Election Center

Does ranked-choice voting live up to its promises?

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The Maine Heritage Policy Center today released its newest report, “A False Majority: The Failed Experiment of Ranked-Choice Voting.” The report explores the use of ranked-choice voting in jurisdictions throughout the country, including Maine, to determine if the voting system lives up to the claims made by proponents of the 2016 ballot initiative and 2018 People’s Veto.

In the report, authors Adam Crepeau and Liam Sigaud examine data from 96 ranked-choice voting elections held throughout the U.S., where more than one round of tabulation was necessary to declare a winner, and determine the system in practice falls short of the bold claims made by its proponents.

Despite promises that ranked-choice voting produces a majority winner, when a candidate fails to secure a majority of the votes cast in the first round and the race goes to additional rounds of tabulation, the eventual winner wins with a fake majority 61 percent of the time.

This is because ranked-choice voting, far more so than plurality elections, produces exhausted ballots. A ballot becomes exhausted when a voter overvotes, undervotes, or exhausts their choices. When a ballot is exhausted, it no longer counts toward the final denominator used to determine a majority winner. In other words, it’s as if these members of the voting electorate never actually showed up on Election Day. It should be noted that this figure discounts exhausted ballots in the first round, because voters could potentially make the same mistake under a plurality election.

The analysis released Thursday finds that an average of approximately 11 percent of ballots become exhausted when additional rounds of tabulation are necessary to declare a winner in ranked-choice voting elections.

What’s more troubling is how ranked-choice voting disenfranchises minorities and other demographics. Research highlighted in the report shows that older voters are more likely to make ballot-marking mistakes under ranked-choice voting, increasing the likelihood of an exhausted ballot. Yet, for some reason, the system has been adopted for statewide elections in Maine, the oldest state in the nation with a median age of 44.6 years.

Research also shows that the complexities of ranked-choice voting reduce the electoral influence of African American and Latino voters, as well as less educated voters and those whose first language is not English. Many voters who already feel disconnected from politics are further disenfranchised under ranked-choice voting.

Another flaw of ranked-choice voting is that it’s simply not worth the hassle it creates for voters and state government. Of the 96 elections examined in the report, 83 percent of the outcomes would remain the same had the races been decided by a plurality of the votes cast. This begs the questions: 1) Why do we need ranked-choice voting when it almost always produces the same result as plurality elections?; and 2) Is this system worth the voter confusion it creates or the additional costs borne by the state to tabulate votes in a central location?

One of the most notable claims made by proponents of ranked-choice voting is that it would make our elections more civil and reduce negative campaigning. Based on Maine election data from the 2018 cycle, there was clear increase in independent expenditures to oppose candidates in the 2018 cycle under ranked-choice voting. In fact, spending from unaffiliated groups grew significantly and supporting expenditures actually decreased under ranked-choice voting.

In Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial primary election, independent expenditures to support a candidate declined by 40 percent compared to the 2014 cycle while expenditures to oppose increased by 100 percent. The 2018 Second Congressional District election saw a 24 percent increase in opposition expenditures compared to the same contest in 2016 and a 341 percent increase compared to the 2014 cycle.

Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough data available in Maine to conclude that ranked-choice voting actually increases negative campaigning and the influence of independent groups. However, these findings cast serious doubt on the claim that ranked-choice voting improves the tone and civility of political campaigns.

To see how ranked-choice voting holds up to other claims made by its proponents, click here to read the full report (for those who cannot make this commitment, there is a condensed version). If you do not support the use of ranked-choice voting in Maine, click here to sign up for email updates about ranked-choice voting bills being debated in the Maine Legislature.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at MHPC. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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