What is ranked choice voting?

Lots of people are talking about it, political scientists included. A cottage industry has emerged to debate its effects on democratic participation. Ranked choice voting is variously associated with lower voter turnout (than in some comparison setting), higher voter turnout (than in some comparison setting), higher invalid ballot rates (than in some comparison setting), more female candidates (than in some comparison setting), more racial and ethnic minority candidates (than in some comparison setting), more women in office (than in some comparison setting), and more racial and ethnic minority women in office (than in some comparison setting). But what is ranked choice voting?

Short answer: A type of ballot on which alternatives are ranked. Period.


Partisan dynamics behind ranked choice voting

Maine voters will decide in November whether to use the alternative vote (AV) for single-winner elections. AV lets voters rank candidates. If no candidate has an outright majority, voters’ lower rankings come into play. Many now call this “single-winner ranked choice voting.” Why does AV have traction? If it wins, how long can we expect it to last?


STV as proportional representation

Is the single transferable vote a form of proportional representation? Right now I believe it is. A reviewer once said the fight had been won. Either way, this issue stops some of my talks dead in their tracks. Some are bothered that PR might coexist with candidate-based ballots.

Yet among the countries (and subnational units) we usually think of as having PR, early adopters often went for candidate-based ballots (e.g., Switzerland). A working hypothesis is that STV is just one of several PR systems whose debut predates the mass party. PR systems like these find appeal where politicians, for whatever reason, want some level of distinction from their party’s brand.

This page exists to collect my evolving thoughts on the issue. I plan to update it as needed.

Regardless of whether STV is “PR,” one thing is certain: it definitely is not a plurality or majority voting rule. If a party is a team that seeks control of government, it needs to be very popular to win that under STV.


How liberals ended PR in the US

Proportional representation is a mostly left-wing cause in the US. Some see it as a path to bigger Democratic House delegations. Others see it as a way out of the Democratic Party, period. Much liberal-wing anger centers on the party’s ties to Wall Street. If we had PR, the story goes, the liberal wing would seat its own party. If not, it might at least scare the Clinton wing into moving left. And the affinity between PR and left politics might draw on a myth, neatly summarized below:

Proportional representation systems were tried earlier in the past century and then discarded precisely because they favored minority representation (racial and left wing/socialist) too much.

I’ve found evidence that the most liberal Democrats were actually PR’s worst enemies. Yes, racially and economically liberal. I’m talking about the AFL and/or CIO and Young Democrats. At roughly the same time they were pulling the Democratic Party leftward, they were working to repeal PR in at least three of the cities that had it.

The urban PR “spells” chart, updated

If you are reading this, you know that 24 U.S. cities tried the STV form of proportional representation. Here is an updated chart summarizing those episodes.


The changes include:

1) Cropping to 1965, since events thereafter are basically chartjunk.

2) Adding a failed 1959 repeal attempt for Worcester, MA.

3) Changing the dates for Oak Ridge, TN, which evidence suggests to have emerged with STV a decade later than I thought. Note that the Oak Ridge council was “advisory,” whatever that means.

4) Adding Norris, TN, which I had not included because I could not find the dates of any STV elections. This Town Council was also “advisory.” Elections were held annually from 1937 through 1945. I cannot find evidence of an STV election post-1945. The federal government sold Norris to a developer in 1948, and Tennessee granted Norris its own charter in 1949.

5) Date-stamping, since this chart may evolve gain.

Please share any suggested, further changes. Wouldn’t it be nice if our state and local politics were better documented?