Monday, October 24, 2011

Ranked-choice voting is an anti-democratic gimmick

San Francisco is having an election in a couple of weeks. If any reader feels that we do that a lot, I'm sure most voters would agree. Back in the dim mists of our fractious political history, elections for citywide officials got set for "off years" on the national political calendar, so we do this when everyone else is taking a breather.

ranked choice voting pictures.jpg
This time around, for what amounts to the first time in a broadly contested open race, the "ranked-choice voting" system (RCV) will determine who gets to be mayor. RCV is also called "instant run off voting" -- the picture is the postcard the Elections Department sent voters to explain it.

Ranked-choice voting is a deeply anti-democratic, deeply foolish, electoral boondoggle much loved by math nerds and naive "good government" types. Instead of figuring out which candidate best represents your hopes and desires in an elected role, casting your ballot for that candidate, and living with whoever gets the most votes, you get to list three choices in order of preference and never really know who, if anyone, got your vote unless you are willing to sort through mountains of math. What kind of election is that?

Conservatives like RCV because it results (mathematically, though not factually) in a victor with "majority" support without the expense of a run off. We used to put the top two candidates in multi-candidate races through a run off vote in early December, a ghastly afterward to a long electoral season that did at least produce a winner who the majority of tired voters chose. It was expensive and no fun, but seemed fair enough. RCV cuts the expense and that is a good, but not necessarily the only good.

Liberals like RCV because it plays to one of our dumber preferences: it tries to take sharp conflict of views out of politics. It promises less mud-slinging and partisan attacks. Because under RCV any candidate in a broadly contested election has to round up some second and third place votes to have a chance, pointing out the faults of the other guy can backfire -- some of his supporters may hold a grudge and not give you a second. There's a huge incentive to muddy clashing positions.

This is anti-democratic (small "d"). Democracy empowers voters to use elections to force politicians to clarify what they stand for. We need to push candidates to throw down -- then use elections as opportunities to get as much as we can from imperfect choices. Conflicted elections give us that opportunity for citizenship. This is not always pretty, but, as Winston Churchill apparently said, "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

RCV can, under particular circumstances, render results that progressives like. If an establishment candidate is actively repulsive and has an absolute ceiling of potential support that is under 50 percent, an apparently inevitable leading candidate can be stopped by several opponents mounting an "anybody but Mr. FatCat" campaign, (See 2010 Oakland Mayor's race.) This probably will only work if it is obvious that a single candidate is a vile choice -- and the others can at least tacitly cooperate.

The faults of RCV elections show most in open seat races in which there is a wide choice between less-than-well defined candidates. It's hard enough for voters to figure out who these people are; RCV tempts sensible busy people with better things to do to treat the election like a high school student body contest, a throwaway vote based on name recognition, not a serious consideration of what sort of city we want.

That's the undemocratic aspect of this wonkish system: it further insulates people from serious, engaged citizenship. That's fine with the tiny minority (dare I say the 1 percent?) for whom our systems are working. But for most of us who need to more honest -- and sometimes arduous -- engagement with the powers that be, RCV is no remedy but another obstacle, too often sold as a panacea. Citizenship is hard; RCV is a gimmick that diminishes citizen engagement and responsible political participation.


Damon said...

I rarely disagree with your posts, but I think IRV is something very important that we should use all the time. I think that without it, we will forever be trapped in a 2-party system where the two parties pretend to be different, but often aren't. It gives people the freedom to vote first for a "fringe" candidate and to then vote for their more mainstream choice as a second option. I think that too many voters fall for the "don't waste your vote" meme, so we never have a groundswell of actual support for third party candidates. I thought it worked great in the last mayoral election in Burlington, VT, but even Burlington has since abandoned it. In VT, where we do have a viable third party, it allows people on the left to vote for a Progressive candidate first, then the Dem, knowing that the first vote won't result in the Republican being elected. I understand your reasons, and yeah, being a math geek, I find it simple and straightforward, but I wish we had it everywhere.

Rose said...

Democracy is hard, and I would suggest misty-eyed memories of the old runoff system is a big foggy. Fair Vote distributed the following last week comparing RCV in San Francisco to its old runoff system:

[Notable RCV Fact: Jean Quan won more votes in her mayoral election than other Oakland candidate for mayor in a generation. Of the 15 RCV elections in San Francisco decided in an instant runoff, the winner in every case earned more votes than the leader in the first count.Only once was the final round participation less than 74% of the first round. But in eight of the city's 14 runoffs in 2000-2003 before RCV was implemented, the winner had fewer votes in the runoff elections than the first round leader.. Participation fell to less than 65% of the first round in ten of those 14 runoffs.]

And when you look at who's won in open seats with RCV in SF, are they really so bad? No system will only help "one side", but John Avalos, Eric Mar, Jane Kim, David Campos and David Chiu are among those who won open seat with RCV. You might have liked others more, but it's not so awful.

And then there are presidential elections with partisan labels, where third parties are dismissed as "spoilers." Hope you agree we need to do something about that!

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between taking a clear political stand, even pushing a negative message, and simply wallowing in name calling. Looks like we have one blogger who has mastered the latter.

We have a long tradition of stifling democracy. The excuse is that voters are just too dumb, they can't handle making real choices. But it is the system that is dumb, not voters.

Voters deserve more than just two choices. Voters deserve more than a one-choice expression of their preferences. Political decisions are not a matter of choosing between black or white, or even shades of gray, but choosing from a range of multidimensional alternatives.

The biggest weakness of San Francisco's RCV is that it only gives single winners who may only represent a majority. What a real representative democracy demands is that everyone, not just a majority, is represented by a person of their choice.

The suggestion that we should just vote and live with the one candidate who wins is offensive.

As long as they have us fighting over which form of single-winner democracy we are stuck with, we'll never get what we deserve.

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