What is ranked choice voting?

Lots of people are talking about it. A political-science cottage industry now debates its effects on participation. Ranked-choice voting is variously associated with lower voter turnout, higher voter turnout, higher invalid ballot rates, more female candidates, more racial and ethnic minority candidates, more women in office, and more racial and ethnic minority women in office — “more” than in some comparison setting. But what is ranked choice voting?

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

Long answer: “Ranked choice voting” says nothing about how many alternatives a voter must rank, whether those alternatives are parties or candidates, what other information appears on the ballot, whether the voting equipment itself is hard to use, nor how the rankings will be used to pick winners.

Each probably matters more for participation than whether a voter uses numerals. (We would know by comparing the numerals setting to some other setting. What is it? The choice matters.)

Strictly speaking, political science does not recognize the existence of a thing called ranked choice voting. “Ranked choice voting” is a neologism. In practice, it usually refers to the alternative vote, used in single-member districts, or to the single transferable vote, a candidate-based form of proportional representation. (The extent to which it is candidate-based depends on those features, and more, about which the term “ranked choice voting” says nothing.)

If ranked choice voting is a type of ballot on which alternatives are ranked, it can also refer to the Borda count, at least seven different Condorcet methods, and other rules that people invent almost daily.

Those people will insist that different ranked-choice methods carry different strategic implications.

And these creative people seldom consider political parties. Without parties, the strategic implications would be meaningless. Are you a spare-time campaign consultant? I didn’t think so.

So, what do we mean by “ranked choice voting”? Not enough to draw conclusions.

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