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Transforming Elections: Ranked Choice Voting

By Dawson Bell 

There is an election reform that has been quietly making inroads around the country and, in the view of its adherents, may be on the verge of a breakout. It’s called ranked choice (RCV) or instant runoff voting.   

The concept is relatively straightforward. In elections with three or more candidates, voters – instead of choosing just one – rank candidates by order of preference. If no candidate receives a 50% plus one majority, the last-place finisher is eliminated and his or her ballots are recounted using those voters’ second choice. That process is repeated until the top vote-getter reaches a majority.   

The principal virtue of RCV, according to its advocates, is that it provides a path to electoral success for candidates with the broadest appeal to the electorate. In theory, voters can avoid the choice between the “lesser of two evils,” and select their preferred candidate without worrying that their vote will help elect the candidate they most oppose.   

“RCV allows people to express their real opinion,” says Lansing’s Hugh McNichol IV of Rank MI Vote, an election reform organization that promotes ranked choice in municipal elections and is laying the groundwork for a 2022 referendum that could install RCV for state and federal elections in Michigan.   

McNichol says RCV would reduce the insidious influence of polls which shape voters’ perception of which candidates are viable, and which are spoilers that contribute to elections coming down to a binary choice between undesirable outcomes.   

Michigan’s first experiment with contemporary RCV came in November in Eastpointe, where two of five city council members were to be elected using ranked choice, a decision agreed to by the city in response to a federal voting rights complaint that minorities were unfairly shut out by traditional elections. The concept is also under active consideration in both Ann Arbor and Lansing.   

Lisa Disch, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, says RCV is “not particularly complicated; we all know how to rank things.” But it does impose a modest burden on voters to educate themselves about more than two candidates, she says, “and a lot of voters don’t have time for that.”   

An additional obstacle, Disch says, is that ordinary citizens don’t have widespread awareness of the problem RCV is intended to address. Unlike the anti-gerrymandering referendum approved by Michigan voters in 2018, most people haven’t thought very deeply about why they are so often asked to choose between candidates they don’t particularly like, she says.   

RCV also often faces practical objections. In Ferndale municipal elections, for instance, RCV has been technically legal for more than a decade. But it has never been implemented because the voting machine technology was unavailable. Additionally, the process of conducting an “instant” runoff under RCV can be both time-consuming and expensive.    

McNichol says most of the opposition to RCV is partisan and depends on which party perceives a disadvantage in a specific election. McNichol says advocates of RCV don’t care.   

“It’s not partisan. That’s the point.”

Dawson Bell is a veteran Michigan journalist who spent 25 years covering government and politics for the Detroit Free Press.