Comprehensive economic prosperity can only be achieved within an environment that is politically stable and socially inclusive. Considering partisan elections, public funding of candidate campaigns, ranked choice voting, moving the election cycle to November, and establishing an Election Oversight Board, the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce believes all of the proposed changes are problematic individually, but toxic to our economic wellbeing if implemented en masse.
The Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on Ranked-Choice Voting. Below are observations as the Chamber tracks this proposed election change.
A ranked-choice voting system (RCV), also known as instant run-off, differs significantly from our current plurality system in that candidates are ranked in preferential order rather than simply casting a single vote for the preferred candidate. Under RCV, voters can typically rank their candidates in order of preference from 1 through 5. If a candidate should receive first place votes equal to 50% of ballots cast, plus 1, that candidate is declared the winner. If no candidate crosses that threshold, the candidate with the fewest 1st place votes is eliminated. At that point, the ballots for the eliminated candidate are re-distributed among remaining candidates using the second-preference choice. All ballots are then re-counted to determine whether any candidate can now claim the 50% + 1 threshold. The process of elimination is continued until a single candidate claims a majority.
The system also introduces the concept of ballot exhaustion, in which a ballot is no longer counted. This can occur when: the voter did not complete the ranking process; all ranked candidates have been eliminated; a candidate is ranked more than once on the ballot; or, more than one candidate is equally ranked.
Proponents of RCV make several claims as to the superiority of this system in relation to plurality voting.
Claim 1: A Candidate Needs a Majority to Win
While this may seem logical based on the 50% + 1 standard, it is not unusual for the winning candidate to claim a majority of non-exhausted ballots though falling well below the majority of ballots cast. In other words, a sufficient number of ballots are discarded to achieve a majority of the remaining ballots.
According to a study completed in 2014, a survey of elections held in California in which RCV was exercised showed the eventual winner failed to receive a majority of ballots cast 61% of the time. In one example cited, the declared winner of the 2010 San Francisco District 10 Board of Supervisors race received fewer than 25% of the ballots cast.
Clearly, the claim of proponents takes liberty with the definition of “majority”.
Claim 2: Ranked-Choice Voting Reduces Negative Campaigning and Mitigates the Impact of Money in Politics
RCV is often presented as a solution to the bitter, divisive campaign rhetoric that has come to characterize politics across the nation. This argument is based upon the assumption that candidates will be reluctant to engage in negative campaigning due to the risk of alienating voters that might consider them to be a second or third choice.
While this logic may discourage candidates from attacking others directly, it also appears to augment the role of political parties and other outside groups to amplify messaging. Though a thorough analysis has not been conducted, evidence from jurisdictions utilizing RCV show elevated spending by political action committees (PACs). In Maine, where RCV was instituted in 2016, third parties spent $207,500 in opposition campaigning during the 2018 gubernatorial primary. This compares to zero such expenditures reported during the 2006, 2010 and 2014 primaries. In the general election race for the 2nd Congressional District of Maine, opposition campaigning saw an increase of 341% from the 2014 election cycle. In the recently completed Mayoral primary in New York City, PAC spending reached $31.8M compared to $8 in 2013, the last time the seat was open.
Claim 3: Ranked-Choice Voting Will Increase Voting Turnout
Public participation within a democratic system is critical. Any voting system that discourages participation from a material portion of eligible voters cannot accurately claim to reflect the will of the people. By international standards, voter turnout in the U.S. is low due to a number of competing conditions. However, empirical evidence derived from jurisdictions utilizing RCV is mixed, though tends to show the opposite effect.
FairVote, a national proponent of RCV, claims a study of the system has delivered a 10% increase in voter turnout. However, that figure compares turnout for primary and run-off elections with no material difference in general elections. In fact, the same study concludes, “…RCV does not appear to have a strong impact on voter turnout and ballot completion in municipal elections.”
Further, in testimony to the Kansas Special Committee on Elections on October 27, 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union stated: “Ranked-choice ballots have suppressed voter turnout, especially among those segments of the electorate that are already least likely to participate. Ranked choice voting (RCV) has resulted in decreased turnouts up to 8% in non-presidential elections. Low-propensity voters are already less likely to participate in elections that do not coincide with congressional or presidential races. By adding additional steps to voting, RCV exacerbates this tendency, making it less likely that new and more casual voters will enter into the process.”
