Who’s afraid of ranked choice voting?

Alaska had it’s first election with a new voting rule and Tom Cotton is pissed.

I want very badly to be snarky here and make fun of the Senator for being so nakedly Trumpian in an effort to discredit any democratic institution the instant it doesn’t produce exactly the result he prefers. Fun aside, snark at Senator’s expense misses the bigger and more important mechanisms that are in play. I think the current instantiation of the Republican party is afraid of ranked choice voting. The Senator, in his angry little tweet, only lends greater credence to the theory. More broadly, its often worth unpacking when incumbents get upset about legitimate institutions, particularly when that anger is asymmetric across parties and coalitions.

What is ranked choice voting?

Quickly, ranked choice voting is any system where voters are asked to rank some number of candidates, n, from 1st to nth. Those rankings are then used to implement a runoff system, where a winner isn’t declared until a candidate he or she has a majority of the top choice votes. If someone has 50% of the first place votes, they win and it is effectively no different that a standard plurality system (i.e the standard system in most US elections). If no one has >50% of the first place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and all of their votes are then divvied up amongst the candidates based on those voters’ 2nd choices. The process then iterates, tallying up the votes, eliminating the last place candidates, and allocating votes from the eliminated candidates based on their 2nd, 3rd, etc choice preferences. The election isn’t called until someone has greater than 50% of the counted votes.

It’s not a point system, like a Borda count, so it doesn’t grant a specific weight to being a 2nd or 3rd choice, so the balance of outcomes is still heavily tilted towards a voter’s top choice candidate. It’s not explicitly an approval system, though voters are under no obligation to rank all of the candidates i.e. if you only want to choose a 1st and 2nd choice out of 10 candidates, that is fine. What the system is explicitly designed to do is reduce the impact of large numbers of candidates splitting the electorate so thinly as to increase electoral noise while also reducing the impact of otherwise irrelevant candidates. It’s not a perfect system (nothing is), and it certainly doesn’t magically nullify the irrefutable math of Arrow’s impposibility theorem. It’s just another way of counting votes, and one that is in no way controversial or even especially complicated compared to the variety of voting rules used in established democracies around the world.

So why the fuss?

Political fragility

Overspecialization is an ecological trap, just ask the koala. Sure, it’s great if you can digest and subsist off of a food source that no one else can, that sounds like a swell way to avoice resource competition. But if you overspecialize in that food such that you can no longer live off anything else, well, then you aren’t likely to survive any meaningful shift in you environmental context. What someone like Nicolas Taleb extolls the virtues of anti-fragility, a lot of what he is talking about is akin to adaptability to and tolerance for unforecastable events.

At the moment, if we can put aside policy positions entirely for a moment, there is an argument to be made that the Republican party is looking incredibly fragile. A sequence of events, some slow progressions over the last 20 years, others shocking events of the last 20 months, have left the Republicans looking highly specialized. Senator Cotton’s response to the outcome in Alaska leads me to wonder if they are electorally specialized to succeed in a context that doesn’t exactly exist anymore.

When I think of the Republican coalition and electoral base, what stands out in sharpest relief is:

  1. The urban-rural divide
  2. Single-issue voters, predominantly regarding abortion and firearms
  3. Trump

The urban-rural divide, specifically the overwhelming dominance of Republicans in rural settings, is the fulcrum upon which Republicans leverage their advantage through gerrymandered district maps. By cracking and packing districts, they’ve ceded a large number of landslide urban districts to Democrats for the express purpose of leaving them thinner elsewhere. The catch with gerrymandering as a minority party in the broader population, though, is that if you get greedy you can go grow accustomed to lots of predictable, but nonetheless narrow victories. Narrow victores, no matter how previously safe and easy to forecast, do not grant a lot of leeway for absorbing electoral shifts. Like, for example, significant numbers of educated urban voters moving to medium-sized cities in red and purple states.

Abolishing abortion has long been a rally cry to turn out voters, and seemingly a pretty good one at that. While pro-choice voters may be just as passionate, protecting the status quo has rarely the same draw as tearing down a cruel and unjust system. Voters may have remained the same, but the status quo has changed and, with it, the prospects for drawing voters to the polls.

Bizarre as it would have seemed to say this 10 years ago, Trump is a bonafide cult of personality. His people love him and he has as much influence with at least half the Republican party as anyone since Reagan, and probably more than even he did. I wouldn’t have said this 10 months ago, but there is a very real chance that he is going to prison. Even if he doesn’t, though, the investigation and trials are unlikely to put Republicans in a positive light with moderate and independent voters, and without the office of the presidency, Trump lacks the same power to shape the narrative that he previously enjoyed.

Actually, let’s revisit the Trump as Republican icon for a quick moment.

One of Seventeen

In the aftermath of Trump’s surprising win of the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, there was floated the possibility that Trump was a Condorcet loser. That is to say, in a head to head election he would have lost to every other major candidate. A retrospective analysis challenged this idea, suggesting that Trump had far broader support in the party than just a loyal and dedicated minority, but I’m not sure how much of that is a product of post hoc endogeneity.

What is not argued is that the 2016 Republican primary still had a lot of candidates late in the game. Seventeen candidates qualified for the first debate. By the fifth debate there were still 13 candidates sufficiently viable to claim a spot on stage. Even if we can’t perfectly adjudicate who Trump would or would not have beaten head to head, the outcome of the eventual election was highly sensitive to the voting rule given the sheer number of candidates. If the primary had been subject to anything other than standard plurality rule voting, it is highly possible, if not probable, that a different winner would have emerged.

The thing about a polarizing candidate is that you are that much less likely to be anyone’s second choice. Under a plurality system you rely on the people who love you, attack the ones that hate you, and comfortably ignore the rest. But some voting rules increase the cost of those you ignore.

