Opposing ranked choice voting is undemocratic

Sample ballot used in Maine (which has a ranked choice voting system) in 2018

Jason Benell lives in Des Moines with his wife and two children. He is a combat veteran, former city council candidate, and president of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers.

Ranked choice voting should be the bare minimum for a society interested in the most representative and responsive government. It is extremely frustrating to see Iowa Republican legislative leaders work against a more balanced and representative approach to democracy by banning ranked choice voting as part of the election bill numbered House File 2610 and Senate File 2380.

Opponents of ranked choice voting never give any reason or provide any citation supporting their position. It simply reflects a commitment to “the way its always been done,” along with fear mongering about some amorphous specter of fraud—even though the method of counting votes has nothing to do with fraud or misrepresentation. 

In addition to this, “first past the post” voting (what most of the U.S. currently uses) is one of the worst ways to have a voting system and can be directly traced to the gridlock many governments face, both state and federal, and the extremism we see from many candidates.

First, let’s break down why first past the post is so inherently harmful to democracy. The system usually leads to a two-party winner-take-all system, which incentivizes voting for a majority party that may not represent the voter and turns every election into a “lesser of two evils” campaign. Voters often feel compelled to vote against their interests on many positions in order to ensure their least favorite candidate does not win, lest their vote be wasted.

Much criticism is leveled at the two major U.S. political parties for having a tight grip on American politics, but the ballot method is as much to blame as the parties themselves. They are each incentivized to fund “spoilers” to the other party or frame their opponent negatively rather than provide a more representative platform or candidate pool. This is an inherent and consistent result of first past the post voting rather than any specific party platform: the “traditional” voting method will always lead to a two-party system with no real representation outside of the duopoly. 

This leads us to a second and salient reason first past the post voting is harmful: due to this spoiler effect, it effectively bars any challenge to the two major parties. We have all heard that “voting third party is a wasted vote,” and this can be true in a first past the post system, regardless of your politics. If any vote count for any given candidate or party doesn’t reach critical mass, it is essentially wasted and can benefit the candidate further from your position as it robs the one closer to your position of a vote.

This is not new information, it is a well-documented phenomena that has had real effects on elections. If one is to believe in democracy and a responsive government, why would they support a system that intentionally disenfranchises or subverts the vote of the citizens?

To make this perfectly clear: in many places that are ostensibly a representative democracy, the people are represented by someone most voters did not wish to represent them. This is not a good representative democracy and some could argue that it should not be considered representative democracy at all.

Good examples of this particular effect can be seen in recent local elections in Polk County, Iowa where candidates for mayor and certain wards of Des Moines actually had more votes against them than for them, yet they still won their respective races. For example, in one ward, a candidate received only 42 percent of the vote, not a majority, yet will represent the ward as if they had because there were more than two candidates that were running for that seat. Regardless of your position on the candidates, why should a system that tosses out the vote of most of the voters be preferable to one that does not? Is the government still a representative democracy if most voters are actively voting against who wins elections?

This is just scratching the surface of why first past the post is a poor system for representative democracy. There are many mor

  • making it easier to gerrymander voters and creating regional voting blocs that can then be diluted. Gerrymandering can still happen, but is much harder to do if every vote is counted equally.
  • creating “safe seats” that push balances of power to marginal seats instead of representing all voters. It is inherently unrepresentative because an election won by 1 vote or 10,000 votes has the same result, leading to less engagement and responsiveness.
  • “tactical voting” where voters are pushed into voting for positions and candidates they don’t like in order to stave off a worse candidate or position. Governments with first past the post are inherently unresponsive to the public because the representatives have to worry less about responding to voters, and worry more about spoiling any challenges to incumbency. It makes elections less about voting for a certain candidate, and more about voting against others.
  • First past the post has a long history of disenfranchising large swathes of the voting population and many disparate ideas. It forces a homogenization of thought without nuance since “hot button” issues can derail entire elections and blur the will of the electorate by forcing a binary choice based on one or two issues. 

This list can go on, we are by now familiar with most or all these negative aspects of the current system. Now let’s look at why ranked choice voting is not only a superior voting method but is actually a requirement for a representative democracy. 

