This op-ed was originally published by the Washington Examiner on November 16, 2021.
In January, the Alaska Supreme Court will hear its first appeal against Ballot Measure 2, which instituted ranked-choice voting in Alaska by a margin of half a percent . Trading “one person, one vote” for elections that foster confusion, lower voter turnout, and disenfranchise voters is a bad deal.
If the results of New York City’s first ranked-choice voting mayoral primary are any indication, ranked-choice voting is a disastrous voting method , and there’s no reason why it would be any different in Alaska. The court ought to strike it down before the 2022 elections.
Ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank candidates from most to least favored. If no candidate receives at least 50% of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. All first-preference votes for that candidate are disregarded. Then, for those ballots that listed the eliminated candidate as a first preference, the second choice candidates are counted. The least popular candidates are repeatedly eliminated until one candidate has received a majority of the remaining votes.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone. New York City spent $15 million on an education campaign to explain ranked-choice voting to its voters, and it still didn’t work. In the NYC Democratic primary, ranking 13 candidates into five slots resulted in 154,400 permutations, a mind-boggling degree of choice for the standard voter. Confused and less-educated voters often filled out fewer than the number of choices permitted or made mistakes that invalidated their votes entirely. According to a Politico analysis , voters in the South Bronx had a higher incidence of ballot mistakes. The sheer complexity of ranked-choice voting advantages voters with the time, interest, and ability to research and rank several candidates.
Yet confusion is only one downside of ranked-choice voting. The most concerning aspect of it is that it disenfranchises voters through “exhausted” ballots, which occur when all the candidates on a ballot have been eliminated before the final round of counting. Proponents of ranked-choice voting contend that the number of exhausted ballots is small, but a 2015 study of more than 600,000 ballots in four San Francisco mayoral elections showed ballot exhaustion reaching 27%. In NYC’s Democratic primary, there were 140,167 exhausted votes, almost 15% of the total. When large percentages of voters in every election have zero impact on the outcome, faith in the legitimacy of elections is hard to justify.
Exhausted ballots lead to a sobering conclusion: Ranked-choice voting does not guarantee winners receive an absolute majority. In practice, it does the opposite: A study of 96 ranked-choice voting races by the Maine Policy Institute reveals that when you account for exhausted ballots, the eventual election winner fails to receive a true majority 61% of the time. Due to ballot exhaustion, ranked-choice voting only guarantees that the winner has the majority of all valid votes in the final round of tabulation, not a majority of all votes cast.
Some voters are so confused that they don’t vote in ranked-choice voting elections. A study of San Francisco’s mayoral elections from 1995 to 2011 shows that voter turnout decreased in ranked-choice voting elections, especially among black and white voters, younger voters, and voters who lacked a high school education. In both Oakland and Minneapolis , voter turnout decreased in high-minority precincts, and in Oakland, voters in high Latino and Asian precincts tended not to rank their full ballot.
Liberals cling to ranked-choice voting as a cure for all election troubles, from polarization surrounding elections and the influence of money in politics to the need to vote strategically for candidates who have a chance to win. Yet none of these benefits have conclusively materialized. Ranked-choice voting doesn’t significantly change election outcomes and has no positive impact on voter confidence. Ranked-choice voting in Oakland and San Francisco did not ameliorate racially polarized voting, and voters can’t reliably identify the ideologies or policies of candidates, dashing hopes that centrist coalitions might prevail in ranked-choice voting elections.
A system that confuses voters so badly that they stay home and eliminates the voice of voters who do show up threatens to make our elections worse without any tangible benefits. Ranked-choice voting may feel more democratic, but the cold truth is that it confuses, disenfranchises, and discourages voters. Let’s hope Alaska’s Supreme Court makes the right call come January.
Sarah Montalbano is the research associate at Alaska Policy Forum and a contributor to Young Voices. Her writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and Townhall.