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Donald Scarinci, founding partner of Scarinci Hollenbeck. (Photo: Donald Scarinci.)

Scarinci: Is Ranked Choice Voting the Solution to Political Extremism?

By David Wildstein, March 28 2023 12:00 pm

Ranked voting won’t eliminate extreme partisanship in U.S. politics. However, proponents argue that it could foster more moderation and encourage positive campaigning.

What Is Ranked Choice Voting?

Most U.S. elections use plurality voting, where the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins. While this system has worked for hundreds of years, it can result in candidates being elected without support from a majority of voters.

Under a ranked choice voting (RCV) system, voters select from a slate of options and rank candidates in order of their preference. After counting voters’ first choices, if no candidate receives a majority of votes (more than 50%), then the candidate with the fewest votes is removed from the race. Ballots of voters who selected the eliminated candidate as their first choice are then reallocated to those voters’ second choice. The process continues until a candidate receives a majority of the votes. Depending on how many candidates there are and how close the vote is, multiple rounds may be required.

Across the country, 62 jurisdictions now use ranked choice. Alaska and Maine have adopted the method for statewide elections, while cities like New York City use it for local races. Voters in Evanston, Illinois; Fort Collins, Colorado; Multnomah County, Oregon; Ojai, California; Portland, Maine; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle recently approved ballot initiatives to adopt ranked choice voting in future elections, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Is It Constitutional?

While the merits of ranked choice voting are debatable, courts largely agree that its constitutional. In Dudum v. Arntz, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld San Francisco’s ranked choice voting law. In rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that San Francisco’s system violated the First Amendment, the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that there is no perfect election system. It further found that any burdens on voters’ constitutional rights to vote were minimal at best and outweighed by the “City’s legitimate interests in providing voters an opportunity to express nuanced voting preferences and electing candidates with strong plurality support.”

In 2018, the United States District Court for the District of Maine considered similar constitutional challenges to Maine’s use of ranked choice voting. In response to claims that RCV violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the court held that “‘one person, one vote’ does not stand in opposition to ranked balloting, so long as all electors are treated equally at the ballot.” In Maine Republican Party v. Dunlap, a district court further held that RVC doesn’t violate the First Amendment right to freedom of association.

Pros and Cons of Ranked Choice Voting

As a practicality, ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for run-off elections. Proponents further contend that it can improve the election process. For instance, they argue that it prevents so-called “spoilers” where the vote split between two similar candidates allows a less desired candidate to win. “Voters may support their favorite candidate without fear of splitting a base of support or swinging the election to their least favorite candidate,” Fair Votes maintains. “Thus it solves the problem of choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils’ and encourages greater participation from voters and candidates, while fostering cooperative campaigns built on a more robust discussion of issues.”

Supporters of ranked choice voting also maintain that it can help eliminate negative campaigning because candidates need to appeal to more than just their base. “This atmosphere of respect and cooperation leads to debate on real issues facing voters instead of personal attacks,” Fair Vote contends.

Of course, not everyone agrees that reforms are necessary. Critics of RCV argue that it will leave voters even more confused and disengaged. They also think that ranked choice voting won’t fix our current political polarization. “Ranked-choice voting is the flavor of the day. And it will turn out to have a bitter taste,” Gordon Weil, a former Maine state agency head and municipal selectman, wrote during Maine’s debate over RCV in 2015. “Its advocates want to replace real democracy, in which a majority picks the winner, with something akin to a game show method of selection. The result could be more like ‘Family Feud’ than a decision about one of the most important choices people can make.”

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