Election Center

RCV triggered in Portland mayoral election while NYC voters approve the flawed system

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On Tuesday, Portland residents went to the polls to cast their ballots to determine who will carry the progressive baton up Munjoy Hill. Since 2011, the City of Portland has used ranked-choice voting to elect their mayor — a system whereby voters rank candidates based on preference and the lowest vote-getters are eliminated, until a candidate receives 50 percent or more of the remaining votes.

The four candidates vying for mayor were Spencer Thibodeau, Kathleen Snyder, Ethan Strimling and Travis Curran. None of the four candidates received an outright majority of the 18,100 votes that were allocated to candidates in the first round of tabulation. Therefore, Travis Curran, the candidate who received the least votes, was eliminated from contention and his ballots were reallocated to the other three candidates, or were exhausted.

Once a ballot is exhausted, it is no longer active in the election and therefore is not calculated in the final tabulation. Subsequently, none of the candidates were able to achieve a majority of the remaining votes in the second round of tabulation. 

A third round of tabulation ensued whereby incumbent Mayor Ethan Strimling was eliminated from contention and his ballots were reallocated among the two remaining candidates. Once Strimling’s votes were redistributed, Kate Snyder had obtained a majority of the remaining votes in the mayoral election — she earned a total of 10,460 of the votes in the final round of tabulation.

This mayoral election bolsters the findings in The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s recent report, A False Majority: The Failed Experiment of Ranked-Choice Voting, which examined 96 elections from across the country to determine if the ranked-choice voting system lives up to the promises made by its proponents.

In the 2019 Portland Mayoral Election, 18,100 ballots were active in the initial round of tallying. By the final round, only 16,902 ballots were active. Therefore, 1,198 ballots, or approximately 6.6 percent of the initial votes, were exhausted by the final round of tabulation; it is as if those voters never showed up on election day. A breakdown of how the votes were reallocated to the top two candidates is illustrated below.

In addition, the report outlined how frequently ranked-choice voting changes the outcome of a plurality election — this is a relatively rare occurrence and happens approximately 17 percent of the time. This race was no different; when using the first round votes as a proxy for a plurality election, Kate Snyder would have earned the title of mayor in both election systems.

In addition to its use in Portland’s mayoral election, New York City voted to adopt ranked-choice voting on Tuesday. It will be used for some primaries and special elections and becomes effective in 2021. According to Ballotpedia, this makes New York City the largest jurisdiction in the United States to adopt the voting system.

With 90 percent of precincts reporting, the measure passed with 73.54 percent of the vote. While this might be a win for proponents, it is a loss for the voting public. A recent peer-reviewed study found a 3-5 percent decrease in turnout after cities adopted ranked-choice voting. 

While ranked-choice voting is certainly an interesting theoretical model for political scientists, it does not live up to its proponents’ promises and makes voting more complicated. Further, it systematically exhausts votes and removes them from the final tally until a candidate receives a majority of the remaining votes.

Lawmakers should strive to make voting as simple as possible and steer away from electoral systems that may contribute to a net decrease in turnout and discount individuals’ votes.

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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