Shocker: Different voting system might change something

Sometimes, the easiest way to understand why we have some particular status quo — for example, our insanely convoluted electoral system — is to find a bunch of people who agree the status quo is a mess and get them talking about what would work better. Committees are the force that turns great ideas into okay laws, and okay ideas into travesties.

I got reminded of this when I was reading this article on i09 about ranked choice, or instant-runoff voting, an electoral system that would let voters rank candidates in order of preference. This helps give a clearer idea of the voters’ preferences in an election where no candidate gets a majority of the vote, and therefore could encourage third-party candidates by getting rid of the spoiler effect.

The weird thing about the article is that it seems to view this feature as a problem.

Here’s the passage that got my attention (emphasis mine):

Ranked Choice Voting has been in use for popular, apolitical elections for several years. The Hugo awards are currently decided by Ranked Choice Voting, and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences use the system to select the Oscar winner for Best Picture. Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Maine have used it for regional elections in the past few years, while Ireland uses the system for its Presidential elections. Ireland’s 1990 Presidential election posed one interesting result implicit within the Ranked Choice system – the winner of the first round of voting, who did not have 50% of the votes, lost the election once votes were re-assigned in a second round. This is one of the more difficult to stomach aspects of Ranked Choice Voting, possibly hampering the system for major elections, or, at the very least, necessitating an informed voting public.

What’s weird here is that the result the author describes, where the candidate who got the most votes in the first round eventually loses the election, isn’t just an implicit result of the ranked choice system; it’s the entire point. The only purpose of an election is to select a winner, so if taking the voters’ second choices into account could never affect the outcome, why would anyone do it?

I guess the implicit message here is that a candidate who wins despite not having the most votes in the first round of voting would somehow lack legitimacy. Which is possible, since legitimacy is a function of public opinion and public opinion is fickle and weird. But that’s a problem you’ll get with any electoral system. Thanks to Ross Perot, Bill Clinton never won a majority of the popular vote, while Canada and the United Kingdom are both run by prime ministers who came into power without a majority (the Conservatives in Canada have one now). Twice in American history, the Electoral College gave us a president who came in second place in the popular vote, because we’ve given ourselves a system where some states’ votes matter more than others.

When I was a reporter in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, the city had a mayoral race, and another for city council, where none of the three candidates got a majority of the vote. The city code called for an old-fashioned runoff election to be held a month later, but since local elections generally weren’t very interesting this was the first time one would actually be held. In the end, the candidates who’d been ahead in the first round both won in the runoff, and city officials had a meeting to ask if having the second election was worth all the expense.

Ranked choice voting got the “instant runoff” name because it serves the same function as a runoff election, or a nonpartisan primary vote, by giving people the chance to pick between the two most popular candidates in isolation. It also saves time and money by eliminating the need for a second election to resolve the question. It does have its drawbacks, like making the election form somewhat more complicated, but describing its primary feature as a potential problem seems kind of weird.

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