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Community Perspective

Ranked choice voting is the shiny new thing

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It’s always a little humorous when someone gets excited about something new and jumps the gun wanting everyone to be an early adopter.

This last year, Alaska barely voted in Ballot Measure 2, which among other things implemented ranked choice voting (RCV) for state elections (including state congressional races). RCV is where you rank all or some of the candidates in order of preference. If no one has 50%, then the lowest candidate is eliminated and those who voted first for him now have their ballots counted for their second place vote. This continues until a candidate has 50% of the remaining votes.

Now, before the public has even got to try this out for themselves and see if they like it, the Borough Assembly is considering an ordinance to move our local elections to using RCV, not even allowing a vote of the people to approve that change.

I want to explain the issues with RCV and shoot holes in some of the arguments given for it. One quote from the News-Miner article from one of the sponsors stated that they thought it was important for people to be “preferred by a majority of the voters at the borough.” Not only does this not work out mathematically, but in real elections that have been run we’ve seen that many of those elected fail to achieve a majority of the votes cast. One article states, “In examining 96 ranked-choice voting races from across the country where additional rounds of tabulation were necessary to declare a winner, the data shows that the eventual winner failed to receive a true majority 61 percent of the time.” Additionally, in the 2010 race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors they have 20 rounds of tabulation and ended up exhausting 9,608 ballots with the eventual winner getting only 4,321 votes which was less than 25% of the votes cast.

What is an “exhausted ballot?” That is where a voter hasn’t chosen to rank all the candidate options, and your ballot no longer matters so it no longer counts for anything. As ballots exhaust, the number any candidate has to achieve to win 50% of decreases, so when they finally have 50% of the ballots left, they may have a very small percentage of all the ballots cast.

Another myth mentioned in the article states that RCV “is more likely to result in issue-focused, nonpartisan campaigns.” Again, RCV has been found in real elections to not work that way. It actually takes away from the issues and has been shown to have decidingly partisan results.

What has been found around the country in places where ranked choice voting has been implemented is that it can really confuse the voters. It creates a much larger amount of spoiled ballots, i.e. ballots that won’t be counted because of not filling out the much more complicated ballot correctly. It’s more than just the paperwork though; it also confuses people to have to be able to rank multiple people and know their stand on the issues. Some of the Assembly races in the past have had six people, some of whom don’t even go to the forums which are poorly attended anyway. For many people it will be a real chore to come up with those rankings. It further complicates things in that the math works out paradoxically, in that sometimes voting for the person you want actually hurts them and can throw the election to their opponent. This letter is too short to explain how that can work, but I just want to point out it’s much more complicated than just filling in an oval. Instead of just getting to vote for the candidate that speaks to the issues they care about, they have to try to think strategically about how they should rank people like some kind of complex math game. It removes the great simplicity of our plurality voting system.

Places that have rolled back ranked choice voting after having tried it include North Carolina, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pierce County, Washington, and Aspen, Colorado, and by huge margins.

So please think hard about this and let the Assembly (email: know what you think. Why would we experiment with our local elections when we can just wait to see how the 2022 state elections go and see what happens and see the number related to spoilage and voting percentages?

Lance Roberts is an engineer who was born and raised in Fairbanks. He is a former member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly.


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