More evidence needed to clarify the ranked-choice voting debate

Written by Derek Monson

May 12, 2022

As Sutherland Institute recently researched ranked-choice voting (RCV) in Utah and analyzed its benefits and drawbacks, it became apparent that the debate around RCV tended to focus more on theory than evidence.

Hence, the purpose of our analysis became “to synthesize and analyze the available evidence and data on RCV to inform the public and policymakers about its current and potential future implementation” – including scholarly research, available survey data and RCV stakeholder input.

The focus on theory makes sense given the fact that RCV is not used for most U.S. elections. Where most elections are administered using traditional voting methods, data about the impacts of RCV in the U.S. is, in turn, relatively sparse.

A recent exchange of essays regarding the merits (or demerits) of RCV, published in American Purpose, illustrates this dynamic.

One essay, published by former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards, argued that RCV is an anti-democratic election system that will fail to build confidence in elections among American voters and that it doesn’t take elections seriously. The following quote captures the argument:

Election systems don’t exist in a void; the people we elect will be charged with actually running a government, and election systems must be based on an understanding of the purposes of elections. That is the reason why we don’t simply let groups of insiders choose our officials for us or pass along public offices as an inheritance. Our election systems must also serve the purposes of governing: They must place in positions of authority the men and women thought by the greatest number of voters to be best equipped to meet the current challenges. These are high standards, and this is where RCV becomes problematic: It is a profoundly anti-democratic system that elevates conviviality to the highest rank of qualifications for public office, and in this way treats politics and governance as parlor games.

A second essay, written by a trio of authors in response to Edwards’ essay, argued that RCV is a more democratic system than traditional voting – that it has broad support among Americans and will fix the problems created by the polarized and polarizing two-party system. The following quote captures their rebuttal:

Edwards calls RCV “anti-democratic” because it elevates “conviviality to the highest rank of qualifications for public office.” We think this gets things backwards. The logic of RCV is not to elevate conviviality but to punish gratuitously polarizing candidates who might mobilize an intense first-round following but are unacceptable to most of the electorate. That is a democratically worthy goal.

Moreover, if we want to avoid “anti-democratic” methods, what is more anti-democratic: a candidate winning an election with just a plurality of the vote, or a series of instant runoffs that produces a majority winner?

These competing theories about RCV are interesting and thought-provoking – worth a read for anyone desiring to learn more about the theory of RCV elections relative to other election systems. They are also nearly impossible to prove in the U.S. context because the available facts and real world evidence are insufficient to do so.

In the end, what is needed to better inform – and perhaps one day settle – the debate about RCV is the sustained practical application of RCV over time, which will produce real-world evidence of the impact of RCV relative to traditional voting. This is part of the purpose of Utah’s municipal election pilot project, which allows cities and towns in the state to opt into using RCV for city elections in place of traditional voting.

Both advocates and opponents of RCV should exercise wisdom by allowing Utah’s RCV pilot program to play out (it runs until 2026). The policy temptation is to rush to expand or extinguish RCV in Utah based on talking points grounded more in theory than in practice. But we may actually learn where RCV can succeed through its clearly beneficial impacts and where it may fail due to its real drawbacks if we show the patience to let Utah voters try RCV and then observe its impacts.

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