Who exactly are the winners of this new and confusing electoral system called ranked-choice voting (RCV)? It’s not the thousands of voters that show up to the polls in RCV elections only to have their votes thrown out. The winners of RCV are partisans and special interests who use the system’s design to manipulate election outcomes and undermine states’ efforts to safeguard election integrity.
Take Maine, for example. In the 2018 2nd Congressional District election, Jared Golden, the Democrat, was declared the winner despite losing in the first round of tabulation with 45.58 percent to the Republican Bruce Poliquin’s 46.33 percent. To declare Golden the winner, more than 8,000 votes were systematically thrown out.
Take also Alaska, the most recent example. In the 2022 special election to fill the seat of the late Congressman Don Young, nearly 15,000 Alaskan votes were tossed out before the Democrat Mary Peltola was declared the winner. In fact, 60 percent of voters voted Republican in the first round, but by the last tally, Peltola came out ahead by just 5,129 votes. Conveniently for the Democrats, more than 11,000 ballots were exhausted – or tossed – by the second round simply because they only voted for the other Republican candidate instead of ranking all of the candidates.
If this sounds unfair, it’s because it is.
For all of our electoral history, candidates have been elected by a plurality of votes. Yet, RCV now requires a candidate to receive a majority of votes in order to be declared the winner. But the only way to create that majority is by systematically removing ballots from the final tally. If voters don’t rank every candidate — even those they would absolutely never support — they risk having their vote being removed from the final vote count. This is because even if a voter’s first choice earned the most votes in the first round, by the second, third, fourth, and subsequent rounds, that candidate — and the voter’s ballot — could be eliminated, as if the voter never showed up to the polls. Even in a runoff election, which is what RCV seeks to prevent, voters are given another chance to choose between candidates.
RCV therefore creates a fake majority, not a true majority. Not only does this fly in the face of our American principles of “one-person, one-vote,” it allows candidates to effectively “fail-up” to beat the candidate that had the most votes in the first round.
If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is.
Is it reasonable to think that voters will be adequately educated on every single candidate to rank each of them? Yet this is the burden placed on voters under the RCV system. And voters must comply with it, or risk having their vote thrown out.
To make matters worse, RCV threatens fast and accurate ballot counting. The results of Alaska’s special election weren’t officially announced for more than two weeks, leaving Alaskans without its at-large representation in Congress even longer than necessary. Complicated and delayed results further diminish voter confidence and lend themselves to accusations of voter fraud. And when the system itself promotes delayed results, as RCV does, it should be rejected. Florida and Tennessee have become the first states to pass legislation banning RCV for all state and local elections, and more states should follow suit.
RCV isn’t just a solution in search of a problem. It’s a confusing and unfair problem in and of itself. And our historic, simpler system of plurality voting works extremely well. Just look at our history. Our plurality system has given us leaders like President Abraham Lincoln, who received just 39.8 percent of the popular vote in the 1860 presidential election. And as others have rightly pointed out, under an RCV system, Lincoln likely would have lost.
Americans win when their votes count. One-person, one-vote, and we should keep it that way.
Madeline Malisa is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.