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Letter to the Editor

Ask a mathematician about ranked choice voting

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To the editor: In response to Lance Roberts’s Community Perspective on April 14: Ranked choice voting (RCV) is better understood through its alternate name, instant runoff voting. If it is explained to voters as a series of runoffs, it is easy to understand and is not “some kind of complex math game” as Mr. Roberts contended. It’s pretty clear what your No. 1 choice means on a RCV ballot — your first choice. To decide on No. 2, imagine that it’s a runoff and your No. 1 is not on the ballot. Who gets your vote? Similarly for No. 3; imagine it’s a runoff and your No. 1 and No. 2 are not on the ballot: who gets your vote now?

Stand-alone runoff elections are not only expensive to hold, but they tend to garner lower turnout. Instant runoff gives everyone who votes in the initial election the chance to vote in every possible runoff election, all in a single trip to the polls. We calculate runoff results, eliminating one candidate at a time, until one candidate exceeds 50% of the votes. Mr. Roberts brings up “exhausted ballots” as a potential problem. This is no more of a problem than voters who choose not to vote in stand-alone runoff elections.

Instant runoff/RCV is not a perfect system, but neither is plurality voting. Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem proved there is no such thing as a perfect voting system — every voting system can, in specific situations, give bad results. However, our old system of plurality voting has a flaw that occurs frequently when there are three or more candidates: two similar candidates split the vote of a similar-minded majority, allowing a third candidate to win with far less than 50% voter approval. Calculating instant runoff results from ranked choice ballots until one candidate achieves a majority does prevent this common problem of plurality voting.

Ask mathematicians or social scientists who’ve studied the mathematics of voting systems: most will tell you that in real-world elections (as opposed to carefully constructed counterexamples), instant runoff/ ranked choice voting is less likely than plurality voting to give paradoxical results.

 

 

 

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