How Ranked-choice Voting Works

Would Ranked-choice Elections Really Be Better?

Would ranked-choice elections reduce Americans' negative view of politics, or at least produce electoral results that voters would be happier with? Those are harder questions to answer. It's worth noting that Jean Quan, the Oakland mayor who was elected in part due to ranked-choice, ended up getting soundly beaten when she ran for re-election four years later [source: East Bay Times].

Critics say that ranked-choice elections have their downsides. For example, they're more time-consuming and complicated to conduct, especially in races where there are a lot of contenders on the ballot. In one 2010 district supervisor race in San Francisco, for example, it took 18 rounds for electoral officials to come up with a winner [source: Hedin]. And some fear that in state such as Maine, where half of the communities count ballots by hand, adding up all those preferences over multiple rounds will lead to more mistakes by election officials [source: Seelye].

Another problem: Since voters have to rank multiple candidates in various races, they sometimes find it confusing and give up without completing the ballot, so that their votes don't count past the first round. Also, many American cities limit the voters' ranking to their top three candidates. So it's possible that if all three candidates on a voter's list are eliminated (a process called ballot exhaustion) then the voter's ballot would be excluded from the final total. A study published in Electoral Studies in 2015 found that in four cities, between 9.6 and 27.1 percent of voters were eliminated due to ballot exhaustion [source: Burnett and Kogan].

In fact, some argue that ranked-choice voting actually results in fewer people participating in elections, instead of more. San Francisco State University political science professor Jason McDaniel, who studied voter participation in five San Francisco mayoral elections, found that it decreased among younger voters, African-Americans and those with lower levels of education after ranked-choice voting was adopted. This confirmed previous research that showed the more complex voting was, the lower the participation level [source: McDaniel].

Supporters of ranked-choice voting find fault with those studies, saying that the sample size isn't big enough to give the true picture of its benefits [source: Grabar]. But the adoption of ranked-choice voting in Maine finally may give us a chance to see how it works on a statewide scale.

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