On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Will ranked-choice voting spread in the US?

After the historic use of ranked choice (preferential) voting* in the US state of Maine to conduct elections for representatives to the national Congress, social media is alive with the spread of the idea across the US.

Many voting reform advocates have been pushing the idea of ranked choice voting (RCV) for some time, even years.

The national FairVote organisation promotes it, as do local movements in Colorado (also here), IllinoisMaineMarylandMassachusettsMinnesotaNew MexicoNew YorkTennesseeUtah, and in Washington state.

In Maine, there is a specific movement of Republicans who want to draw a curtain over their party’s recent opposition to preferential voting.

Advocates have made a movie about the Battle for RCV, and set up a national resource centre.

Leading newspapers including the Boston Globe and the New York Times have editorialised promoting preferential voting as a solution to some of the nation’s political woes, including hyper-partisanship and endemic gerrymandering of current electoral districts.

Some of the supporters want to move on to use ranked choice voting in multi-member electoral districts (the system known as the single transferable vote of STV), allowing voters far more choice of candidates and more equal influence in their votes. Others are targeting at least introducing reform on top of the existing, single-member electoral district systems of voting.

There are also supporters in Canada, leading to the recent adoption of preferential voting for municipal elections in the cities of TorontoKingston and Cambridge, while others are still campaigning for its use in Ottawa.

In Maine the matter became deeply partisan in 2017, as the Republican party – which held the state governorship and majorities on both state elected assemblies – decided that it was in its interests to stop the proposal. Their resistance was ultimately overcome by not one but two legislative initiative votes of the state’s citizens, a power allowed to them under the state constitution.

But ranked choice voting is not at all inherently partisan in its design. The system will play out differently in different communities depending on which minor political parties or independents make successful runs at elections, and how weak or strong each major party actually performs at any given election.

The history of the system’s use in Australia demonstrates that it affects the interests of political parties both for better and worse in different places and different years. Outcomes really depend on who the voters are choosing to vote for.

In any case, preferential voting is fundamentally better for voters, allowing them greater choice at every election as well as helping foster a healthier political debate by allowing minority voices to achieve a hearing, and in turn influence major party policy-making and governing in response.

The American dialogue on the issue seems to be playing out mainly in terms of the distinction between ‘plurality winners’ and ‘majority winners’. In US terms, majority winners can be determined either through runoff elections (which have been conducted in some states for several decades) or, more conveniently, through ranked choice voting.

There is certain to be a protracted legal disputation over the matter. The US Constitution provides that:

“The … Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, ….”

This makes clear that the state legislatures can choose voting methods as they think appropriate. But being the US, there will inevitably be legal disputes about the application of various constitutional rights and restrictions.

In RCV’s favour as a voting system it is a simple, well-tested (in other nations) voting system which increases voter choice and tends towards increased equality of voting power (it does not achieve the latter result on its own, but can do so well when joined with using multi-member electoral districts).


2018 election results give all parties food for thought

There are good reasons, however, to hope that the RCV idea will come to be equally attractive to both major US political parties. Indeed, the 2018 election throws up some very clear pointers for Republicans mulling the RCV idea.

RCV brings into play the presently small minority of votes cast for minor parties, traditionally doomed never to win seats in assemblies in the US, and be seen as ‘spoilers.

At present, minor parties of the political right are attracting larger vote results than those of the left. The best-performing minor party over recent decades is the Libertarian party, prominent in Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Iowa and other mid-west areas – although even it is scoring only around 1-3% in an average result.

Libertarian voters, if offered the option of ranked choices, would most likely prefer Republican frontrunners more than Democratic candidates. But even a modest 60/40 split of preferences would add an advantage to Republican tallies.

More clearly conservative micro-parties such as the Conservative Party (in New York state and a few other places), and the Constitution Party would probably see voters heavily prefer Republicans.

On the political left the development of minor parties is more meagre. Green parties are active in many states, but in most places secure only around 1% of the vote (understandably, given the plurality system and the extreme two-party dominance of the US landscape). Their voters would reliably prefer Democratic candidates over republicans (in Australia, perhaps the only place where the preference question can be historically tested, Green voters support centre-left Labor frontrunners over centre-right Liberal candidates at a rate of around 80-85%.)

Those voters currently supporting the small US centrist parties such as Independence Party and the Reform Party would also get a say under RCV, although their voter preferences would probably not break dramatically for either side.

One other potential factor should be considered: whether RCV might actually work not only to count existing votes more fairly, but to actually attract more voters to turn out to vote in future elections.

It is likely that ‘Green voters’ are traditionally non-attendees, if they do not warm to Democratic candidates, Likewise many supporters of conservative positions, and of course many independent voters, as they are termed in the US. It’s possible that millions more voters would have a reason to participate in US elections.

Having begun attending, such voters may or may not mark preferences for either of the major party candidates, but their mere participation would start to alter US politics towards a less hyper-partisan character, proponents of the system believe.

The century-long Australian experience with preferential voting does not show that strong partisanship between major parties disappears, but it does provide strong evidence that major parties become concerned to position themselves to win the political centre, and to win over non-aligned voters (and perhaps in the US, non-participating voters).

As to whether RCV achieves another of its aims – generating a less toxic political climate – the evidence from Australia suggests that cooperative and respectful relations with minor parties, centrist voices and voters who are not themselves highly partisan is at least somewhat encouraged by preferential voting.

