Election Center

Ranked-choice voting has not produced what we were promised

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Lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday considered a bill that would allow political parties in Maine to hold presidential primary elections, rather than a caucus, and would expand the use of ranked-choice voting (RCV) to presidential primary and general election. Expanding ranked-choice voting would be mistake, as our experience with this voting method has shown the system does not live up to the many positive claims made by its supporters.

For one, RCV exhausts ballots, removing voters from the final vote tally. Excluding overvotes and undervotes, ballot exhaustion occurs in a RCV election when a voter exhausts their choices. Exhausting choices occurs when the candidate(s) a voter ranks is mathematically eliminated from contention and two or more candidates still remain in the race.

For example, if a voter ranks just one candidate in a three person race and the candidate the voter selected is eliminated in the first round, the voter’s ballot is considered exhausted and no longer counts in denominator of votes required to achieve a majority in the final round. In essence, these votes are thrown away; it’s like the voter never showed up on Election Day.

The design of RCV explicitly discounts the votes from individuals who only vote for candidates that are not included in the last round of counting. In Maine’s Second Congressional District race in the 2018 midterm elections, 8,253 votes were not counted in the final because they were exhausted after the first round of counting. This makes it so the winner of a RCV election wins a faux majority.

Rep. Jared Golden did not win 50 percent of the votes cast on Election Day in 2018; he won after enough votes were eliminated to push him over the 50 percent threshold. According to the certified election results available on the Secretary of State website, 289,624 votes were cast in the first round of the Second Congressional District race. Golden achieved the majority required to win in the second round of the RCV election with only 142,440 votes, or 49.18 percent of the total votes cast on Election Day. In other words, RCV does not result in a true majority victory.

Also contrary to what proponents of RCV have suggested, the 2018 race in the Second Congressional District did not benefit third party candidates or empower voters who are fed up with two-party system. In fact, it’s as if more than one-third of these voters never showed up to begin with.

In the first round, 23,427 votes were cast for independent candidates Tiffany Bond and William Hoar. Roughly 35 percent of these votes were exhausted after the first round, meaning these voters ranked only Bond or Hoar, or ranked only Bond and Hoar without ranking other candidates.

Approximately eight percent of the vote was allocated to third party candidates on the first round of voting. Both third party candidates were eliminated after the first round, leaving a Democrat and a Republican remaining in the race. It is unclear if RCV will ever benefit third party candidates in the future, but the limited sample size suggests it’s unlikely make a difference.

In addition, RCV has done nothing to improve civility in politics, another unfounded claim made by supporters of RCV. The gubernatorial primary elections last June were nasty on both sides of the aisle and a record amount was spent on the 2018 Second Congressional District race between Jared Golden and Bruce Poliquin ($17 million more than the previous race between Poliquin and Emily Cain).

As seen in the gubernatorial primaries, if anything, RCV gives trailing candidates incentive to attack the perceived frontrunner of the race for the purpose of reducing their first-round vote totals. The smaller the margin between first and second place in the first round (assuming no majority is reached), the greater chance trailing candidates have to overcome the leader in subsequent rounds. This makes knocking down the frontrunner a priority for each campaign.

If the State of Maine wishes to award elections to candidates who receive a majority of the votes cast, we should use an approach that actually reaches a true majority. The fairest way to do so would be to pursue a runoff election system, similar to that employed in Louisiana.

A runoff would be far more transparent and the winner would receive a true majority of the votes cast. RCV asks voters to guess which candidate will be one of the “top two” vote receivers in hopes that their vote counts in the final tally, while runoffs allow everyone to return and vote for one of the two candidates who received the highest number of votes if no candidate received a majority of the votes cast on Election Day.

But in all honesty, there is nothing wrong with the plurality system we currently employ for state-level general election races and previously used for all elections. Much like the 2000 presidential election that resulted in calls for the elimination of the Electoral College and bolstered the National Popular Vote movement, RCV is nothing more than the product of losers who want to change the rules because their candidate didn’t win.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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