Five reasons why ranked choice voting is a bad idea
Updated: May 11
This column has appeared in the Idaho Statesman and the Twin Falls Times-News.
"Reclaim Idaho" - the activist group that successfully pushed expansion of Medicaid in Idaho, as well as a ballot measure that would have raised income taxes for education funding - has a new proposal based on a bad idea.
The group's new initiative would do several things: (1) change Idaho's primary elections from closed to open - meaning any person could participate, regardless of whether they are Republican, Democrat or neither and (2) adopt ranked choice voting in the state.
Open primaries are not entirely unusual. More than a dozen states have an open primary system. While advantageous for independents who may not want to join one party or another, open primaries can have the effect of allowing members of one political party influence over the candidates of the other.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) may be the bigger issue here. Idaho legislators passed a bill this session that outlaws ranked choice voting.
RCV allows voters to rank their choices based on preference. For example, a Republican voter may choose the Republican candidate as their first choice, an Independent candidate as their second choice and a Democrat as their third choice. If no person receives 50% of the votes, the counting process starts over, eliminating the candidate who did the worst and re-distributing their votes based on their second choice.
Alaska and Maine are the only two states that have adopted RCV for congressional and state elections.
Ranked choice voting has numerous problems, including:
The votes that count more
If you chose the winning candidate in an RCV system - congratulations. If you didn't, don't worry - your new votes in round two, three or four may help push a candidate across the finish line. Because RCV retabulates votes each round, your support can shift, giving some voters multiple opportunities to pick a winner. This is in direct conflict with the principle of "one person, one vote."
Some votes simply won't count. Why? They may become "exhausted." This means that the voter either over-voted, under-voted or chose only candidates that haven't advanced to further rounds of counting. These "exhausted" votes are then thrown out. It is estimated that some 10% of votes are discarded or "exhausted" in any RCV election. This San Francisco RCV election was a confusing mess, going 20 rounds and "exhausting" nearly 10,000 votes.
Voter confusion and low turnout
Numerous studies have shown RCV leads to major confusion and lower voter turnout. One analysis of San Francisco's RCV found a "significant" correlation between a drop in voter turnout and the adoption of ranked choice voting. The results appear even worse in off-year elections.
Too many candidates?
RCV is one thing with a limited number of candidates - it is quite another if there are many candidates. Because voters would be required to rank every race, they would want to know and study the positions of every candidate. Imagine a race of 12-15 candidates. Could voters adequately determine the policy positions of all of them to properly rank their choice?
Because of the tabulation process, many RCV election results are not available on Election Day. Depending on the number of candidates, they may not even be available Election week.
Pierce County, in Washington State, experimented with ranked choice voting in in 2006. By 2008, it returned to the former system.
Former California Governor Jerry Brown may have said it best: "In a time when we want to encourage voter participation, we need to keep voting simple. Ranked choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice.”