Having a government that is responsive and accountable is key to any functioning democracy which should be supported, not pulled away from. Ranked choice voting allows every vote to be considered and applied to the ballot, so no vote is wasted. 

This is done by applying a first, second, and so on choice to the candidates listed so the most popular candidates win elections. Voters will list their preference on their ballot and the candidates with the least votes is eliminated (if under a certain threshold). Those ballots that had the first choice eliminated will then have their second choice counted to the vote tallies and distributed out to those candidates then they are counted again. This continues until all remaining candidates are over a threshold and then a winner can be declared. 

What this means is that no vote is wasted. If a voter prefers a minority party, they can still vote for them as the first choice while also expressing a preference for a second or third choice, instead of their one-and-done vote being discarded in favor of the candidates they actively do not want to win. 

Ranked choice voting allows for far more nuance in the outcome of elections, because candidates are forced to campaign for their positions rather than continually attack their opponents. It also still leaves open the possibility of leaving boxes blank for candidates that they would refuse to vote for, eliminating the “lesser of two evils” and “tactical” voting that we see today. 

After this analysis, in every measurable way, ranked choice is not only a superior voting method in general, but it also serves democracy better. It serves all political positions better. It makes all our representative governments better. Having every vote count and every voice heard makes for a better democracy.

So why is it so unpopular? Why is this tried-and-true method not seeing broader support in our state government? Why would a party actively work to ban the best way to improve our democracy? Why isn’t this a more popular position across the entire political spectrum? 

The answers, like all points above, are well documented and simple: ranked choice voting is bad for unpopular policies, parties, and candidates. One of the most well-established facts about opposition to rankedchoice isn’t that it is somehow bad or problematic, it’s that the incumbent parties that benefit from the negative aspects listed above and are incentivized to keep the status quo. Basically, they are less interested in democracy and more interested in keeping their power and enjoy the idea of minority rule, so long as it benefits them.

The only real way to make this change is if the electorate demands something better and embraces the idea that their government should represent all voters, not just those that are best able to game the system. 

It should also be noted that while this is a bipartisan problem – Democrats and Republicans– the main opposition to a better democracy continues to come from the ideological right, as it always has. During the Iowa legislature’s 2024 session, Republicans have advanced legislation that would ban ranked choice voting on top of state statute that already bars ranked choice voting.

The bill’s sponsors gave no reason other than to “instill trust in the process”, despite no evidence that this is the case. On the contrary: as noted above, there is plenty of evidence the other way. 

Time and again, conservative ideologues have done whatever they can to make our government less representative and less responsive by adhering to the demonstrably undemocratic nature of first past the post voting. We also have to place this in the context of the same party limiting voting times, methods, and increasing hurdles to voting such as purging rolls and creating barriers to vote (but strangely not run) for public offices.   

If you’re tired of voting for the lesser of two evils or seeing extreme policies driving your government, then embrace candidates and groups who agree that our democracy can and should be better.  Examples include groups like Better Ballot Iowa or RCVresources.

Educate yourself and your legislators on what it means to have a more responsive democracy and believe that it can be better. Ask Republican legislators why they are so unanimously opposed to improving our democracy and why they are afraid of more voices being heard. If these lawmakers don’t have an answer to these questions, we can conclude they aren’t interested in democracy or representative government, they are much more interested in power and minority rule. The very thing the country was founded to oppose.

What’s more un-American and undemocratic than that?

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: The Iowa House approved House File 2610, an election bill that (among other things) bans ranked choice voting, in a party-line 62 to 35 vote on March 5. The companion bill, Senate File 2380, is eligible for floor debate in the upper chamber, having advanced from the State Government Committee on a party-line vote.

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  • Ordinal voting may be even better

    This is an interesting piece on voting systems. Besides Maine, Denmark has its version of ranked voting.

    Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow showed that ranked voting is not always fair. See Wikipedia on Arrow’s impossibility theorem. He advocated for a better system, called ordinal voting, where all the candidates are graded by the voters.

    Another weakness in U.S. democracy is that citizens have limited ways to propose new laws or repeal existing laws. Without these direct democracy tools called ballot proposition, initiative or referendum, citizens rely on electing people who then often betray their promises.