Ranked choice voting is objectively the right thing to do.
There are so many benefits to ranked choice voting that make our elections more sane, more reasonable. The fact is, it eliminates the worst parts of our current election system. Ample research backs up the reasons that ranked choice should be a permanent part of our ballots. And I will show you that data.
There’s also a decent amount of evidence that, when the masses are exposed to it, a significant percentage of society doesn’t it like it, or at least, likes it less than traditional voting.
I am extremely torn on this. On one hand: I don’t want our government to be forced into bad policies because the “normie” person is afraid of change. If something is objectively the right thing to do, we should do it, right?
On the other hand: I very, very much believe in American democracy — and the idea that every American voter should have their voice heard, even if I disagree. In the end, I’m haunted by one Sandy voter’s comment: “Ranked choice voting, while a mathematician’s dream, isn’t a true representation of voters’ choice.”
I’m a mathematician. Ranked choice is my dream. It’s not for others.
The objective case for RCV
This year, 12 Utah cities are using ranked choice voting in their municipal elections: Genola, Heber, Kearns, Lehi, Magna, Midvale, Millcreek, Payson, Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Vineyard, and Woodland Hills. Those elections are on Nov. 21, delayed this year thanks to the special election in Utah’s second congressional district.
And there are so many legitimate reasons that those cities have chosen to use ranked choice voting. In summary, they are:
Ranked choice voting eliminates a primary — all of the candidates are just on the Election Day ballot. There are two benefits to fewer elections.
First, it saves money. Obviously, if you skip a primary, you have to print fewer ballots, you have to pay for fewer election workers, you don’t have to advertise about the date of the primary election and so on.
It’s worth noting, though, that these savings aren’t totally consequence-free. Former Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen reported that the county “grossly underestimated” the costs of actually administering a ranked choice voting election. In particular, Dominion Voting Systems apparently charges more for those elections than standard ones. Weird. But the dollar figures are a relatively small part of the government’s budget in either direction.
What is significant is the number of participants in the election itself. As you probably know, turnout for primary elections is typically awful, especially in off-year municipal elections. But ranked choice voting means that all candidates get a chance on the Election Day ballot, with all of the attention and turnout that brings. As a result, people simply have more of a voice in choosing their elected officials.
There’s evidence on both the side of the voter and the candidate that a ranked choice election increases civility.
When candidates were polled about their experiences participating in ranked choice voting elections, they reported a number of positive changes. They were less likely to report that their campaign, or their opponent’s campaign, portrayed each other in negative terms. Indeed, they were more likely to report actually praising their rivals. They frequently said their campaigns were less negative than in typical plurality elections. Interestingly, they also typically spent less money on TV and radio ads.
In general, voters, when polled, agreed with that. They said they noticed that campaigns were less negative, and were less likely to report that candidates were criticizing each other when compared to normal plurality elections.
They also were more likely to be contacted by a candidate or its campaign individually. To me, that’s a great sign: I prefer to engage with a candidate and ask about the issues I care about over trying to understand their platform from negative TV ads.
Escaping the two-party scourge
As you are no doubt aware, our current politics are dreadful. Many of these problems are caused by the two-party system, which causes the only realistic choices in every election to be either Republican or Democratic. Those parties’ views may or may not represent the views of a majority of voters — but third party candidates get pushed to the sidelines because they’re viewed as spoilers to the candidates who can actually win.
Ranked choice voting eliminates that concern. With ranked choice, voters can support any candidate they choose without fear of it hurting another candidate.
Data shows that also means that more candidates choose to get involved — because even if they lose, they can work to build a coalition of voters that can have a positive impact on the election. Voters tend to be more engaged with multiple candidates on the ballot, learning about the strengths and weaknesses of each.
And used one way, it can even eliminate gerrymandering concerns. This isn’t the typical ranked choice voting case we use here, but some governments worldwide ask voters to rank their choices for elections involving multiple seats, eliminating the need for districts entirely. Imagine if Utah’s congressional representatives were elected this way — any candidate who got a coalition of 25% of voters to rank them first would get elected. Advocates for ranked choice voting note that various city councils and school boards elected this way are more diverse and represent minority interests better than traditional elections.
The subjective view
So, yes, if you study it at all, ranked choice voting is simply better than traditional plurality voting.
Unfortunately, most people don’t study it at all.
There are a couple of problems here. First, there is a small but significant number of people that simply don’t understand ranked choice voting when presented with it on a ballot. To be sure, the majority of people do get it. But, when polled, 73% of people said the instructions on normal ballots were “very easy” to understand, whereas only 61% said the same with ranked choice voting. 19% of Utah voters called it “difficult to use.”
Whether it’s because of a lack of understanding, obstinance, laziness, or something else, a significant percentage of people don’t rank all of the candidates on the ballot. In 2021 ranked choice races in Salt Lake and Utah counties, about 9% of votes ended up unused when people ranked a candidate first that didn’t make the final rounds, but left their other choices unfilled.
This is a small group of people. These are the folks on the left end of some bell curve, whether it be intelligence or patience or good sense. If I got to choose my electorate, I’d probably just prefer they not vote. Reading their comments in the survey done after the ranked-choice Sandy mayoral race will make you want to scream. But I am, unfortunately, militantly in favor of everyone getting to vote, of everyone having their voice heard in an election... and I must acknowledge that the sliver of society that finds it hard to vote in this way matters.
Perhaps the bigger problem is in the middle: average people who do understand the ranked choice voting system, and simply don’t have enough information to go through the effort of ranking all of the candidates.
Again, this was clearly the case in the Sandy mayoral race, for example. There, eight candidates vied for mayor — and reading survey comments about the process afterwards, it’s pretty clear that folks simply didn’t have feelings about all eight candidates.
People reported that they didn’t like how “it took more work to investigate them all,” when “the information on their views and history was nonexistent on any website.” Here is perhaps the most succinct comment: “Adequate detailed information about each candidate was necessary, but not available.”
To be honest, they’re probably right — it is just asking too much of everybody to know the strengths and weaknesses of eight candidates for a relatively small city’s mayoral race. Even of races where one has a lot of familiarity with candidates (say, for president) it’s tough to distinguish how to feel about, say, the 5th-favorite candidate versus the 6th-favorite.
That was worst case scenario, to be sure. But it’s a hard worst case scenario to avoid under the ranked-choice voting system — you don’t want to limit who can run for any given race, obviously, and the process itself does mean more candidates run. In the end, it might actually be best for primaries to be decided by the limited number of high-information voters that turn out.
Sixty percent of Sandy voters decided they’d prefer ranked choice voting not be used in future elections. To be fair, that’s an uncommon result following ranked choice elections; a majority of voters who used it across Utah wanted to see it continue.
I do, too. In the end, I think the best approach might be a continued trial. In a second go-round, you could find out if the confusion and dismay of the minority is a permanent feature of ranked choice voting or a temporary consequence of change. You could also work to eliminate some of the concerns through a more concerted effort to educate voters.
If it doesn’t work after that? Well, mathematicians’ dreams often don’t come true. We’ll make it through.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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