Ranked-Choice Voting: Democracy or Expediency?

California's experiment with ranked-choice voting has produced some unanticipated outcomes in the latest test. With the ranked-choice process, voters choose their first, second, and third choices in an election. If no candidate wins 50 percent plus one or more, the candidate with the least  number of votes is eliminated and his/her votes are redistributed to the other candidates with more votes. The process continues until one candidate has the required majority. 

Proponents like ranked-choice voting because they believe the process underscores the depth of support for the winning candidate, even if that depth stems from voter preferences as a second choice. Opponents reject ranked-choice voting because it  provides a scenario where the candidate with the largest number of votes may walk away a loser.

That's what happened a few weeks ago in several local government races, including the election for mayor of Oakland. There former state senate president pro-tem Don Perata easily outdistanced city council member Jean Quan by a margin of 39 percent to 34 percent in first place votes, giving him a plurality but not a majority. Once the second choice votes were counted from the nine candidates who were lopped off one by one, Quan squeaked through with an artificial majority.     
None of this was important until now, because in previous ranked-choice elections, the candidate with the most votes had enough to win outright. But no more.

Results from the most recent elections raise an interesting clash of values. On the one hand, ranked-choice voting reduces the cost of an election because the process eliminates the need for a run-off. On the other hand, the process denies the leading candidate possible victory in a run-off election where he or she would presumably be the favorite.

So, does this process short-cut democracy in the name of expediency or tap into breadth of candidate support in ways never gauged?

We may need several more elections and accompanying exit polls to understand the answer, but one fact remains clear: In ranked-choice locales, it will no longer be enough for a candidate to ask for one's vote. Instead, the candidate will need to ask for the second or third choice vote as a plan "B" if the voter has another candidate in mind. If you think voting has been complicated in the past, get ready for a new level of perplexity.  

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