Ranked-choice voting fails to deliver on its promises


This item was published in the Anchorage Daily News on February 9, 2020.

In 2016, Maine voters approved a ballot initiative that established the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) in state and federal elections. In its most recent legislative session, the state also approved the use of RCV in presidential primary and general elections, though that law is now the subject of a People’s Veto campaign to be permanently repealed. A thorough timeline of Maine’s experience with RCV can be found here.

Election reform is not new to Maine or other jurisdictions. Reformers often make grand claims about the benefits of their preferred voting methods. But like any election system we employ, it comes with pros and cons that deserve legitimate scrutiny outside of the media soundbites and campaign slogans.

On Jan. 23, the ADN published a commentary from Peter Brann, a Maine attorney who represented Jared Golden in 2018 after the result of our second congressional district election was challenged in court. Mr. Brann made it sound like ranked-choice voting did exactly what was promised – in fact he said it ran “quite smoothly.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Despite its billing as the panacea for all of our political woes, RCV fails to deliver on many of its promises to voters. After proponents made dozens of vague, unscientific claims about the benefits of RCV, we at The Maine Heritage Policy Center decided to put these claims to the test.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusions we reached counter much of the talking points voters hear about the benefits of RCV.

Perhaps the central selling point of RCV is that it produces majority winners. This is completely false.

In Maine’s 2018 Second Congressional race between incumbent Bruce Poliquin and challengers Jared Golden, Tiffany Bond and William Hoar, 289,624 votes were cast in the first round. Jared Golden was eventually declared the winner of the contest in the second round of tabulation with 142,440 votes, or 49.18% of ballots cast in the election. We waited nine days for the final election results.

How was this “majority” obtained? More than 8,000 ballots were exhausted through multiple rounds of counting, allowing the eventual winner to take the contest with less than a true majority of the votes cast.

RCV fails to produce true majority winners is because the system exhausts voters’ ballots. A ballot becomes exhausted when a voter overvotes, undervotes or exhausts their choices. For example, a voter accidentally ranks two candidates as their first choice, or only ranks one candidate who is eventually eliminated from the contest.

In these instances, the ballot becomes exhausted and no longer contributes toward the final denominator used to determine a majority winner. It’s as if these voters never showed up on Election Day.

Of the 96 RCV elections examined in our research, 61% of them failed to produce a true majority winner.

Similarly, our research found that, on average, approximately 11% of ballots become exhausted in RCV elections. This is a significant portion of the electorate and illustrates exactly how the faux majority is reached – after about 10% of ballots are discarded.

Other claims related to voter turnout, negative campaigning and the influence of money in elections were similarly proven to be false. Again and again, the claims made by supporters of RCV have been debunked using hard data from the jurisdictions that enacted the system.

Like Alaska, we in Maine regularly deal with an onslaught of ballot initiatives because we live in a cheap media market. The system may soon be coming to your neck of the woods. Don’t be surprised when it produces the opposite result of what you were promised.

Jacob Posik is the director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, where he formerly served as a policy analyst. The Maine Heritage Policy Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan free-market think tank based in Portland, Maine.