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.”