Electoral reforms often don’t have the results proponents foresee—witness campaign-finance rules that empower wealthy candidates, or “independent” redistricting bodies that also gerrymander. So it is with ranked-choice voting (RCV), an idea that has taken hold in two dozen mostly liberal cities. On Nov. 3, RCV will face its biggest electoral test to date as voters in Alaska and Massachusetts decide whether to adopt it statewide.
As the name implies, ranked-choice voting means voters rank candidates in order of preference. Less intuitive is how this produces a single winner. It works like this: The counting proceeds in a number of “rounds.” In the first round, the candidate who has the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. For voters who ranked that candidate first, their second choice becomes their first choice. A second round of counting follows, and the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated again. The process is over when one candidate has a majority of first-place votes.
Got it? It’s confusing. But proponents claim a host of benefits. First, they appeal to moderates by arguing RCV races would be less divisive as the winning candidate would need to have broader appeal.
They also appeal to more ideological voters—especially on the left—by arguing that they can express their views with more precision in a ranked-choice system. If states used ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, for example, left-wing alternatives like Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 would be less threatening to Democrats. Their votes would presumably have gone to Al Gore and Hillary Clinton in the second round.
No one knows for sure the long-term impact of RCV on federal or state general elections. Maine was the first state to use it at that level in 2018. Democratic challenger Jared Golden trailed the Republican incumbent in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District by 2,000 votes in the initial tally, but won by about 3,000 votes when third and fourth choice candidates were included.