The fundamental flaw with RCV lies in the complexity of both voting and tabulation that is introduced with no discernable public benefit.
American voters are notoriously unfamiliar with the policy positions of political candidates. As examples, a Pew Research Center survey conducted shortly before the 2016 presidential election revealed that a significant number of voters knew little or nothing about where the two candidates stood on major issues – 18% for Clinton and 30% for Trump. A separate national poll found that in 2018, 34% of registered Republicans and 32.5% of registered Democrats did not even know the name of their parties’ congressional candidate in their districts.
Yet, RCV is predicated upon the notion that voters have the capacity and interest in understanding the character and policies of a range of candidates with further ability to compare and contrast the nuance to all other candidates.
The next great hurdle is accurately completing the ballot.
To fully participate, voters must rank-order all of the candidates in contrast to plurality voting or run-off elections, in which voters have the benefit of evaluating candidates one-on-one. Once determined, the voter must accurately fill in their ballot. As mentioned previously, there are multiple ways of spoiling an RCV ballot. In Maine, voter confusion was so pervasive that proponents of RCV felt need to publish a 19-page instruction manual to help voters navigate the process.
Ballot spoilage and exhaustion occur with greater frequency among low-income and communities of color, as illustrated in a 2020 report. While this exacerbates economic and racial disparities, it conflicts with a central theme of the progressive liberal agenda. Curiously, a study following the 2004 RCV in San Francisco by FairVote found that “the prevalence of ranking three candidates was lowest among African Americans, Latinos, voters with less education, and those whose first language was not English.”
Does familiarity with the system improve performance over time?
In the U.S., evidence does not support this assumption. Though, to be fair, the system has not been widely adopted nor utilized over an extended period of time. In Australia, which has used RCV for more than a century, officials still report a much higher rate of invalid ballots than comparative countries like the U.S.
Does RCV deliver better outcomes?
Not really. According to the election results obtained from 96 ranked-choice voting elections nationwide that triggered a second round of tabulation (excluding one that resulted in a tie in the first round of tabulation), ranked-choice voting changes the outcome of an election approximately 17 percent of the time. If all ranked-choice voting races were examined in this analysis, including those that produced a majority winner in the first round, the percentage of races where the outcome changes would decrease.
The frequency with which ranked-choice voting elections produce a different outcome than plurality elections is important because it allows lawmakers to weigh the benefits and consequences of a new voting system. If ranked-choice elections only occasionally produce a different outcome, the costs of such a system may outweigh the alleged benefits.
In short, policymakers should make voting as simple as possible and strive to increase engagement in our electoral process.
- Research has demonstrated the complexity of the system disproportionately discourages voter participation among BIPOC communities and other disenfranchised populations.
- RCV does not reduce political vitriol or lessen the influence of outside entities.
- RCV does not produce a victor with the majority of votes cast; in fact, 61% of candidates declared the winner in RCV elections receive less 50% of all votes cast.
- Proponents of RCV have failed to adequately demonstrate the benefits of the system have been realized in any jurisdiction in which RCV has been instituted.
- RCV does not necessarily elevate the most qualified or popular candidates. It simply eliminates candidates until a consensus is formed.
- RCV assumes voters have the capacity to evaluate all candidates individually and in relative preference to all other candidates.
- RCV facilitates the ability of political factions to flood the ballot with like-minded candidates to improve their odds over opposing viewpoints and independent office-seekers.
 Burnett, Craig M. and Vladimir Kogan. “Ballot (and Voter) “exhaustion” under Instant Runoff Voting: An Examination of Four Ranked-choice Elections.” Electoral Studies. November 18, 2014.
 David C. Kimball and Joseph Anthony. “Voter Participation with Ranked Choice Voting in the United States”. Department of Political Science, University of Missouri-St. Louis. October 2016.
 “The Failed Experiment of Ranked Choice Voting, A Case Study of Maine and Analysis of 96 Other Jurisdictions”. Alaska Policy Forum & Maine Policy Institute. October 2020.
Source: Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce
Updated: March 2022