How does a candidate who does not receive a plurality of votes win an election overall? How do valid and legitimate votes not count in an election? Rank Choice Voting (RCV). Currently, approximately 19 localities use RCV to choose their local representatives, while Maine and Alaska use the system for statewide and federal elections. Some local governments have implemented and repealed the process, finding it to be disadvantageous. In Alaska, the candidate who finished fourth in the primary won the election and was sworn in as Alaska’s only Congressional member this month.
RCV is a race to 50% of the vote, readjusting the typical idea of what constitutes an election “win”. Generally, in RCV elections a voter has the opportunity to “rank” all the candidates, who are placed on the ballot together regardless of party affiliation. It is entirely possible that the candidate who has the most second or third place rank votes wins the election. In most RCV systems, voting for only one candidate may mean your vote will not count, unless your candidate receives 50% of the entire vote in the first round.
In Alaska, for instance, after a crowded primary election, four candidates proceeded to a runoff election for the open Congressional seat. One candidate dropped out, leaving three in the contest on the date of the election. After the first round of counting ballots, no candidate had 50% of the vote. The candidate in third place was dropped and people’s second-ranked votes were counted. In round two, over 11,000 votes were “dropped” as voters chose to vote for only one candidate. Sarah Palin trailed Mary Peltola by only 5,240 votes in the final tally. There is no evidence that Palin would have bested Peltoa with the dropped votes, however, one has to wonder what the voters who ranked only their first choice candidate, knew their vote would not count in the ultimate decision. Actually, the third-place candidate who was dropped in the second round was the 2nd choice of 63% of voters, which very well would have made him the true majority winner.
In 2020, several pro-RCV groups, backed mainly with dark money from Arnold Ventures and Kathryn Murdoch, spent millions of dollars attempting to pass RCV initiatives in Massachusetts and Alaska. Despite the influx of significant funding to push the initiative, it failed in Massachusetts. In Alaska, there was a question of whether the initiative itself met state election criteria. Alaska’s 2020 ballot measure 2 included three separate issues; campaign finance, primary voting, and rank choice voting. Alaska follows the single-subject rule, designed to protect voters’ ability to have their voices heard. The proposal was rejected by then Lt. Gov Meyer, a decision which was litigated to the Alaska Supreme Court who ultimately ruled since each provision was about elections, the initiative met the single-subject rule. The initiative, with all three issues combined, ultimately passed with just over 50% of the vote.
California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed RCV legislation in California in 2016, citing voter confusion and the deprivation of voters’ choice. Perhaps Governor Brown was persuaded by statistics from San Francisco RCV elections, where “the prevalence of ranking three candidates was lowest among African Americans, Latinos, voters with less education and those whose first language was not English.”
The arguments in favor of the initiative are that a non-partisan ballot provides more choices to voters and allows a true majority to prevail at elections. For instance, if two Democrats split the vote in a primary and neither receives 50%, a majority of voters has not supported either candidate. By placing all candidates on a ballot and allowing voters to “rank” their vote, arguably the winner has a majority of support. However, in practice, this does not occur. Because of the “dropped” or “exhausted” ballots which are cast aside, a study by the Maine Heritage Policy Center shows only 38.54% of “winners” in RCV races actually receive a majority of votes cast. The “majority” is based on redistributed ballots, not the voters’ first choice.
The race to 50%, or rank choice voting, does not create more choices, nor guarantee a majority vote for any candidate. In a time when there is bipartisan support for ensuring every vote counts, RCV ensures the opposite. Confusion, exhausted or dropped votes, and convoluted ballot counting leads to results that do not represent the will of the people. Be warned, RCV may be on your ballot soon as deep pocket dark money organizations have targeted other states to push the initiative. One person, one legal vote, and may the best person win.