Commentary & Analysis

We’re Doing Elections Wrong: Patriot Act Fact Check

In a recent episode of Patriot Act titled “We’re Doing Elections Wrong,” Hasan Minhaj shines a light on the problems of the United States’ election system. He rightfully notes that our current plurality voting method often forces us to vote against who we hate, rather than giving an enthusiastic vote to the person we support the most.

In the end, Minhaj endorses ranked choice voting (RCV) as the solution to the problems caused by our current system.

Voting method reform, and ranked choice voting in particular, are gaining lots of attention and momentum in recent years. But voting method reform is an area that many folks don’t have much background information on. Consequently, the technical details often get lost in the shuffle.

Here, we’ll address seven misconceptions that were presented in this episode of Patriot Act.

1. “Winner-Take-All” is the problem.

Winner-take-all merely refers to any election that has a single-winner. We think about this more in the US because we take positions that would appear to be at-large and multi-seat and place them in single-member districts. The proper term here is plurality voting or first-past-the-post. (For simplicity, we often call this our choose-one method.) This is one of many types of single-winner voting methods. It’s also—as Minhaj appropriately highlighted—quite bad.

2. Majority rules voting is the solution.

No voting method guarantees a majority when there are more than two candidates. At first, this sounds like a weird statement, but it’s absolutely true. Methods that appear to do this merely contrive a majority by artificially narrowing down the field to two. The way this is done can mistakenly remove a stronger candidate—for example, a candidate who can beat everyone head-to-head.

Classic examples of this are when an incumbent governor failed to make the runoff in the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election against a KKK grand wizard and a corrupt politician. Polling data showed the incumbent could have beat either head-to-head. Another example is a 2009 Burlington mayoral election where its incumbent governor lost despite actual election data showing him able to beat each other candidate head-to-head.

3. RCV allows for a majority.

As mentioned above, no voting method guarantees a majority, including RCV.

4. RCV will work for presidential elections.

Going state-by-state with a different voting method to assign electoral votes can be a bit challenging. If we’re talking about integrating RCV with the national popular vote plan, that’s impossible. And it’s impossible for two reasons: (1) you can’t add rankings with plurality voting data to arrive at a national popular vote, which is necessary because that plan requires integrating votes from holdout states, and (2) RCV requires that all data be centrally counted and every last ballot be available before counting can start, which is virtually impossible for a national election with 50 different states using different systems.

5. RCV will always let you rank your favorite as first without harm.

RCV appears to do this, but it only allows you to confidently rank your favorite as first when your favorite either is very likely to win or unlikely to win at all. In between, ranking your favorite as first can cause the voter a worse outcome. Burlington, VT saw this firsthand when conservatives got a worse outcome by ranking the Republican as first. Interestingly, they would have gotten a better outcome by ranking the Democrat as first, a better outcome for them than the ultimate winner in that election. Republicans—virtually a third party themselves in the city of Burlington—had the Progressive Party candidate win.

6. RCV helps third parties.

We don’t see this in practice at a meaningful level. While it appears to be the case in Australia, two of the three parties there don’t compete against another. The other chamber of their government where there are genuinely more competitive parties has a different voting method entirely called single-transferrable vote, which is not RCV. (RCV is a confusing name as there are many different ranking/preferential methods.)

There are two big reasons why RCV does not help third parties. One is the issue above in that there are problems with ranking a third party as first once they become more competitive. The other issue is that even looking at RCV in its best light, third party and lesser-known candidates get an artificially low amount of support. That’s because later rankings for candidates eliminated early on are completely ignored in RCV because of how it’s tabulated.

We see this directly through polling using RCV, and we see this fact even clearer when we use a control measure, which we at The Center for Election Science did for the 2016 US Presidential election and the 2020 Democratic Primary (both in November and before Super Tuesday).

7. RCV is our only viable alternative voting method option.

Actually, there are many alternatives. Our organization went into this question agnostic about the voting method before deciding to advocate for approval voting. Like all voting methods, approval voting is imperfect, but it has enormous advantages over the alternative options.

  • It’s simple. Approval voting lets you pick all the candidates you want. No ranking, just most votes wins, like a thumbs up or down for each candidate. That also means it doesn’t require complicated ballots, new voting machines, or extra administration complexities like RCV does. And yes, we have our own cutsie example on how it works.
  • Always support your favorite. Approval voting always lets you support your honest favorite, no matter what. You can both support a longshot and hedge your bets with a frontrunner simultaneously. This helps third parties because people aren’t afraid of supporting them, and because the tabulation process—mere addition—uses all the data at once. This means everyone sees their clear measure of support (as shown in polling data).
  • Addresses vote-splitting. Vote-splitting means the vote divides between similar candidates. Because approval voting lets you support multiple candidates, vote-splitting is virtually eliminated. RCV, on the other hand, splits first-choice preferences which can cause the issues raised above (technically referred to as the center-squeeze effect).

Approval voting was just implemented in its first US city in 2018 and had its first approval voting election this past November in Fargo, ND. The city of St. Louis is next, with its ballot initiative scheduled for this November. In St. Louis, approval voting will address systematic vote-splitting in the Black community—an issue not unique to them.

We’re now talking to other major cities and setting up chapters across the US. But we can only compete when communities have a clearer look at their options beyond our terrible status quo. All alternatives are not the same, and it isn’t cause to celebrate a novel method merely because it selects a winner—any voting method can do that.