Ranked-choice voting and the future of small-d democracy in New York

New York Daily News Opinions 1 month ago

It was a strange coalition that opposed ranked-choice voting in New York City last week: conservative Republicans and black elected officials. Even stranger was that both groups made the same sorts of arguments, claiming RCV would fuel voter confusion and depressed turnout, especially in minority communities.

Since that sort of coalition its likely to appear elsewhere, we may want to unpack its logic. Doing so means learning about two kinds of ranked-choice voting. And understanding that as long as people keep pushing the single-winner form, Republicans and voting-rights groups are likely to keep fighting it.

From the perspective of most referendum voters, RCV means ranking candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has a majority, the last-placed candidate is eliminated, and ballots for that candidate go to the next-ranked picks on each. This process of elimination repeats in a series of “counting rounds,” until some majority winner emerges.

But finding the majority winner is not why ranked-choice voting was invented. It was invented to protect minority representation — and to be used in a legislative district that elects more than one winner.

To understand where RCV comes from, we have to go to Western Europe around 1850. Multi-seat districts are the norm, and they tend to elect representatives from two or more parties. But these parties are not well-organized. They tend to be loose factions led by local notables.

Then, sometime around 1848, modern parties start taking shape. They have formal, professional leadership and disciplined groups of voters. They are good at winning every seat in a multi-seat district — especially if the local notables can’t get behind a single slate.

Enter ranked-choice voting, invented by John Stuart Mill at precisely this moment. Rather than needing a majority to win, candidates would need far less than that — originally defined as votes-divided-by-seats. So, in a three-seat election with 99 voters, one would need 33 votes to win.

What does ranking have to do with this? If the local notables did not have their act together, their slate could emerge through the the process of elimination, over several counting rounds. This is perfect for an establishment that cannot present a united front. At least it would get one or two seats in our imaginary three-seat district.

Most people see RCV in terms of “spoiled” presidential elections. If we’d had the innovation in 2000, George Bush would not have won; Ralph Nader’s votes would’ve gone to Al Gore. If we’d had the thing in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have beat Donald Trump; Jill Stein’s votes would (probably) have put Clinton over the top. Elections like these are how most people first learn of ranked-choice voting.

Single-winner RCV was “invented” in 1871. A math professor, William Ware, showed that Mill’s system — originally invented to protect minority representation in multi-seat districts — could be used to fill a single seat. His goal was to find the leader of MIT’s alumni organization.

Notably, the system did not catch on. It got popular with everyday people after 1912 — a spoiled election that produced the only Democratic president from 1896 to 1932. There was isolated use in some municipal elections, as well as party primaries in some states — precisely what we’re seeing today.

But, fairly quickly in 1915, elite proponents of the general idea of RCV went back to promoting multi-seat districts. Why? Single-winner RCV was bad, they thought, for minority representation.

We’ve heard the same concern repeat itself these days, including from the Republican Party.

Republicans want to stop RCV because — up to now, in its single-winner form — it has locked some prominent Republicans out of office. Votes for “spoiler” candidates have tended to break for Democrats. Such was the case in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District last year, which generated a lawsuit meant to render RCV unconstitutional.

People of color, most of whom are Democrats, have good reason to look askance at the current brand of RCV.

As long as RCV is used for single-winner elections, the chance exists for a “white pile-up.” What does that mean? Imagine an election with, say, five candidates. A popular black candidate has 40% of first-choice votes. But supporters of the other candidates refuse to rank that person second. Over the course of counting rounds, a non-black candidate defeats the black one.

How likely is such an outcome? It is hard to say. The only published study so far suggests that single-winner RCV has been good for women and minorities.

But skeptics will say that the Bay Area, on which that study is based, is not like other parts of the country. Racism may be more pervasive elsewhere, which would make the “white pile-up” more likely.

Opposition of this type is likely to cloud presidential primaries, where some Democrats want RCV for allocating a state’s convention delegates. Historians of the primary process might note that the current system was largely the work of Jesse Jackson. If a candidate gets, say, 15% of votes in some state, they are guaranteed a delegate at the convention. Single-winner RCV would undo that system.

The obvious way out is to go back to multi-winner RCV. Mill invented it to protect minority representation. It still has that promise.

Santucci is assistant teaching professor of political science at Drexel University. His research covers electoral systems in the United States.


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