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Columns, Opinions

Walsh ’23: The promises and pitfalls of ranked-choice voting

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, October 14, 2020

When Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III, a fairly liberal member of Congress, made the puzzling decision to run against progressive stalwart Senator Ed Markey, the Massachusetts political media turned its attention to the race. But as this primary dominated the news, another primary, the one in Kennedy’s Fourth Congressional District, flew under the radar. By Election Day on Sept. 1, seven Democratic candidates — including some whose platforms were indistinguishable from their opponents — remained in the race.

The victorious candidate was moderate Democrat (and former Republican, as late as 2014) Jake Auchincloss, who won with just 22.4 percent of the vote. Jesse Mermell, who boasted the most progressive bona fides in the race, trailed behind by only 1.3 points. Frustrated progressives noted that the number of votes for Mermell, combined with the votes for less popular candidates with similar platforms, would have resulted in a Mermell victory. Given this, they made the case for ranked-choice voting, or RCV, a system where voters rank the candidates in order of preference rather than just voting for their favorite.

RCV shows promise, but the challenges and potential drawbacks of working it into the current system are not to be underestimated. While RCV does appear more democratic than our current system, as it increases the likelihood that the most favorable candidate overall will win, successful implementation will call for a redefinition of civic participation — no small feat in an established, 244-year-old democracy.

Under RCV, if no candidate secures a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Votes for second-choice candidates from the ballots of those who named the eliminated candidate as their top choice would then be added to the remaining candidates’ vote tallies from the first round. If no majority results from this, this elimination and redistribution repeats until a candidate wins a majority.

Auchincloss was an outlier in the MA-04 race, barely eking out a victory by sticking to the center. Most other candidates, on the other hand, aligned themselves with the left flank of the party, favoring progressive positions like Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal. Even though Auchincloss won a plurality, looking at the results suggests that more voters in the district wanted a progressive. If Massachusetts had RCV, perhaps supporters of less popular progressives, like Natalia Linos and Ihssane Leckey, would have ranked Mermell second and delivered her a victory. It is less likely that these progressive voters would have ranked Auchincloss second, given his moderate positions and Republican past.

Auchincloss was unique for another reason: He raised more money than any other candidate and secured PAC and SuperPAC support early in the race — SuperPAC support for Mermell came later. Auchincloss also relied more on large-dollar contributions than his progressive competitors did. In a crowded race where one candidate has a fundraising advantage — and Auchincloss certainly did, likely owing to his elite, well-connected family background — RCV could ensure that money does not play an outsized role in the results. RCV will not eliminate the role of money in politics, but it could allow candidates with fewer resources but similar platforms to aggregate their funds.

Lastly, RCV would allow people to vote for their favorite candidate without worrying that doing so could jeopardize the chances of victory for their overall ideology. Polls conducted very close to Election Day showed Mermell and Auchincloss in the lead with other progressives trailing far behind, all with unlikely paths to victory. Under our current first-past-the-post system, people may feel pressured to ignore unique personal characteristics of candidates so that they can vote for a competitor with the best chance of winning. Natalia Linos and Ihssane Leckey had almost identical platforms to Jesse Mermell, but they each brought a unique trait to the table. Linos is an epidemiologist, an attractive title in the midst of a pandemic and a science-denying presidential administration. And Leckey is a Moroccan immigrant with an inspiring success story. For a lot of people, voting for a candidate with a unique identity — or one that they can relate to — can have significant meaning. With RCV, those drawn to the identities of Linos or Leckey could have supported their favorite candidate and voted for their preferred ideology through ranking.

While the apparent benefits of RCV are clear, there are also disadvantages. For many, engaging in politics begins and ends at the ballot box. Voting is a periodic obligation and nothing more. Asking these voters — who for their entire lives have voted for one candidate — to now produce a coherent list on their ballots is a tall order. They may end up just voting for their favorite candidate and no one else. There’s evidence that this phenomenon, dubbed voter exhaustion, has happened in Maine, where RCV went into effect after a 2016 referendum for state and federal primary elections as well as federal general elections. A smaller number of politically-engaged voters are often more deliberative in making voting decisions, so they would likely rank all of their choices. Under RCV, these voters would gain greater sway in elections, as ballots with fewer candidates ranked would be counted less often when votes are reallocated. In an ideal world, everyone would take the time and energy to research every candidate and produce a full ranked list on their ballot. But we do not — and may never — live in that world, so RCV could just end up further privileging highly-engaged voters over other voters.

Research also shows that Americans with higher income and more education are more likely to be politically engaged and vote more often, so it’s also likely that these voters may take more time than their less-wealthy counterparts to rank all of the choices on their ballot. Wealthy voters, by virtue of their higher election participation (and as evidenced by the fact that more than half of the legislators in the current Congress are millionaires) already have a disproportionate sway in our democracy. And if wealthy voters’ ballots have more influence under an RCV system, this disparity could widen. Voters with less education and lower incomes are by no means less capable of making informed decisions, but the data do suggest that their voting trends differ from their more privileged counterparts.

RCV, if all voters were on a more level playing field, could be a promising antidote to crowded races in which victors like Auchincloss only gain a small plurality of votes. But not everyone has the time or energy to examine all of their options, meaning RCV could privilege engaged, wealthy voters — undemocratically — instead. Perhaps RCV is best-suited to primaries for now, since primary voters tend to be better-informed about their choices and thus more likely to rank all of them. But before switching to a radically new system of voting on a large scale, we’ll need more than just unproven hypotheses. As more states and municipalities adopt RCV, we’ll get to see the effects of the system unfold in real time.

Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at matthew_walsh@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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