How Ranked Choice Voting Increases Campaign Civility

By changing the math of how votes are counted, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) changes the calculations that candidates make when deciding how to campaign. Plurality voting is a zero sum game where each candidate either gets your vote or doesn’t; one candidate’s loss is their opponent’s gain so there is strong incentive for each candidate to attack the other. In terms of election outcomes it doesn’t matter if a candidate gets a vote because voters like them, or if they get it because voters hate their opponent.

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Under RCV on the other hand, there are incentives for candidates to make sure that even the voters who don’t like them the most still like them some.

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With RCV it’s possible to win the vote by simply getting over 50% of the 1st choice rankings. But frequently no candidate will get more than half of the number 1 votes. When that happens the candidate with the fewest number 1 rankings is dropped and the count is redone. During the second count the ballots with the dropped candidate as 1st choice are assigned to the candidate listed as 2nd choice. If there is still no candidate with over 50% then the process is repeated until someone wins.

In order to win using RCV a politician needs to be the number 1 choice for a lot of voters in order to not get knocked from the ballot after the first count. But, a politician will also often have to rely on being ranked number 2 or even number 3 by a lot of their opponents’ supporters in order to secure a win. Campaign ads that attack or demonize a political opponent are counter productive in this scenario because they are likely to alienate the opponent’s supporters. In cities that currently use RCV for certain elections like Minneapolis and San Francisco this has led to some interesting changes in how campaigns are conducted. There have been instances of candidates in these races saying who voters should put as their number 2 choice, organizations endorsing both a number 1 and a number 2 candidate, and even candidates campaigning together, which is a level of civility that would be unheard of and pointless in a plurality election. And voters seemed to notice the difference too. Surveys conducted after RCV elections showed voters perceiving less negative campaigning and candidate criticism.

Ranked choice voting doesn’t just impact how candidates relate to each other.  It also has an effect on how candidates relate to voters. Under plurality voting, an extremist candidate can do well, especially when there is a field with more than 2 strong candidates. In a plurality election a candidate just needs to get more votes than the other candidates, they don’t need to get an actual majority to win. A candidate with very strong support from an off center group will win if several centrist candidates split the vote and each gets a lower percentage than the extreme candidate. In that case a larger percentage of the voters may have wanted a more moderate candidate but because they couldn’t agree on one person the election goes to the extremist. During plurality elections it makes strategic sense for a candidate to campaign with the goal of getting strong support from a single group of voters, rather than trying to appeal a little bit to all voters. RCV encourages the opposite; it rewards moderates who use their campaign to reach out to a broad spectrum of the electorate.

Given the above it may be tempting to believe that if we adopt RCV it will magically free us from our current system of political campaigns that seems to be characterized by negativity, acrimony, failure to cooperate, and extremism.  But in reality the impact of RCV on campaign tactics is limited. Even in countries like Australia that use Ranked Choice Voting for all levels of elections there are still negative campaign ads, attacks on opponents, appeals to fringe groups, and difficulty working together between the parties. RCV cannot work miracles, but what it can do is reward campaigns and candidates who are more civil towards each other and who factor in the priorities and concerns of more voters, including their opponent’s supporters. Ranked Choice Voting won’t eliminate negative campaigning, but it may reduce it, and in a country like the U.S. where it seems like campaign season is all the time and all politics is campaigning, more civil, less negative, and less extreme campaigns may lead to politics that is also more civil, less negative and less extreme.


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