Making the case for second place: Ranked-choice voting explained

The recount kerfuffle that resulted from May’s hard-fought Republican primary for the US Senate dominated headlines until its dissolution in early June. Even as Dave McCormick conceded to Mehmet Oz, one statistic stood out for its plurality: Oz won that primary by receiving less than 32% of the national vote.

Oz isn’t alone, either, as several state legislative primaries have been won by a candidate who received less than a majority of the vote this year.

And while most people would agree that a majority winner is better for democracy, not everyone agrees on how best to determine it. Members of grassroots organization March On Harrisburg — known for their efforts around the Capitol regarding gift-banning legislation — are also making leaderboard voting a priority.

“There are two main problems. It’s about getting the money (out of politics) and getting the people into politics,” Michael Pollack, executive director of March On Harrisburg, told City & State. “The way we vote now just doesn’t really engage people in the process. It keeps us divided and frustrated.”

Similar to traditional runoff elections, ranked voting guarantees that an election winner received a majority of the votes. Voters rank candidates based on their preference, and if no single candidate wins a majority in the first round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and another round of counting is conducted. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote goes to their next choice, and if they have no remaining candidates, their ballot is exhausted. Ultimately, the candidate who receives the majority of the votes, ie over 50% of the total votes cast, wins this election.

Arguments in favor of ranked voting include that it allows for majority winners, eliminates the problem of spoiler candidates, and forces candidates to appeal to a broader base. March On Harrisburg isn’t the only group advocating electoral reform, either.

Two Philadelphia legislators, Sen. Anthony H. Williams and Rep. Chris Rabb, introduced new bills this legislature to allow for precedence voting in the Commonwealth. Williams’ proposal isn’t statewide, but would allow municipalities to hold ranked elections to be more impartial.

“Ranked choice voting would require people to be ‘more considerate in their approaches,’ beyond just a rabid base supporting them. They actually need to expand their base to really be considered a viable candidate. It would reduce a lot of the negativity I’ve seen at extremes on both sides,” Williams told City & State.

So far, only Alaska and Maine have introduced ranking voting for all congressional and statewide elections. Some large municipalities, including New York City and San Francisco, have adopted ranking voting for their local elections, similar to Williams’ proposal. However, research from some of these areas shows that the voting method may not live up to expectations.

Politics doesn’t magically get prettier because we changed the voting style.

Jason McDaniel

Politics doesn’t magically get prettier because we changed the voting style.

Jason McDaniel, associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, studies city politics and voting behavior. Recent research, he said, shows that ranking polls may be over-promising and under-delivering.

“I think if people were hoping that somehow this would reduce polarization, partisan polarization, or help vote more ‘moderate candidates,’ they’re probably going to be disappointed,” McDaniel said. “We’ve got it here in San Francisco and it’s not like the campaign is super nice… Politics isn’t going to get magically nicer because we changed the voting style.”

Another potential problem with moving to ranked voting is that it would complicate the voting process for voters. McDaniel said there was confusion in some areas.

“Recent research shows that certain types of voting errors have increased (in ranking voting) … particularly in areas where there are many older voters and non-English speakers. It was a burden for her,” he said.

Pollack, on the other hand, argued that amplifying such criticism only short-sells voters. He said awareness campaigns are necessary to educate voters about the method, but people are used to evaluating things in their everyday lives.

“Anyone who says ranked voting is too complicated for voters is really insulting people’s intelligence,” Pollack said. “I mean, it’s such a simple thing and it’s offensive to people to think that other people can’t put things one, two, and three.”

Williams countered that argument as well, stating that mail-in ballots, while confusing voters, have now become the voting method of choice for many.

State Rep. Chris Rabb has advocated for ranking voting to become “the norm” in Pennsylvania. / Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images

“Voters are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Yes, there might be some level of misunderstanding at first, but after they’ve been through it the first time, they’ll have it,” he said.

Williams’ Senate Bill 59 currently sits in the Senate State Government Committee. Proposals for ladder voting have seen no movement in Harrisburg in the past, and when asked about the issue this time, state government committee chair Senator David Argall said the concept is unlikely to gain traction in Republican leadership.

“It’s not an issue that’s really gotten a lot of attention,” Argall told City & State. “I think we’re going to allow other states in Pennsylvania to experiment with it. Then, when we’ve seen more evidence, I think maybe we’ll be more willing to think about it here.” Argall noted that electoral reforms related to vote counting and security are higher priorities right now.

Whether or not there is broad Commonwealth support for ranking voting, advocates say it need not be a partisan affair. Armin Samii, ranking election policy and research director at March On Harrisburg, said the McCormick-Oz brouhaha is just one example of how the Republican Party could benefit from ranking elections.

“It’s going to be very difficult for the entire Republican Party to get behind the candidates in the general (election) when they’ve won the primary with only 30-35% of the vote,” Samii said. “We’re always told that the most popular candidate is the one who wins the election, but that’s just not the case. And ranked voting points to that contradiction, where remarkably unpopular candidates can come through these truly crowded fields.”

Williams noted that a broader electoral base allows the most credible candidate—at least in the eyes of voters—to come out on top. “I think that benefits the political persuasion that you’re sitting in,” he said.

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