An Introduction to Ranked Choice Voting

A sample Ranked Choice Voting ballot courtesy fairvote.org

In Baltimore, there are more than thirty mayoral candidates—most of them Democrats, which means that the city’s next mayor is really decided during the primary election on April 28 rather than in November. It also means that the next mayor of Baltimore is likely someone who receives a relatively small percentage of the overall vote. And undoubtedly, many of those running are considering how little of the vote they concievably need to win. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidate pool (at least until this weekend) still had more than a half-dozen people running and there is plenty of strategic talk about taking this to the convention. You would be forgiven for feeling like the whole electoral process is a little skewed. One proposed way to make elections more representative of the voters’ attitudes is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), an increasingly popular voting method that allows people to rank all of their choices instead of choosing just one. To get a better understanding of RCV, we reached out to Andy Ellis, co-chair of the Maryland Green Party and someone who has been raising awareness about RCV.

Can you just describe how ranked choice voting works?

RCV can used for single or multi-winner ballots. In some cases it operates within primaries and in some cases it eliminates primaries and allows all voters and all candidates from all parties to participate in a single, universal election. For single winner elections in Baltimore—that’s everything other than the House of Delegates races—a ranked choice ballot would ask voters to rank their choices 1-x, with 1 being the first choice, 2 being the second, and so on. Voters can rank as many of the candidates as they like. Once it is time to tabulate ballots, a system of rounds is used. If someone has one vote more than 50% of the #1 votes in the first round, they win. If, however, no one has over 50%, then the person with the lowest number of #1 votes is eliminated and their #2 votes become #1 votes. This continues until a candidate has more than 50% of the #1 votes. Currently the Baltimore City Green Party uses RCV, including a “none of the above” option, for our Primary and Steering Committee elections.

Can you discuss how RCV would help change elections and how RCV operates in the US?

Advocates of a ranked choice voting system make several key claims about why it would be better: 1) RCV diminishes “spoiler arguments” 2) RCV decreases negative campaigning 3) RCV ensures majority support. Ranked Choice Voting has the possibility to give people more flexibility to vote for candidates they like, to make more collaborative elections, and to make sure no one is in office with a minority of popular support. It should be celebrated for those possibilities, but the limits should be recognized as well.

Can you discuss anywhere where RCV is in effect?

Dozens of cities in 24 states use or plan to use RCV in some elections. The biggest is New York City, which recently agreed to use RCV for Primaries and Special Elections. On a state level, Maine will be using it for a United States Senate and House of Representatives general election in 2020. Minneapolis, Oakland, and San Francisco are similarly-sized cities to Baltimore that have each used RCV for the last decade. Here in Maryland, Takoma Park has used RCV since 2007.

Can you anticipate some of the criticisms of ranked choice voting?

There are some technical concerns with RCV, including making sure that machines are configured to allow the voting and the tabulation of RCV votes. There is a bill in the Maryland Senate this year that pushes that issue forward—Senate Bill 89). There are also fears that it would be confusing. Former Delegate Cheryl Glenn made that argument in order to kill a 2019 bill that would have allowed Baltimore City to adopt RCV. Furthermore, it is argued that if voters continue to vote like they vote now (just voting for one person and not ranking the rest of their choices), their vote would not be counted in the final tally if their candidate were eliminated. While it is hard to imagine situations where this changes the outcome, some voters will not be happy knowing their vote might not have counted in the final tally. There are also good reasons to believe that changing the procedural technique by which we vote, without changing the way power is allocated in society at large, will do little to address the structural problems that keep many voters from participating.

Specifically, can you discuss how you think it would change the mayoral election in Baltimore?

This would largely depend on how the RCV enactment dealt with primaries. There are a few options to consider: No Primary: everybody from all parties (and independents) run in one election, everybody regardless of party affiliation can vote in that one RCV election. (Minneapolis); RCV in the closed primaries, RCV in the General Election. (Maine); and RCV in the Primaries, No RCV in the General Election. (New York City)

An election with no primary and RCV would be the most transformative for Baltimore City elections. Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, Ujima, Bread and Roses, and unaffiliated candidates would appear on one ballot in one election for all voters. In 2020 that would mean someone could vote for a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green Party candidate on one ballot. It’s hard to know what the outcome would be but it is likely that turnout would be very high, and candidates who may not do as well in the current system would do much better. One thing is for sure, it would eliminate our current two-party closed primary system and replace it with a more open system that made sure every voter was heard.

With regards to RCV in the closed primaries and RCV in the General Election. If we think back to the 2016 General Election where Walden (R), Harris (G), Dixon (Write-in D), and Pugh (D) were on the ballot in the general election, we can apply how RCV could have worked. As it happened in our current system, Pugh had 57.6%, and if that had transferred to more than 50% of first place votes in a RCV system she would have won after one round. However, it’s likely some of those voters voted for Pugh because they disliked another candidate(s) and were concerned they might win, rather than because Pugh was their top choice candidate. In addition, those voters may have had little incentive to research all the candidates within the pick-one system, which would not be the case in a RCV system.

Consider if RCV had existed in 2016 and that 10% of Pugh’s first place votes were instead allocated by voters to Dixon or Harris, triggering a second-round allocation of Walden’s #2 votes. It might have been a much closer race as Harris was more likely to be the second choice of Walden and Dixon voters than the other candidates. Would Harris, Dixon or Walden be our mayor under this system? Probably not, but it may have been closer, and would have more clearly expressed voter preferences. This matters because in a winner-take-all system, votes are sometimes taken to be stronger endorsements than they actually are.

RCV in primaries and traditional voting in the general could have a big impact on who the Democratic presidential nominee is. Fifteen people might be eliminated before someone gets to over 50%. The key question would be how many people would rank all the choices? There is some research to suggest that younger, wealthier, and whiter voters are more likely to rank all the choices. If we have to go through 10 rounds of elimination to get to a majority it is hard to imagine how that would play out.

Can you discuss more how you think it would change the presidential primaries?

There are several states that will use RCV in their Democratic Primary this year, Alaska (April 4), Hawai’i (April 4), Kansas (May 2), and Wyoming (April 4), so we will get to see what happens. It is likely that if this occurs that late in the cycle it will have less impact than if it occurred at the beginning of the process. It is a good exercise to consider what would happen in Iowa or New Hampshire if they had to go through rounds until someone reached 50% given that the winners are in the twenties or thirties at best. The Green Party has used RCV in our presidential primaries for 20 years. The other ballot access parties in Maryland do not use RCV at all.

And how would ranked choice voting help change the two-party system?

I think RCV would make some moderate changes to the two-party system. For example, Dan Robinson was elected to the Takoma Park City Council under a RCV system. I am not sure it would immediately elevate Greens into office, but I think it would be an important part of what will be a decade- long effort to make Baltimore a multi-party city by 2030. There are definitely voters willing to give another party a try, but are convinced that if they must make one choice it must be the Democrat.

In order to truly transform our electoral system to make sure all people feel engaged, RCV is one critical part of a series of changes:

  1. Change the way votes are tabulated (RCV)
  2. Create a proportional representation system
  3. Transform our campaign finance system to prevent donations from corporations and Super PACs from buying elections
  4. Implement a robust public financing system
  5. Allow vote-by-mail
  6. Increase ballot access for unaffiliated candidates and non-principal parties
  7. Hold special elections to fill vacancies
  8. Allow petition by referendum at the city level.
  9. Make sure that incarcerated people, young people, and non-citizen residents can vote.
  10. Add transit-oriented early/election day voting locations

Some of these things are underway and some of these are things we can work on in this decade. If we do, we will significantly improve civic engagement and public accountability.

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