But it does not necessarily follow that political warfare between major parties and their strong supporters will be any less vigorous.


Lessons from 2018

Turning to the close elections for House of Representative seats in last week’s US elections, some key lessons can be learned. They favour the prospect of Republicans – at least in some states – seeing the merits of RCV.

There were 22 contests in which the vote share of the largest minor party vote was greater than 50% of the margin between the Republican and Democrat contenders. In every single case the minor party concerned was from the political right.

Six cases involved the New York Conservative Party. Here a very unusual situation applies. New York electoral laws uniquely solve the problem of minor parties by providing for them to co-endorse the candidates put forward by the Republican and Democratic parties. So Conservative and Constitution parties endorse the Republican candidate, and Working Families and Womens’ Equality parties endorse the Democrat candidate. (Curiously, in different districts the Independence and Reform parties sometimes endorse the Democratic candidate, and sometimes the Republican!). The Green party, if it nominates at all, backs it’s own candidate, not the Democratic party one.

The results here are functionally very similar to what would be achieved under RCV, except that they would be based on a much better provision of choice to the voters themselves.

One case is quite curious: that of incumbent Republican congressman Chris Collins, famously the first sitting congressman to endorse Donald Trump back in 2015, and infamously the subject of charges of insider trading and false statements to the FBI which emerged during his recent re-election campaign.

Collins was re-elected last week according to New York electoral law, but he was not quite the simple plurality winner in terms of party votes. Collins scored 109,000 votes as Republican candidate, while his Democratic challenger scored 120,000.

But because the other minor parties in New York elections do not generally nominate their own individual candidates, but largely endorse one of the two front-runners, Collins garnered an additional 24,000 votes through the tickets of the Conservative and Independence parties, while the Democratic candidate picked up a further 10,000 votes from the Working Families and Womens’ Equality tickets. (The Reform Party won 5,700 votes, but unhelpfully actually nominated its own candidate for once, depriving their voters of influence on the final result.)

The end result is that Collins was re-elected narrowly, with around 134,000 votes to around 131,000 votes (the exact numbers, including those given above, have yet to be finalised and certified).

This result is in many ways politically simpler to that in the second district of Maine, where RCV was used. While the two approaches are different, and RCV certainly offers the voters in Maine more options and more information, the results work out quite similarly.

But if the arguments advanced by the defeated Republican candidate in Maine held any constitutional weight, they would logically also force the New York system to be reexamined. Yet in the Collins case the Republican party of New York is not going to court to argue that the New York law is unconstitutional by denying victory to the raw plurality winner.

The other common situation in 2018 House elections was where Libertarian candidates did well (relatively at least, still winning only around 2-4% of the vote), as happened in Texas in particular, as well as Iowa and in a few other specific districts scattered across other states.

The Texas situation is worth a specific look, and will give Republican strategists much to ponder.

Last week there were as many as 10 congressional districts out of 36 across Texas where the winning margin was less than 20,000 votes. The Republicans won 8 of these close contests, the Democratic party just 2. But significantly, 9 of the 10 cases had a well-preforming Libertarian candidate, and over half the cases saw the Libertarian score more than 50% of the winner’s margin of victory in votes. In the ultra-close result in the 34thdistrict, the Libertarian candidate won more than 4 times the winning margin of votes.

These 8 Texan Republican seats now form the front line of the 2020 election contest. They are all seats which could flip quite easily in a higher-turnout presidential election should the Democrats continue to make the demographic and voting gains seen last week.

In such conditions, having the preferences of Libertarian voters stay in play under the RCV system could make all the difference in incumbent Republicans defending these seats.

Indeed, there are at least four districts around the country where ranked choice voting may have served to save Republican defendant that was defeated in last week’s election: the districts of New York 19 and 22, New Jersey 3 and Iowa 3 were all close wins by Democratic challenges which might have been saved by RCV last week.

By contrast there do not appear to be any close contests where RCV would have handed a Republican result over to a Democratic candidate last week.

Those outcomes do not however mean that RCV is inherently Republican-favoring. It’s merely an analysis of this year’s particular set of very close results.

As Australian elections show clearly, the patterns of election wins scrapped out from preferential votes in the closest races changes from election to election, depending on minor party configurations, geography and most fundamentally on which parties are persuading voters to vote for them. RCV is partisan-neutral in design.

But facing the continuation of a clear trend of voter support towards Democrats emerging in the past two years, and with the prospect of significant divisions amongst its traditional voters as the Trump caravan of political drama rolls onward, RCV may well come to look like a wise insurance policy for Republicans in closely contested states and specific districts.

A historical alignment between fairer voting policy and tactical partisan calculations (well-founded or otherwise) was, after all, what brought preferential voting to Australian elections a century ago, in 1918.

Of course, all such calculations might prove of limited predictive value, if the introduction of RCV attracted millions of new voters to future elections, potentially rewriting existing political assumptions. But that, also, would be a welcome development for American democracy.


(* ‘ranked choice’ voting is a relatively recent term adopted in the US for the method of voter-ordered vote transfers, known in Australia as preferential voting. It is also termed instant runoff voting in the US and Canada and the alternative vote in the UK and other English-speaking nations. The approach can be used in single-member elections or in multi-member elections, the latter being the voting system known worldwide as the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system.)

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