Ranked-choice voting is enjoying some favorable national exposure from Question 5 on Maine’s November ballot. If the measure is approved, voters will be able to rank their choices of candidates in future state and federal elections.
Advocates point out that ranked-choice voting can improve political civility, prevent “spoiler” outcomes and ensure a majority winner. But they’re reluctant to acknowledge the serious implementation challenges of extending ranked-choice voting beyond local elections.
The system has been successfully used in a number of U.S. cities and counties, including Maine’s largest city, Portland. But ranked-choice voting experience has been almost entirely for local elections. It’s a very different proposition when an election goes beyond one local jurisdiction to span multiple autonomous administrative units, particularly when jurisdictions use different voting equipment.
In a traditional election, votes are cast and recorded in their respective locations and totaled at a central location. With ranked-choice voting, rankings and transfers have to be cross-referenced through every participating administrative unit. Proponents like to say it’s “easy as 1-2-3.” But when my state of North Carolina held the first and only statewide ranked-choice election for a judicial race in 2010, several rounds of manual processing were needed to get an outcome a week before Christmas.
Optical scan equipment has the added complication of requiring ballots to display not only a column of candidate names, but a row of ovals by each name to indicate the ranking. To date, ranked-choice voting elections have been limited to one or two local contests. A full complement of races could include president, governor, Senate, House of Representatives, state legislature, judges of probate and an array of local offices. With rows of ovals for so many candidates, a folder full of paper ballots might be required to accommodate all the races.
Maine’s proposed “single-winner” ranked-choice voting is appropriate where one office-holder is chosen to fill an executive position, such as mayor or governor. But ranked-choice voting advocates know to fairly represent the diversity of views among voters in legislative bodies requires electing three to five representatives in multi-member districts. A “multi-winner” ranked-choice voting system would accomplish this for legislative and congressional elections but would increase the complications of determining the outcome.
I was a founding member of FairVote, the principal organization promoting ranked-choice voting. I, too, have a passion for fairer and more representative elections. But FairVote’s exclusive focus on ranked-choice voting, to the exclusion of other alternatives, is misguided. As post-2020 redistricting approaches, technical complications and potentially expensive retrofits could give political establishments a justification to resist reform and stick with status-quo voting methods.
FairVote’s website includes alternatives that accomplish the same goals as ranked-choice voting but get little visibility. Those include “open-list” (or open-ticket) voting, similar to what’s used in Finland; “mixed-member” systems that combine district and at-large elections, which is used in Germany, New Zealand and the regional parliaments of Scotland and Wales; and France’s two-round general election for executive offices. These methods are simple, easy to understand and can be implemented with no changes to existing voting equipment.
The heyday for ranked-choice voting was the first half of the 20th century, when two dozen municipalities chose their local councils in multi-winner elections. Traditional paper ballots made for a slow but straight-forward hand-counting process. It was the automation of elections that made ranked-choice voting less viable and contributed to its demise.
Proponents point to Ireland and Australia where ranked-choice voting is used in national elections. They neglect to mention that those countries have centralized election administrations and use paper ballots. The United Kingdom also is centralized and uses paper ballots. In a 2011 referendum, British voters rejected ranked-choice voting for parliamentary elections by a two-to-one margin.
The United States is highly decentralized, with states defining the laws and in Maine each municipality administering elections. Ranked-choice voting has proved its utility in local venues. But to be viable for state and federal elections, reforms must fit seamlessly into existing election machinery. Otherwise, a post-2020 movement for fair elections will go nowhere.
Lee Mortimer is an election reform advocate and was co-chair of FairVote/NC. He has written numerous articles on election reform and served on a state legislative election laws review commission. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.