There are many problems with the most common voting system in the US which is the plurality system where each voters picks just one candidate and the person who gets the most votes wins, even if they do not reach a 50%+1 majority. The problem with this method is obvious, that if there are three or more candidates, it forces a voter to sometimes have to choose between voting for the person they really like or voting for someone they like less because that person has a better chance of beating the third person whom they really dislike. This voting for the ‘lesser of two evils’ means that an ‘evil’ person or party will always win.
One alternative that is gaining some popularity is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), also called Instant Run-off Voting (IRV). In such an election, voters rank each candidate in order of preference. The candidate who gets the least first-choice votes is eliminated and their second choice votes are then distributed to the other candidates. That process is repeated until one candidate reaches the 50%+1 bar.
The recent primary election to select the Democratic party’s candidate for mayor of New York City in November used this system and voters could rank up to five people in a crowded field. So how did it turn out?
New York City’s grand experiment with ranked-choice voting ended in a bit of an anticlimax on Tuesday when a newly released count showed Eric Adams — the frontrunner on Election Day in the Democratic primary — hanging on for a narrow victory.
The new system did not end up propelling an underdog candidate past the first-round leader. But it almost did: In first-choice votes, Adams led by 9.5 percentage points over Maya Wiley. Yet by the time the reallocation rounds had worked their magic, Wiley was gone, and Adams led the remaining candidate, Kathryn Garcia, by just 1 percentage point. Garcia had been in third place in the initial round, but ultimately nearly won.
Ranked-choice voting was the dream system of many progressive election reformers, and New York’s mayoral contest was its biggest spotlight yet in the United States. There were many questions about how voters would adjust to this new system during a pandemic and whether it could live up to its promises.
Ultimately, the results are mixed. It wasn’t the utter disaster some feared, but whether the advantages of ranked choice justify its drawbacks is certainly debatable.
One question that has arisen is whether the new system of voting confused some people who had become accustomed to just putting a check mark against one person.
For instance, there are questions about whether some voters were confused by the new system. Fifteen percent of ballots in the mayoral contest ended up ranking neither Adams nor Garcia, so they played no role in the final tally. It’s hard to say whether that’s because those voters preferred other candidates or because they didn’t understand the system, but in any case, the outcome was so close that their ballots could have made a difference.
One number analysts tend to look to here is the number of “exhausted ballots.” Those are ballots that end up playing no role in the final round because all the candidates they list have been eliminated.
Overall, about 15 percent of ballots in the Democratic mayoral contest ended up exhausted by the final round, meaning those voters ranked neither Adams nor Garcia. So another way to view the final result is that 43 percent of voters ultimately chose Adams, 42 percent ultimately chose Garcia, and 15 percent ultimately chose neither.
Exhausted ballots may have been more consequential in the final elimination round, when Maya Wiley was eliminated. Nearly 74,000 of her voters’ ballots ended up exhausted because they ranked neither Adams nor Garcia.
The remaining Wiley voters broke strongly to Garcia over Adams: Garcia picked up about 129,000 votes from them, while Adams gained about 49,000. This was almost enough for Garcia to pass Adams, but not quite — she fell about 8,400 votes short. So if fewer Wiley voters had exhausted their ballots, it’s entirely plausible that Garcia could have overtaken Adams.
So it looks like if there are four or more candidates, the problem of voters having to make complicated strategic choices remains.
Another voting option that I only learned about recently is what is called Approval Voting.
Studied since the 1970s and often cited as one of the best alternative voting methods, approval voting simply asks voters to select all the candidates they approve of and the candidate with the most votes wins. It’s been shown to easily elect a “good” candidate and encourage competition. However, this simplicity comes at a cost that frustrates some, as voters can’t differentiate between how much they like or dislike candidates.
This system has many advantages, one of which is that ballots will look the same as they do now and voters will still put check a mark next to a favored candidate. Voters will simply be able to put more than one check mark. The counting is also easier.
Our extensive analysis over the years overwhelmingly supports the view that Approval Voting is a much simpler and more democratic system than IRV (also referred to as ranked-choice voting, or RCV). The results of approval voting elections are also much easier to understand than the numerous rounds of vote transfers that IRV utilizes. In an approval voting election, you would only see approval percentages and total votes for each candidate — much simpler than IRV.
No voting system is going to be perfect and solve all the problems. But my own preferences are for Approval Voting with Ranked Choice Voting next.