage, not all of them are irrational. A major problem with the factsheet, however, is that its arguments only apply to the use of RCV in one particular kind of election, namely elections for which a runoff is held pitting the top two candidates against one another if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast. Whereas many elections do indeed work this way, many do not, allowing election of candidates receiving a plurality, but not a majority, of votes cast. In any case, RCV is useful in both types of elections.

The factsheet description of how RCV works is largely correct. However, that description suggests that voters must rank all candidates, which is not true. Heritage knows this is not true, as it posits undesirably consequences if a voter fails to rank all candidates.

The complaint is made more than once that “a candidate could win who was not the first choice of a majority of voters. But this is true of many elections in which one can win with only a plurality of votes. Presidential primaries and, most notably, the presidential election itself, are run this way. Even if there is a runoff election, although the winner necessarily receives a majority of votes cast, voters who favored neither of the top two vote-getters either stay home or or forced to vote for someone who was, at best, their third-choice candidate. That the winner of a runnoff is the choice of a majority of citizens (or even of a majority of voters) is illusory. That said, I would agree that the conventional runoff system is an improvement over selecting winners by plurality vote.

We are told that “RCV is a confusing and opaque process that is prone to errors.” No attempt is made to justify RCV as confusing. Admittedly, the instruction to “vote for your choice” is straightforward, but instructions such as “vote for no more than three” are encountered regularly in municipal elections without causing mass confusion. Typical instructions to the RCV voter are something like the following:

Place a ‘1’ by your first choice, a ‘2’ by your second choice, etc. You need not rank all candidates.

Surely, the average sixth grader should be able to follow such instructions. Admittedly, in some circumstances, there are more kinds of mistakes that a voter can make than if only a top choice is required. A voter can use a number more than once or skip a number, including ‘1.’ Certain errors will necessarily invalidate a ballot—a voter could rank all candidates first, for example. Other errors can be cured—if a number is left out, higher numbers can be increased by one. If electronic voting machines are used, the software can demand a valid selection of candidates and not save a ballot until all selections are valid. If electronic voting machines are not used, how voting anomalies are to be handled should be publicized in advance. It may take voters more than one election to get completely comfortable with RCV, but that is true of any new and improved technology.

Much of the Heritage factsheet is taken up by what it clearly considers horror stories of RCV contests. One instance is described where the wrong candidate was declared the winner, which Heritage blames on “the overly complicated process of RCV vote counting.” But this is why we have computers. Computers should be able to eliminate most clerical errors by vote tabulators. The description of how votes are countered is really an algorithm easily translated into a computer program. In practice, a proper computer program is a bit more complicated than the usual description implies, as various difficult cases must be dealt with. For example, the candidates with the fewest votes in any round is eliminated from the next tabulation round. But what if two candidates are tied for last? The resolution of such cases must be formulated in advance.

In a New York City election, noted Heritage, tabulation took two weeks. No reason is given for the delay other than tabulation complexity. One suspects, however, that New York City does, in fact, have computers. The delay was likely caused by late-arriving ballots and the newness of the tabulation procedures combined with an interest in assuring that that new process was carried out correctly.

Americans have become used to knowing the results of an election in a matter of hours. Announcing winners quickly invariably relies on incomplete tabulation; official results may be known days or weeks later. Although partial returns can be announced in an RCV election—first place votes can be publicized as they come in—it can be difficult or impossible to predict the winner in advance of tabulating all ballots. There is no straightforward way of presenting partial results short of releasing all data collected so far, which can only be characterized as incomprehensible to the average voter. Satisfactory prompt and correct reporting requires: (1) electronic tabulating, (2) prompt collection of ballots, (3) and reasonable patience on the part of the public. Early reporting will not be definitive, but it will at least be suggestive. Often, but not invariably, will the candidate with the most first-choice votes become the winner.

