The problem with ranked choice voting

Ranked choice voting is the answer to a question only a bureaucrat would even think to ask.

To simplify, RCV is a voting method used most recently in the 2022 Alaskan congressional election, which Sarah Palin notoriously lost — that in theory blurps out a winner who is actually (really really trust us on this) the most representative of the wishes of the electorate.

This magic trick is accomplished by people voting for their first choice, second, etc., and then the numbers are added up and moved about and cut and pasted, and then the registrar of voters announces a winner a few weeks after Election Day.  (Here is a more technical description of the process from a D.C.-based group that supports the idea.)

The specifics of the process are not complicated, but they are intensely obtuse, leading to one of the major criticisms of RCV: trust in election systems is the bedrock of a democratic republic, and if that system is turned into a complicated black box, then that trust is damaged, harming the nation as a whole.

But the overly complicated specifics of the system may, in fact, be the least of its problems.

In reviewing pro-RCV articles and editorials and papers, one thing becomes clear: political insiders, especially of the "progressive" stripe, love it.

It is popular in that milieu in part because of its complexity — it needs more government workers to count and explain than regular voting. 

It's also popular because it favors a certain type of candidate and a certain type of campaign — to wit: "moderate" and "nice."

In an RCV election, the candidate wants to get the largest number of votes while infuriating the lowest number of voters.  In other words, campaigns become more personality-driven, more milquetoast, more sound-bitey, less aggressive, less issue-oriented (taking a definitive stance on a specific issue could alienate folks who might otherwise pick you as their second vote, etc.)

In head-to-head elections, none of those concerns applies, allowing (admittedly this is currently theoretical) voters to see a far more complete picture of the candidates.

It is also true that in a regular election, the winner is really undoubtedly the winner and did not fluke in to office by being everyone's second favorite.  This "bridesmaid effect" has led to a number of first-round "winners" eventually losing to candidates who racked up more impressive second- and third-choice votes (if everything is counted right, which is not exactly a guarantee).

The certainty of victory created by the one-on-one duel allows the winner to approach his new job from a position of confidence, which is crucial when dealing with the unelected bureaucrats all electeds must deal with every day (I know this from personal experience.)

Therefore, anyone elected by RCV will be in an inherently weaker position that he would normally be vis-à-vis the permanent government and therefore far less likely to be able to reform said government.

And he will be less likely to be the type of person who is inclined toward rocking the boat.

That's why bureaucrats love it.

The other major issue with RCV isn't the what, but the why and who:

We have detected a pattern. Most of the time, when fundamental transformations to elections are proposed, the people proposing them have two characteristics. First, they think it will help their side win. Second, their ideological perspectives are usually rooted in a transformational extreme: They want to change the rules to manipulate elections outcomes in order to force the public into their distorted vision of a supposedly utopian society.

The positive press around the issue uses buzzwords that most of the public should, by now, know are red flags: RCV is praised because it increases diversity,  allows more disenfranchised people to run for office, and favors more moderate candidates in this "time of polarization."

Fairvote, the "non-partisan" D.C. metro–based activist group, sees this dilutional aspect as a positive: 

In non-RCV elections, candidates benefit from mudslinging and attacking opponents instead of sharing their positive vision with voters. This drives increasingly toxic ad polarizing campaigns. 

With RCV, candidates compete for second-choice votes from their opponents' supporters, which lessens the incentive to run negative campaigns. In RCV contests, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those who support their opponents.

In other words, RCV is being supported by the very same forces that are intent on preserving the woke class in perpetuity and see RCV as a way to muddy the waters, confuse the public, and in fact tamp down direct participation in our governance.

Sounds pretty rank to me.

Thomas Buckley is the former mayor of Lake Elsinore, Calif. and a former newspaper reporter.  He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at You can read more of his work at

Image: Vanessa Garcia, Pexels.

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