Wed, Jul

Let’s Talk About Ranked Choice Voting


REDQUEENINLA - Recently at a local, large political club endorsement meeting, after numerous iterative votes to zero-in on whom the club membership liked best – who merited “endorsement” unequivocally as described by a supermajority – I asked...

whether Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) had ever been considered. I was told “no”, because these endorsement votes require a higher bar (60%) than mere majority-threshold.

The trouble with that response is, there is nothing about the Ranked-Choice process that is affected by the “win” threshold. Rather, what distinguishes RCV from “ordinary” voting is (i) the questions being solved for and (ii) when these are posed.

If RCV-hesitancy follows simply from unfamiliarity with such a new, complex, and important matter, then we need to address its newness and perceived complexity. About the third issue, importance, there can be no debate: Voting Matters.

And RCV is happily accepted all across this nation, from the Bay Area to Maine. These experiences may be queried here (left-leaning advocacy) and here(academic paper) and here (rightward think tank); they’re all largely positive. RCV may be new but it’s far from untested. And in addressing its perceived complexity it becomes apparent it’s not really even new, just a new perspective on what we’ve always done – it’s just the ordinary question, reframed.

Ordinary voting asks for a screenshot of your opinion in time: “Who among this field of candidates, is your favorite?” The question is anchored in time because in the ordinary course of the process to identify a winner according to some threshold of acceptance, iterative votes are taken with an adjusted field of candidates, increasing the chance of crossing the threshold. Statewide in California, we take the “top-two” if no one earned 50% of the vote outright. Endorsement meetings are more idiosyncratic about their filtering, but usually the threshold is 60%. When next the candidates are considered together, it is a different moment in time, with a constricted field of candidates. For endorsement votes, that subsequent election is straight away, late into the night. In a primary election the subsequent vote comes as a general election at a later calendar date.

RCV asks for a screenshot of a different opinion in time: “How do these candidates compare with one another?” This question is independent of the moment; the only frame of reference is the collection of other candidates. 

And that’s it. That’s the difference. If the threshold for acceptance is not reached, whether, say, a majority of 50%, or even a supermajority of 60%, then the question of “who is the winner” must be further interrogated. The issue is then simply when is that subsequent query polled? In RCV it is polled immediately, at the same time as the initial question was posed. In ordinary voting, that question is polled downstream in a general election scheduled to follow the primary.

So, in RCV there is just one snapshot of your opinion, it happens at one time only and from the full field of possibilities.

In ordinary voting your opinion is polled of a set of candidates, and then again later with an abbreviated set of candidates. Same thing, downstream, with a field of candidates curated by the system, as opposed to the full field of candidates being curated upfront by the voter themself.

So that one other difference is whether it is you who is afforded the opportunity to assess the full field of candidates yourself, or instead whether the system will inexorably cull that field for you. The ordinary voting with its culled field involves a set of questions separated from one another by time. The single-screenshot RCV system bears no time-difference in the polling: there is just one question asked of you, once.

From a practical standpoint if a voter’s opinion were invariant through time, there would be no difference in results between the ordinary and RCV system.

Consider a series of endorsement votes with a 60% acceptance threshold of three candidates:

In ordinary voting, the question of “who” is asked: “who is your favorite”? Failing to reach a threshold, regardless of whether 50% or 60%, triggers a second election at a later time, among the top-two vote getters (or in the case of club endorsements via an idiosyncratic method specific to the club).

In RCV, the question of “how” is asked: “how do the candidates compare”? Failing to cross the threshold triggers further consideration of the order in which voters ranked candidates.

Retaining as many first-choice votes as possible, votes for the lowest-achieving candidate are redistributed to their supporter’s next-choice:

Results after rescoring will look precisely the same as if a separate, second, top-two general (or second endorsement) election were conducted between the top-two vote getters with the question “who is your favorite”?

The results will look exactly the same for both ordinary and RCV methods, presuming that the opinions captured downstream are the same as those captured with ranks during the single, RCV.

So that is the only difference between RCV and ordinary voting: the timing of the subsequent election and the fidelity of voters to the initial “screenshot” of their opinions.

There is enormous benefit from an immediate runoff via RCV. When a single, long meeting is entertained with iterative votes, condensing all into one is invaluable. Shortening the campaign period leaves much more time spent actually working, not derivatively discussing what would be done if elected. Capturing a single “screenshot” of opinion is arguably more faithful to some underlying “truth” of opinion rather than passing, changeable – or manipulated – fancy.

And just last month… Asm. O’Donnell of Long Beach has introduced a bill to preemptively ban the use of this simpler, painless, cheaper, easier, smarter electoral reform. You can protest this degeneration here.

But in the meantime, for the rest of us the biggest impediment to improving our elections may be an absence of faith in RCV, which feels anti-intuitive and just… new-fangled. Even while it is in fact functionally equivalent to the old system, just on a shortened timeline.

Because results should be fairly invariant, I am proposing that local political clubs experiment with the change. I hope they will simultaneously conduct several club endorsement meetings both ways, while retaining official results according to the trusted, ordinary process. Bypassing the weighty step of choosing one system over another, the results can be contrasted to gain more understanding and trust in the robustness of RCV compared with ordinary voting. This is the way to grow familiarity with the mundanity of the process:  it just isn’t a big, threatening deal.And it will improve the fidelity – and interminable process which is not good for democracy – of all elections from ordinary primary-general to special endorsement-type.


(Sara Roos is a politically active resident of Mar Vista, a biostatistician, the parent of two teenaged LAUSD students and a CityWatch contributor, who blogs at redqueeninla.com.)


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