Ranked Choice Voting: The Latest Elite Fad Pushing Toward Social Disintegration

By Siri Terjesen
Siri Terjesen
Siri Terjesen
Dr. Siri A. Terjesen is associate dean, research & external relations, founding executive director of the Madden Center for Value Creation.
and Michael Ryall
Michael Ryall
Michael Ryall
Michael Ryall is professor of strategic management and director of the Executive Virtue Development Lab at the University of Toronto.
March 10, 2023Updated: March 13, 2023


When society has widespread faith that its institutions and the experts who guide public policy are unbiased, its people can tolerate a lot—even when things don’t happen to go their way. In recent years, however, this confidence has taken a beating, especially among conservatives, according to a Gallup 2022 poll.

This trend presents a serious, even existential, threat to social cohesion. If people believe they’re relegated to second-class status based on their race, religion, or political views by biased or incompetent elites who were entrusted to maintain a fair system, and if they see no way of changing that status quo through peaceful participation, then things can get very ugly very quickly.

Central to our belief that an undesirable status quo can be changed through civil persuasion and peaceful engagement is confidence in the integrity of the election system. Unfortunately, according to another Gallup poll, such confidence (again, especially among Republicans), has dropped significantly. Considering the dire potential consequences of this trend, our leaders should be doing everything possible to restore widespread confidence in the transparency, fairness, and integrity of our election systems.

Enter the latest policy fad being actively pushed, primarily by progressive elites: ranked choice voting (RCV). The notion of RCV has been around since the 1800s. It was used by the Oscars for the “Best Picture” category before 1945 and by Australia for more than a century in federal elections. Historically, the use of RCV in U.S. elections was sporadic. Recently, though, two states, two counties, and 58 cities have converted from traditional plurality to ranked choice systems. Twenty other states are presently evaluating such systems, with the Arizona Senate recently voting to prohibit RCV.

Under plurality voting, the candidate with the most votes wins. Under RCV, voters must rank the initial slate of candidates in the order of their preference. If no candidate receives a majority of more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates according to the voters’ second-choice preferences. This redistribution process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority of more than 50 percent.

Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow’s famous Impossibility Theorem provides that no voting system can simultaneously and consistently meet three essential fairness criteria. Thus, there are always important tradeoffs (pdf) to be considered when choosing one system over another.

Proponents of RCV argue that the main benefits are that, unlike plurality voting, RCV guarantees majority satisfaction (more than 50 percent) with the final winner, assures that no voter’s preferences are left out in computing the final result, and saves money by replacing actual runoff elections with virtual runoff elections that are computed instantly from the ranking of candidates provided by voters on their original ballot.

However, RCV has serious issues. First, the most marginal candidates may end up being the winners. In the 1992 U.S. presidential election, if enough Republicans preferred Ross Perot, a fringe candidate, to Bill Clinton and enough Clinton voters preferred Perot to George H.W. Bush, then Perot would have been the president. Second, under RCV, it’s possible that increasing the ranking for a particular candidate can actually decrease that candidate’s chances of winning. This weird feature can encourage voters to game the system by expressing their preferences inaccurately. Third, in practice, RCV ballots are confusing and actually result in an increased number of spoiled ballots because of simple mistakes (nearly 15 percent in New York’s 2021 mayoral election).

Even setting these issues aside, there’s a deeper problem that’s sufficient reason to reverse the spread of RCV. In the first round, the voter ranks the candidates on the initial slate relative to one another. This relative ranking is assumed to represent the voter’s preferences in all following rounds—even though the slate of candidates changes from round to round. Critically, in a real runoff, the voter would first see the results of the first round then would have a chance to re-rank the candidates in the second given these results, and so on. Yet, these adjustments aren’t allowed under RCV.

Surely, it isn’t too much to ask an informed voter to rank an initial slate of candidates. But this isn’t the ask. Rather, the ask is to predict all future runoff slates and infer the relative rankings implied by his initial ballot in each of those rounds. This is an impossible cognitional task. We aren’t constitutional lawyers, but this clearly seems to violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by placing an undue burden on voters.

At a time when we desperately need to increase confidence in our election system, this elite-concocted solution-without-a-problem will have the opposite effect. Voters will rightly view this system as unpredictable and, hence, untrustworthy and as yet another violation of their constitutional rights.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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