Heritage makes the ridiculous assertion that ballots not counted in the final round of tabulation disenfranchise the voters who cast such ballots. This results from the “problem” of “ballot exhaustion.” If, say, there are five candidates, and a voter votes for only one candidate who turns out to have the least first-place vote, that ballot will have no influence on the second and later rounds of tabulation. The voter has essentially voted for “my candidate and nobody else.” That is a perfectly rational choice. On the other hand, in a conventional election, is not the voter for the third-place candidate not “disenfranchised”? That person’s vote has no influence over the two candidates who move forward into a primary. That voter is even more “disenfranchised” if the election can be won by plurality. A rational voter who fails to rank all the candidates is essentially saying, “I don’t care who wins if none of my top choices are elected.” Why should we force that person to care?

Heritage argues:

RCV forces voters to vote for and rank candidates they do not support if they want to ensure that their ballots are not discarded in multiple rounds of vote tabulation.

Why should a voter do anything to help candidates he or she doesn’t want to win? Heritage describes ballots subject to exhaustion as being “thrown out.” They are not thrown out any more than are ballots cast for the third-place candidate in a regular election. If significant numbers of voters rank fewer candidates than they have ranked mentally, the problem is not in the system but in voter education. There are remedies for that.

It is significant that the factsheet complains about a Maine House election in which a Democrat defeated the Republican, who received the most first-place votes. Apparently, voters for two third-party candidates preferred the Democrat to the Republican. This is the kind of outcome we should celebrate. Consider the notorious presidential race in Florida in 2000. George Bush and Al Gore had nearly identical vote totals. The Supreme Court eventually decided the election for Bush. Had the election used RCV, it is likely that voters for Ralph Nader would have mostly preferred Gore as their second choice, and Gore would have become president. Arguably, the will of the people would have been better reflected in such a result.

RCV, Heritage argues, damages democracy. The winner of an RCV election “is often not the choice of a majority of voters who participated in the election” we are told. But, of course, this is often not the case for elections decided by a plurality, an election system Heritage has totally ignored. Moreover, in runoff elections, supporters of candidates who didn’t make it into the runoff lose their opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate.

Assuming that, in some effective sense, we want the winner of an election to be the choice of the majority of voters, what are we to make of an election in which no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes cast? Identifying our platonic ideal of a winner in any straightforward way cannot be achieved. Runoffs only obscure this failure. RCV allows us to modify our notion of the people’s choice, identifying a winner acceptable to most voters and not unacceptable to large numbers of voters. Although RCV may not be the perfect solution to choosing a candidate when no contestant commands a majority of first-choice votes, it is certainly a reasonable and easily understood method.

Heritage seems perfectly satisfied with runoff elections pitting the top two vote-getters against one another. In contrast, RCV is sometimes referred to an instant-runoff scheme. It essentially stages virtual run-offs with progressively smaller fields based on voter preferences. Voters are given the opportunity to have a say in as many of these virtual runoffs as they please. One might have expected Heritage to see the virtue in such a system. Unfortunately, it seems to see RCV as a way of giving elections to Democrats when Republicans achieve pluralities. In principle, things could work out the other way, but Heritage recognizes that, overall, more people prefer Democrats than Republicans.

Heritage makes the improbable argument that the time between the original election and a subsequent runoff—remember that it does not consider elections for which there is never a runoff—is a time for voters to reëxamine the top two candidates and for those candidates to reëducate voters. No mention is made of the drawbacks of the system. Campaigns cost more; voters are inconvenienced and may experience voting fatigue and skip voting in the runoff, and supporters of the losing candidates face an election in which neither candidate is attractive. And, as noted above, the “consensus” achieved thereby is illusary.

It is true, as Heritage charges, that tabulating an RCV election likely delays determining the outcome of an election, but this is more due to the time needed to collect all ballots than to the tabulation itself. It should be possible to declare a winner long before a runoff election could be held.

The factsheet concludes with these remarks:

Voters and state legislators—no matter which political party they support or with whom they are affliated—should oppose RCV as an ill-advised, imprudent election “reform” that would confuse and hurt voters, unnecessarily complicate the election process, and result in marginal candidates winning elections.

No, they should not.

— LED, 5/7/2023

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