Andrew Welhouse: For a first-rate democracy, pass on ranked-choice voting

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Opponents of a bill to expand the use of rank choice voting, distribute stickers to people attending a hearing on the the measure at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, before the bill was yanked from the agenda shortly before the meeting started.

In 2021, I used ranked-choice voting for the first time in our local election in Salt Lake City. It was different, shiny and new.

But overall, ranked-choice voting is like eating an apple with half a worm in it. The more you learn, the worse it really is.

When it comes to participation, access, fairness, and the importance of our elections, it’s clear that ranked-choice voting is nothing more than a second-best option. Ranked-choice voting turns winners into losers, it silences the voice of people who don’t have time to research every candidate, and it reduces confidence in our elections at a time when we need more of it.

First, one of the very best parts of American democracy is that every single vote is equal — one person, one vote. No matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you have, your vote counts the exact same as mine. That’s a feature, not a bug, of our system.

Under ranked-choice voting, your vote counts — unless it doesn’t. Votes can be “exhausted,” or thrown out and not counted, when they are cast for one of the eliminated candidates without a backup. In Salt Lake and Utah counties, ranked-choice voting resulted in about one out of every 11 votes cast — 8.9 percent — being thrown out (excluding multiple-seat races). In the 2021 Sandy City mayoral race, 18.6 percent of votes were thrown out — nearly one in every five.

Second, recent high-profile elections have shown the chaos (and unexpected outcomes) that can come from ranked-choice voting. In 2021, Alaska held a congressional special election for a seat in Congress that had previously been held by a Republican since 1972. The Democratic candidate, Mary Peltola, was given the victory in the ranked-choice election despite 60 percent of voters casting their ballots for a Republican in the first round.

In 2018, a Democrat was elected to Congress in Maine using ranked-choice voting, despite that candidate placing second in the initial round with only 45.6 percent to the “losing” Republican’s 46.3 percent.

In 2021, New York City’s mayoral primary put ranked-choice voting to its biggest test yet. But the winner took nearly a month to announce, and 135,000 “test” ballots were mistakenly included in the official count.

Perhaps worst of all, in one California race, an error in the ranked-choice algorithm meant that the wrong winner was announced on Election Day — an error that was allowed to stand until a third party noticed a month later. The corrected vote total meant that the initial third-place finisher was named the winner, instead of the person who got the most initial votes.

Frankly, we could use more security and confidence in our elections, not less. Delays, errors, changed outcomes, and confusion over the rules don’t inspire confidence —only new reasons to disengage.

There’s a practical side as well. Not everyone has the same amount of time, attention, or access to information for a deep dive into every candidate. Ranking every candidate top to bottom, especially with lesser-known options at local levels, can act as an unintended barrier to participation. Many of us cast our vote out of principle, not the fun and intrigue of comparing the fourth and fifth best option.

Finally, ranked-choice supporters paint a rosy picture, but the reviews from real voters haven’t matched it. The city of Sandy’s response has been a loud and clear “no thanks,” with 60 percent of a city poll (and the mayor, and the second-place finisher) opposing its use. Statewide, 54 percent of Utah voters oppose expanding ranked-choice voting.

In Alaska, one of the earliest adopters, a recent survey found that a majority would repeal ranked-choice voting if given the chance.

Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota have passed outright bans, and in other places ranked-choice voting has been tried, voters have responded with lower voter turnout. Surveys of voters have found greater confusion compared to traditional voting, which researchers warn “may lead to increased voting errors.”

Ranked-choice voting adds complication, confusion and mistrust to a bedrock principle that should be too simple to screw up: “The person with the most votes wins.”

Our democracy is too important to settle for the second-best option.

Andrew Welhouse

Andrew Welhouse is the senior writer for the Foundation for Government Accountability and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah. He resides (and votes) in Salt Lake City.