Give Ranked Choice a Chance


536px-irv_counting_flowchart1As a former University of Puget Sound student who worked on the “Yes on Three” campaign to bring ranked choice voting (or, as we called it during the campaign, instant runoff voting) to Pierce County in 2006, I was disappointed to hear the news that the Pierce County Council voted put a repeal measure on the ballot this fall. Its action flies in the face of how well ranked choice voting (RCV) is working in other states and the rising support for the system, which now includes President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain.

Talking to friends back in Pierce County, the perception is that not enough voters understand the system. This comes as a big surprise to me. Of the countless number of voters that I talked to in 2006, only a single person objected to the system because they thought it was confusing. In the nine other municipalities that have run ranked choice elections this decade, voters have handled it quite well – in fact the number of invalid ballots was very low in Pierce’s RCV races as well. I have faith that people in my former county can handle ranking candidates just as well as they can in any of the other places using RCV.

Take the recent mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont, which had four strong candidates. The campaign was highly touted for its substantive nature and widespread participation of the candidates in debates and public forums. Voters handled the system easily, with only one person casting an invalid ballot out of 8,980 voters. The city spent just three cents per registered voter on voter education, but voters in the lowest-income areas were just as likely to rank additional candidates as voters in high-income areas. The full instant runoff tally was completed less than two hours after the polls closed.

One problem last year in Pierce County seems to be that the county’s educational materials focused only on how to vote, without a word to all the new voters in a hotly presidential race on why to rank candidates. Those rankings are used to make sure your vote counts. After the first choice rankings are counted, a candidate with the majority of the votes is the winner. But if that does not happen, as was the case in some key county races last year, the vote goes to an “instant runoff,” to make sure the strongest candidate wins. Candidates with the fewest number of votes are eliminated, and those who ranked those candidates first now have their vote counted towards their next preference among the remaining candidates. This process repeats itself until one candidate has a majority of the votes.

All the voter has to do is rank the candidates in order of preference: 1-2-3. You are free to simply vote for a single candidate, although ranking a lower choice candidate will never count against your higher choice.

In other Washington elections, all but two candidates are eliminated in low-turnout primaries back in August. RCV keeps all candidates and their ideas before voters in higher turnout November elections, with ranked ballots protecting majority rule and avoiding any problems with “spoilers.” By reducing the number of elections and avoiding some of the costly negative campaigning that predominates in top two races, it also reduces how much money it takes to run and win -and cuts in half how much money special interests and big donors can give to candidates.

Having one election will also save money. The county spent money on going to RCV, but that’s history — now the savings are starting. Because of RCV, this fall’s special election for auditor will need just one countywide election – a big savings. If RCV were used for all city elections in Pierce County, the August primary could be eliminated altogether, saving much more.

The county council’s hasty action puts these benefits at risk despite just one election with ranked choice voting and two separate votes of the people upholding the system. Voters approved ranked choice voting in 2006 and upheld it in 2007 for a reason, however. They wanted more democratic elections for less cost and didn’t like the idea of the pick-a-party primary in county elections. These were certainly noble goals, and it would be a disservice to citizens of Pierce County to scrap the system now.

Erik Connell is a 2007 graduate of the University of Puget Sound. He is currently a Democracy Fellow at FairVote, a nonprofit election reform and voting rights organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland.

7 Responses to “Give Ranked Choice a Chance”

  1. Don Don Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. There has been so much misinformation and misunderstanding about something that should be fairly simple to explain and understand.

    I had friends, very smart friends, trying to figure how to game the system … “what strategy should I use when choosing the order?” My response was that it’s pretty simple … your favorite gets your first vote; your second favorite gets your second vote. There is nothing else to it.

    I also got an email from a candidate, a candidate I had voted for and supported, for county office who claimed that RCV had cost him the election.This was simply wrong. He lost either way, but RCV put a candidate into office more in tune with his beliefs than would have the simple plurality that would have elected the candidate from the other party.

    There are probably ways to improve the system, but it would be a shame to throw RCV out, simply because it was explained poorly and apparently misunderstood by some.

    If RCV were in place for national elections, you could vote for a third party candidate without “wasting” your vote. Remember 2000?


  2. Walker Lindley Walker Lindley Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, I think IRV is a really great way to run elections. On a completely unrelated note, how are you liking Takoma Park? I did that move in the opposite direction, living just outside Takoma Park in Silver Spring during high school and then moving to Tacoma to go to UPS.


  3. Erik Connell Erik Connell Says:

    All ranked choice voting supporters out there, make sure to join the “Save Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County” cause on Facebook:

    Walker, I actually live in Silver Spring also. I live in the Hillendale area (near White Oak). Not the best area, but its nice being so close to DC. Working in Takoma Park is nice, though, definitely good people here.



    Ryan Reply:

    @Erik Connell,

    While the “too confusing” argument is not compelling to me at all, my faith in people to place ordinal preferences on ice cream flavors, yet alone political candidates is marginal. With that said, I’m all in favor of a system that provides disincentives for idiots to vote.


  4. Jen Drake Jen Drake Says:

    RCV is not confusing. The Hacks are saying it is confusing because they are also saying that the voters are stupid (sorry, but I’ve heard several say it in recent days, and I’m always disappointed and pissed afterwards).

    Voters are not stupid.

    Maybe not the best informed on every minute agenda, but definitely not stupid, especially when it comes to RCV.


  5. Pat T. Pat T. Says:

    WIth RCV, the winner does not get a majority from the voters who came out and cast votes for that race. It’s not like you show in your diagram.

    In SF, no declared has ever achieved a majority, even though everyone who promotes RCV and as stated above “This process repeats itself until one candidate has a majority of the votes.”. These are great talking points and many will agree but what if you said this continues until a candidate gets about 35 – 40%. Would you approve this system?

    It’s smoke and mirrors. Approval voting is the way to go.


    Erik Connell

    Erik Connell Reply:


    Saying RCV winners don’t get a majority is like saying winners in a runoff election didn’t get a majority because they did not get a majority in the initial election. The fact of the matter is, in the final round of counting, one of the two candidates does receive a majority of the available votes.


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