Commentary & Analysis

Beware Political Magic Pills Like Ranked-Choice Voting

President Bill Clinton once quipped, “follow the trend lines, not the headlines.”

Though meant for a different context, this quote accurately describes the seemingly endless search for the magic bullet that will give Democrats the advantage they seek. 

As a longtime deckhand for the party and its related affiliates, I have had a front-row view of magic pills come and gone. 

In 2008, Barack Obama upended the campaign industry on his way to winning the Democratic nomination and the White House. 

His campaign popularized a form of micro-targeting that used multi-layered predictive data modeling to unmask supporters with revolutionary efficiency. Each voter on the voter file could be boiled down to a single support score. That support score determined how you were treated.  

All previous forms of political intelligence were deemed obsolete, and data was crowned king.   

After he was elected, the left-wing celebrated. They had found the campaign tactics that would lead to a permanent advantage. But it was not to be. 

During subsequent elections, these predictive models led to flawed strategies, overconfidence, and election losses. What was new wasn’t always better. 

From 2012-2016, the concept of an “emerging majority” was the new orthodoxy that promised an impenetrable blue wall. According to the theory, demographics was destiny. Growth in the Latino population, combined with the other pillars of the Obama coalition would topple Republican majorities in Texas and produce a permanent majority. 

In 2020, the emerging majority stayed hidden, as Latinos in Texas border communities and Florida bucked the trend, and supported Republicans in increasing numbers. 

Those on the Left are now quickly gobbling down a new magic pill, ranked-choice voting (RCV).

The Left is being promised a solution to solidify a Democratic advantage. Those behind RCV have no shortage of grandiose promises they’re willing to offer. 

But like the previous magic pills, ranked-choice voting is far from the solution to our electoral failings. 

The recent RCV election in New York City has shown the limitations of this voting method from a process standpoint. The overly complicated method puts an undue burden on our election administrators who run American elections on small budgets and volunteer staff. 

To be clear, the mistake by the NYC Board of Elections is not the fault of RCV, but it’s a precursor of problems to come if this method were implemented on a national scale. 

More important than the complicated process, ranked-choice voting often fails to produce the systemic advantages that its advocates promote. 

RCV advocates often claim that using this method will select a clear majority that reflects the wishes of the voters. 

But the truth is far less clear. 

After multiple rounds of reallocations, exhausted ballots, and tabulation, the will of the people is hard to see. 

While the eventual tally characterizes itself as a majority, the information from a voter’s ballot is not fully represented. 

Some voters will have their first choice, others their fifth choice, all boiled down to one. But their true preferences can be lost. In the end, it’s a manipulated majority that doesn’t necessarily foster consensus. 

Other proponents suggest that RCV will open up the political playing field to a wider spectrum of candidates, including progressives who have struggled to gain traction. 

Again, the truth is far less clear. RCV has been implemented in a number of jurisdictions and the results show that the method bolsters the status quo and presents a false opening for new ideas. 

I share in the ultimate goal of improving elections, and empowering voters who want to see our elected officials address long-term problems like climate change and gun violence. But I urge you to think twice before taking this new magic pill. 

Ranked choice is not the only option to fix our voting system. Approval voting offers a better way to give candidates with new ideas a chance, and it’s easier to implement. With approval voting there is no chaos. 

Approval voting allows you to vote “yes” or “no” to every candidate. It’s not ranking. That’s true. But approval voting actually lets you  express your vote in a more meaningful way. 

Unlike RCV, approval voting actually lets you say whether you even like the candidates rather than just ranking their relative order of preference. And the number of candidates will never be an obstacle with approval voting because voters don’t have to worry about fatigue from ranking a long list or having the ballot restrict how many candidates they can have an opinion on. And finally, approval voting uses all the information you share—unlike RCV which can ignore large amounts of ballot data through its tally.

Rather than concocting a majority, approval voting plainly shows voter preference, and gives a realistic accounting of support for ideas, even for candidates who don’t win. 

Voters in Fargo, ND and St. Louis, MO have already used approval voting, and polls have shown that strong majorities like the freedom it provides.  

Earlier this year, Tishaura Jones – a bold progressive – was elected mayor of St. Louis, following the open primary which used approval voting. Approval voting gave voters the freedom to select their true preferences and provided a pure look at the wishes of the community. The results of the election were known that night. 

Many progressives will tell you that ranked-choice voting is the answer, the future of our democracy. But beware the latest magic pill, and consider approval voting as a clear option.