Ranked-Choice Voting is Un-American
American democracy begins with a pretty simple premise.
As any fourth grade civics student could tell you, 1) the people vote, 2) the votes are counted, and 3) the person with the most votes wins. That’s the foundation for a system that has been used in American elections since the country’s founding.
Ranked-choice voting threatens to undermine all three parts of that foundation.
1) The people vote—until they don’t. First, ranked-choice voting is more complicated, takes more time, and introduces unnecessary confusion into our elections. For voters with a single, strong preference, or the inability to fully investigate every candidate in every race, ranked-choice voting actively discourages them from participating. Second, any system that injects questions or a lack of confidence in the outcome threatens to undermine the integrity of the system itself—not to mention discourage future participation and undermine the legitimacy of the eventual winner.
2) The votes are counted—except when they aren’t. Put simply, ranked-choice voting simply doesn’t count a lot of votes. What’s the point of voting if you don’t think your vote counts toward the final result? Under ranked-choice voting, ballots can be “exhausted”—or thrown out—if they don’t rank all the way through all candidates. In 2018, the first time ranked-choice voting was used in a federal election in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, 14,726 votes were thrown out—about five percent of the total cast. In Alaska’s congressional special election in 2022, more than 11,000 ballots were thrown out—about eight percent of the total cast. Worst of all, one California county election resulted in 53 percent of votes being thrown out, so only 8,200 votes contributed to the final result. That ranked-choice election wasn’t decided by the majority—the majority of the votes weren’t even counted!
3) The person with the most votes wins—unless they don’t. In Alaska, 60 percent of voters picked a Republican candidate, but the Democratic candidate ended up winning with 40 percent of the initial vote. In Maine, the candidate who took second on the initial ballot was eventually named the winner, ahead of the candidate who got more votes. In Alameda County, the person who finished third was eventually named the winner, only after a glitch was discovered two months after the election.
It’s hard not to notice one common theme in many of these ranked-choice voting examples—the Democratic candidate wins.
Democrats have noticed that fact, too: Polling shows that ranked-choice voting is supported by nearly three in four Democrats, compared to less than half of Republicans and barely half of Independents. Howard Dean has been pushing ranked-choice voting as far back as 2016, and House Democrats have made attempts to nationalize these results—requiring ranked-choice voting in every state.
That doesn’t feel particularly American, when one party pushes a massive change to the basic premise of democracy—one person, one vote—and it just so happens that this party controls the executive branch and half of Congress. That feels like one side putting its finger on the scale.
It’s especially clear because there’s one notable place where Democrats don’t favor ranked-choice voting: the places where they have the most to lose. Democrats in deep-blue Washington, D.C. rejected ranked-choice voting, as did the entirely Democrat-run County Board in 80-percent-Democratic Arlington County, VA. One Democratic voter in Arlington County even said the quiet part out loud on ranked-choice voting: “Numbers don’t always reflect what’s in the mind of voters.”
Under American democracy, the votes DO reflect what’s on the mind of the voters.
Ranked-choice voting threatens to undermine the best parts of democracy. It should be cast aside as the failed experiment it is.