Campaigns & Elections

Making the case for second place: Ranked-choice voting explained

Proponents of this system of voting in Pennsylvania are trying to make some headway. Here are a few of their ideas.

A proposal by state Sen. Anthony H. Williams would permit municipalities to conduct ranked-choice elections to be more nonpartisan.

A proposal by state Sen. Anthony H. Williams would permit municipalities to conduct ranked-choice elections to be more nonpartisan. James Robinson

The recount kerfuffle that resulted from May’s bitterly fought Republican primary for U.S. Senate ruled the headlines until its resolution earlier in June. Even with Dave McCormick conceding to Mehmet Oz, one statistic stood out for its plurality: Oz won that primary by garnering under 32% of the vote statewide. 

Oz isn’t alone either, as several legislative primaries in the state were won by a candidate who received less than a majority of votes this year. 

And while most people would agree that a majority winner is better for democracy, not everyone agrees on the best way to determine one. Members of the grassroots organization March On Harrisburg – known for their efforts around the Capitol on gift ban legislation – are making ranked-choice voting a priority, as well. 

“There are two main buckets of issues. There’s getting the money out (of politics), and getting the people into politics,” Michael Pollack, executive director of March On Harrisburg, told City & State. “The way we vote right now just does not really bring people into the process. It keeps us divided and keeps us frustrated.”

Similar to traditional runoff elections, ranked-choice voting guarantees an election winner has received a majority of votes. Voters rank candidates based on their preference and if no single candidate wins a first-round majority, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and another round of tallying is done. When a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote goes to their next choice, and if they don’t have any remaining candidates, their ballot is exhausted. Eventually, whichever candidate receives the majority of votes, meaning over 50% of the total votes cast, wins that election. 

The arguments for ranked-choice voting include that it allows for majority winners, eliminates the issue of spoiler candidates, and forces candidates to appeal to a broader base. March On Harrisburg isn’t the only group in favor of the election reform either. 

Two Philadelphia legislators, state Sen. Anthony H. Williams and state Rep. Chris Rabb, have reintroduced bills this legislative session to allow ranked-choice voting in the commonwealth. Williams’ proposal isn’t statewide but would permit municipalities to conduct ranked-choice elections to be more nonpartisan. 

“Ranked-choice voting would require people” to be more considerate in their approaches “beyond just some rabid base that will support them. They actually have to expand their base to be really considered a viable candidate. It would cut back on a lot of the negativity I’ve seen on extremes on both sides,” Williams told City & State. 

To date, only Alaska and Maine have adopted ranked-choice voting for all congressional and statewide elections. Some large municipalities, including New York City and San Francisco, have established ranked-choice voting for their local elections, similar to Williams’ proposal. However, research from some of these areas shows the voting method may not be living up to expectations. 

Politics is not going to become magically nicer because we changed the style of voting.
Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, studies urban politics and voting behavior. Recent research, he said, reveals that ranked-choice voting may be overpromising and under-delivering. 

“I think if people were hoping this will somehow reduce polarization, partisan polarization, or help elect more ‘moderate candidates,’ you’re probably going to be disappointed by that,” McDaniel said. “We have it here in San Francisco and it’s not like the campaigning is super nice … Politics is not going to become magically nicer because we changed the style of voting.”

Another potential concern with making the switch to ranked-choice voting is that it would make the voting process more complicated for voters. McDaniel said that confusion has been an issue in some areas. 

“Recent research shows that certain kinds of ballot errors increased (with ranked-choice voting) … especially in areas where there are a lot of older voters and non-English-language speakers. This was placing a burden on them,” he said. 

Pollack, on the other hand, argued that amplifying such criticism is just selling voters short. He said education campaigns are needed to inform voters about the method, but that people are used to ranking things in their everyday lives. 

“Anybody who's saying ranked-choice voting is too complicated for voters is really insulting the intelligence of the people,” Pollack said. “I mean, it’s such a simple thing and it’s insulting for people to think that other people can’t rank things one, two and three.”

Williams also countered that argument, stating that mail-in ballots did confuse voters but have now become the voting method of choice for many. 

State Rep. Chris Rabb has argued for ranked-choice voting to become "the norm" in Pennsylvania. / Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images

“Voters are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. Yes, initially there may be some level of not understanding, but after they go through it the first time, they’ll have it,” he said. 

Williams’ bill, Senate Bill 59, is currently sitting in the Senate State Government Committee. Ranked-choice voting proposals in the past haven’t seen movement in Harrisburg, and when asked about the topic this time around, State Government Committee Chair Sen. David Argall said the concept is unlikely to gain traction among Republican leadership. 

“It’s not a subject that has really attracted much attention,” Argall told City & State. “I think what we will do in Pennsylvania is allow other states to experiment with it. Then once we have seen more evidence I think perhaps we’ll be more willing to consider it here.” Argall noted that election reforms related to ballot-counting and security are higher priorities at the moment. 

Whether or not there’s broad support for ranked-choice voting in the commonwealth, proponents say it doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Armin Samii, ranked-choice voting policy and research lead with March On Harrisburg, said the McCormick-Oz brouhaha is just one example of how the Republican Party could benefit from ranked-choice voting. 

“It gets very hard for the entire Republican Party to get behind the candidate in the general (election) when in the primary, they won with only 30 to 35% of the vote,” Samii said. “We’re always told the most popular candidate is the one that wins the election, but that’s just not the case. And ranked-choice voting points out that contradiction, where you can have remarkably unpopular candidates get through these really crowded fields.”

Williams remarked that having a broader base of voters allows for the most credible candidate – at least in the voters’ eyes – to come out on top. “I think that benefits whatever political persuasion you sit in,” he said.