The paradox of ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting is a technical fix to voting problems. But it can often make matters worse.

In ranked-choice voting, aka instant runoff voting, you rank the candidates in order. Then the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is eliminated, and people who voted for him have their second preference counted instead.  Keep eliminating candidates until there’s only one left.  The aim is to make sure people don’t worry about “wasting” their vote on a comparatively unpopular candidate.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting generally fall into two camps. The first hopes to get more centrists elected, like the UK’s Liberal Democrats, or California’s Tom Campbell. Another popular reform of this type is open primaries, and centrists will keep coming up with these ideas as long as they can’t get anyone to vote for them.

The second hopes to get more left-wing parties running, like Greens or Socialists. The argument goes that people don’t vote for Greens like Nader because they’re worried about splitting the left-of-centre vote and letting the right in, as in 2000. But with ranked-choice voting, Nader could have run, disaffected Democrats could have indulged themselves with a protest vote for him, and it would have all worked out OK – Nader’s votes would have been redistributed to Gore, letting him win. It’s an attractive position, as it lets you be smugly superior in your purist vote without actually having to face the consequences of eight years of Bush-Cheney.

So how can it make things worse? One example is San Francisco, where it’s combined with public campaign financing to give 16 candidates for the mayor’s race. Mercifully, San Franciscans don’t have to rank order the whole set – they only need choose their top 3. But that gives 16*15*14 = 3360 possible choices, quite enough to induce analysis paralysis among anyone who took the task seriously. The “paradox of choice” says that all these options will give worse results.

And how is the election shaping up? With 16 candidates, all the messages blend into one vague mush of centre-left platitudes – protecting the environment, encouraging sustainable growth and so on. Nobody attacks anyone else, because they want their supporters to put them second or third. It’s San Francisco’s most boring election.

Who benefits from all of this? The same people who always benefit – incumbents and moneyed interests – the only ones who can cut through the chatter. What the reformers have forgotten is that, since Ancient Rome, any election worth anything has been, at base, a contest between rich and poor. Not that the patrician candidate is always worse – the rich didn’t get to be rich by being dummies. But the best way for the rich to win the class war is to deny and obscure its existence, and ranked choice voting is an excellent assistant.

Update: The left-wing SF Bay Guardian notes “Several consultants and election experts [the editor] talked to this week said that [incumbent mayor] Lee would be far more vulnerable in a traditional election. ‘He would lose a runoff against almost any of the top challengers,’ one person said.” and quotes Corey Cook, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco as saying “Ranked-choice voting clearly favors incumbents.”


10 Responses to “The paradox of ranked-choice voting”

  1. JB Says:

    Funny that the rich folks in San Francisco are the ones trying to get rid of ranked choice voting. That suggests you don’t have it right.

    • erehweb Says:

      Thanks for your comment, JB! Definitely possible I don’t have it right, and I’m genuinely interested in your source.

      It’s perhaps a little foolish to say that one knows better than the rich how to manage their affairs, but I’m not afraid of that 🙂 I will say that the local public radio station this morning asserted that ranked choice gave an advantage to incumbents. And if I were the incumbent, I would much rather be running in this ranked-choice election than have to possibly face a runoff against the best of the rest.

    • cellogant Says:

      He definitely has it wrong- the popular vote is even more grossly gamed by the rich and corporate interests. The Rank Choice vote is not perfect as no voting system can be, but it is leaps and bounds better than the popular vote or any other alternate vote besides maybe approval vote….

  2. David Cary Says:

    Thanks for the disinformation.

    You’ve demonstrated the foolish extremes some people will go to make even simple things sound complicated.

    RCV favors incumbents compared to what? How often did KQED say incumbents were defeated under traditional systems? Or did they conveniently omit that crucial point?

    • erehweb Says:

      Well, it was a throwaway remark, without a statistical analysis done. I’ll stand by my point that if I were the incumbent mayor Ed Lee, I would rather be running under RCV than having to deal with a runoff (probably against Avalos?). I don’t think he would fare so well in a one-on-one contest.

    • erehweb Says:

      See also the update to the main post. The SFBG appears to agree that RCV favors incumbents compared to the traditional system in general, and advantages Ed Lee in particular. In and of itself, this is not necessarily an argument against RCV. But it’s as well to know what we’re dealing with.

  3. Clay Shentrup Says:

    Approval Voting is a vastly simpler system which results in more democratic results as objectively measured via Bayesian Regret calculations.

    Voters get an ordinary ballot, but can simply vote for as many candidates as they wish. The candidate with the most votes wins.

    Let’s make this happen in San Francisco. Call me at 206.801.0484 if you want to find out how.

    • erehweb Says:

      Thanks for the comment and links, Clay. Approval voting looks interesting, and I wonder why RCV won out over it. I do think that traditional runoff voting has some value in that it helps people to form preferences – it’s fairly easy to decide once things have been narrowed down to the top 2 – not so easy to decide which of the 16 are acceptable. Yes, traditional runoff has problems with encouraging people to vote for an electable candidate, but I think these are overstated, and not so bad, since everyone understands the game. But I look forward to diving more into the information you’ve shown.

      • Clay Shentrup Says:

        > I wonder why RCV won out over it

        Because FairVote (originally called Citizens for Proportional Representation) has a long-term goal of getting parliamentary democracy in the USA, using a multi-winner proportional system called STV. IRV is just the single-winner form of STV, so implementing IRV is a “stepping stone” strategy which gets them much closer to STV. Therefore they don’t seem to care whether IRV is a good or bad voting method, as long as it helps get them to their goal. No credible force was around to make a counter-proposal in favor of Approval Voting back when FairVote worked to implement this change. Thus their torrent of misinformation went unchecked, and they won.

        > I do think that traditional runoff voting has some value in that it helps people to form preference

        True, but it may not matter. If the best candidate to go to the runoff is, on average, worse than the candidate who would win with Approval Voting, then it doesn’t matter how much value that runoff has. Even if it causes voters to make the best decision they could possibly hope to make between those two candidates, they’ll still get a worse result than they would have with Approval Voting.

        There is significant statistical evidence to suggest this is the case. Particularly the Bayesian Regret calculations. A concrete example would be the last French presidential election. Royal (socialist) went to the runoff against Sarkozy (conservative), and Sarkozy won. But Bayrou (centrist) was preferred head-to-head vs. BOTH Royal AND Sarkozy. It seems pretty clear that Bayrou was the social utility maximizer (most preferred by the most people). And in fact a large Approval Voting exit poll (and other evidence) says he would have won with Approval Voting, even though we would have only gotten something like 44% approval.

        However, your point is still taken, and I think it’s valid. It’s quite reasonable to still use a runoff with Approval Voting, if no candidate is approved by a majority of voters. In that case, Approval Voting still causes runoffs to be less frequent, AND it puts better candidates INTO the runoff.

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