About that Alaska Primary

Did I mention that Alaska didn’t just change the voting system for the general election? They had an open primary (meaning candidates from any party competed to be one of the final four candidates). Through a simple plurality rule election, everyone voted for their favorite candidate and the top 4 advanced to the general election where the ranked choice rule was employed.

What would have happened if such a rule were applied in the Republican primary of 2016? What would happen if such a rule were applied across the country where

  1. Roe vs Wade has been overturned
  2. Trump may very well be going to prison.
  3. A lot of people are moving from big blue cities to low housing costs and adequate amenties of medium size cities in purple states

A Democrat hadn’t won a statewide election in Alaska since 2008. Less than a week ago they did it in an election against a former Alaskan governor and Republican vice presidential nominee who’s been on Saturday Night Live. In the second round of vote counting, the eventual Democratic winner received 29% of the votes redistributed from the Republican who finished in 3rd place. There are, it seems, a lot of Republicans who preferred a Republican to a Democrat, but nonetheless preferred a Democrat to Sarah Palin.

Cotton is right. Republicans should be freaked out

I don’t expect ranked choice voting to sweep the nation (though I do think it is better than a standard plurality rule). But I think it is one more sign that Republicans have become overspecialized as a party and are not well-suited to adapt to changing political landscapes. Big things, like Roe being overturned, happen. The public can turn on any celebrity, including your party’s talisman. Rural voters might still mathematically individually be weighted more in the broad political calculus (cough Senate cough), but there’s still the problem that fewer voters live there, which means it only takes a small percent of the population moving to break your map. And what happens when the baby boomers don’t dominate electoral math anymore?

No, the Republican’s aren’t doomed to irrelevance. Yes, they will adapt and rebrand…eventually. But the reality is that there is no greater sign that a party is forecasting electoral difficulty for themselves than declarations that the system is rigged against them, regardless of whether they are railing against fictional corruption or actual institutions that really do work against them. In both cases, however, they are signaling the same thing: we’re in trouble. The Republican strategy of recent decades has been to terrify and pander to the base, attack and ignore the rest. And it’s worked. Ranked choice voting is a threat to that strategy because it increases the cost of attacking and ignoring voters outside of your base.

Maybe that alone is a sufficient argument for ranked choice voting – it increases the cost of attacking people outside of your political base. Given the evidence of political polarization and associated social fracturing, anything that shifts the balance of political incentives from outgroup antipathy to big-tent inclusion is proabably a good thing for all of us in the long run.

8 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of ranked choice voting?

  1. pixelatedpersona September 5, 2022 / 9:51 am

    Very interesting.

    I wonder what you think of approval voting systems? Some (Andrew Yang, e.g.) who support ranked choice voting will admit that approval voting is better in many ways but justify supporting ranked choice because it has better name recognition.


    • mdmakowsky September 5, 2022 / 10:15 am

      I think approval voting is probably cleaner in execution than Ranked Choice voting and might offer a bit more at the margin in highly polarized contexts with extremist candidates, but honestly both are a significant improvement over plurality systems. For what it’s worth, I’d probably still prefer a Borda count over both. That said, if I were looking to improve party primaries, I’d push hard immediately for an Approval Voting system or Ranked Choice Voting, whichever had more current support, as insitutional changes with high expected value and greater robustness against extremist candidates.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Matthias September 5, 2022 / 8:00 pm

    Eh, Arrow’s Theorem isn’t all that ‘irrefutable’. You just have to avoid its pre-conditions.

    Perhaps the easiest target: Arrow’s Theorem required determinism.

    The canonical non-deterministic method of electing representatives is probably sortition. Ie just pick your parliamentarians (or senators etc) at random from the eligible population.

    This kind of system is used for selecting juries in the modern world. Also sometimes for ‘citizens commissions’.

    You can add some bells-and-whistles, if you like. I would suggest to use random selection mostly for selecting a larger body of people, like a parliament, instead of a single position like a president, so that the law of large numbers can work its magic to bring relative variance down.

    I’d also suggest to only pick amongst volunteers; unlike jury duty which can hit anyone.

    As an extra complication, you can still have people fill out ballots, and instead of picking people at random, you pick their ballots at random to fill up parliament. (Add some kind of mechanism to deal with the situation when the same person gets picked by multiple selected ballots.)

    Another way to get out of Arrow’s Theorem is to allow negotiation between the voters. Or even compensation. Monetary or otherwise. Horse-trading is an integral part of politics.


      • Matthias September 6, 2022 / 8:42 pm

        Of course, any of our alternatives might suffer from other problems.


  3. Tom Johnson September 6, 2022 / 12:19 pm

    There seems to be total amnesia about the fact that in 2002 the Alaska GOP pushed for adoption of ranked choice voting (then called instant runoff voting). They got John McCain to voice robocalls urging Alaskans to vote yes on an RCV referendum.

    They also issued this resolution:

    *** Whereas, the Republican Party of Alaska believes in and supports the principles of Democracy, Fairness and Majority Rule, and

    Whereas, Alaskan voters should be able to vote their conscience without fear of wasting their vote or helping elect candidates they least prefer, and

    Whereas, Instant Runoff Voting eliminates majority voters splitting their votes among similar candidates allowing a candidate with only minority appeal to win, and

    Whereas, Instant Runoff Voting eliminates spoilers, those candidates with little chance of winning who can knock off more representative candidates, and

    Whereas, Instant Runoff Voting insures majority rule without having the expense of a runoff election

    Now therefore be it resolved that the Republican Party of Alaska fully supports the Instant Runoff Voting initiative proposition appearing on the August, 2002 Primary Election Ballot.

    (Adopted by the Republican Party of Alaska in State Convention on May 18, 2002)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s