Difference of Opinion

There seems to be a difference of opinion about ranked-choice voting. The editors of the Washington Post support it and think it should be used in more places:

In a ranked-choice system, voters submit lists of candidates in their preferred order. The candidate who attracts the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated after an initial count. Voters who put that eliminated candidate top on their lists have their votes reallocated to their second choices. This process continues until one candidate claims more than 50 percent of the vote.

Not quite all the sunny predictions that ranked-choice voting advocates made about this system materialized. In theory, it should reduce acrimony, but the New York primary race still got very ugly. The system also seemed to encourage gaming; as the election drew near, candidates forged alliances to guide their voters on whom to pick second on their candidate lists.

But this teaming up may not have been an entirely bad thing. Ranked-choice voting encouraged candidates to seek compromise and identify areas of common ground. This enabled voters to identify the candidates who represented the section of the political spectrum or who prioritized the issues that appealed to them.

When voters did so, the ranked-choice system came through on its most important promise: benefiting candidates who are broadly acceptable by weeding out niche candidates who would have fractured the field in a traditional vote. Mr. Adams led after the first and final tallies. But in the final round, his opposition turned out not to be left-wing champion Maya Wiley, who came in second in the initial count, but Kathryn Garcia, a less ideologically hard-edge candidate. Had Ms. Wiley prevailed in the initial tally, which was a plausible result in a fractured field of candidates, ranked-choice voting almost certainly would have saved Mr. Adams or propelled Ms. Garcia into the lead over the less broadly popular Ms. Wiley.

In other words, the system provided much more information about what voters wanted. It turns out that lefty progressives are a substantial but minority group in New York. Ranked-choice voting makes it harder for candidates with a fervent but narrow base of support to eke out a victory.

while Dr. Harvey Mansfield, writing in a op-ed in the Wall Street Journal doesn’t like it at all:

Ranked-choice voting makes the common good inferior to each person’s private first choice. The common good of the country typically gets ranked second choice or below for each citizen.

Ranked-choice suffuses the spirit of systems where multiple parties vie to build coalitions after votes are cast. In the U.S., parties aspire to gain majorities through the voting rather than by secret, chancy negotiation afterward. Each looks for ways to bring together difficult companions: Republicans must reconcile the interests of evangelical Christians and libertarians; Democrats must balance the desires of progressives and moderates. Ranked-choice voting splits these coalitions and requires the pieces be brought together after the election, and not by voters. In presidential elections, the Electoral College produces a majority intended to recognize the importance of the states, one that sometimes differs from a popular majority. But in any case it is a coalition majority.

Voters in a coalition are reminded that most of them didn’t get what they wanted but avoided what they most disliked. Though this is often true, it should not be the goal. The goal should be a first choice willed as a compromise rather than a first choice abandoned for a compromise. This seemingly slender distinction makes a big difference in common trust and the way Americans think politically.

It is often thought that the sole purpose of an election is to make government accountable to the people and representative of their will. A second fault of ranked-choice voting is that it aims to perfect this idea by offering some success to as many shades of opinion as possible. But another, greater purpose for elections was intended by the Constitution’s framers: to find competent governors.

A good result from an election relies on its accuracy in representing the people’s will. The voters should get not only what they want, like consumers, but also what is good for them as citizens. Competency among those elected is never assured, but it will stand a better chance when voters are selecting the candidate who is best for the job as well as the one most representative of their will. Ranked-choice voting may bring competency along with accuracy, but accuracy is all that is asked for. Again, elections are held not to buy products but to put people in office. Competency ought to include the ability to unite the country in a majority, not just to make pleasing speeches to the voters known as “the base.”

A third fault: Ranked-choice voting rewards extremism in the electorate. Voters who make extreme choices should be punished via exclusion from the majority. Ranked-choice voting rescues them from the penalty they deserve for throwing away their ballot on an extreme first choice. One suspects that progressives like ranked-choice voting because it would allow them to vote twice: once for Bernie Sanders and once for Joe Biden.

What am I missing here? To my eye the outcome in New York was almost the opposite of what Dr. Mansfield predicts. It reminds me of Yogi Berra’s comment: “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

What would have happened in the Chicago mayoral election if ranked-choice voting had been in place? A plurality of black voters supported the most conservative candidate running. The present incumbent found her base of support among white ethnic voters on the Northwest Side of Chicago. You cannot convince me that the Northwest Side is a progressive stronghold. I’m confident that Lori Lightfoot’s pledge not to raise property taxes was dispositive. In the run-off one of the two contending candidates (Toni Preckwinkle, the “establishment” candidate) failed to carry any wards including her home ward. I suspect that what would have happened would have been that we would have selected a much less “woke” candidate than Lori Lightfoot has proven herself to be. Given her track record as mayor that would have been a good thing.

What should I think of ranked-choice voting? To me it seems like an improvement.

4 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    In the context of the American electoral process — if ranked choice is used in the general election (like Alaska / Maine), the most likely long term effect is to make the officially supported party primaries superfluous.

    The whole function of the primary is choose a nominee for the party — to avoid splitting the party’s votes in the general. With ranked choice voting, parties don’t have to worry about splitting their supporters votes among multiple candidates in the general.

    I tend to think that is a good thing. Having an officially sanctioned 2 party monopoly to the point that party primaries are organized by the government leaves a bad taste.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think much of the criticism from Dr. Mansfield is applicable to national politics. Reading this piece after the Joe Lieberman piece, it really stands out how difficult it can be for parties on the national stage to pass legislation through in a strong separation of powers system with somewhat weak party systems.

    Local government elections are probably a different animal — many are non-partisan (or de facto single party) elections to begin with.

  • 99.99% of elections are local.

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