Ranked Choice Voting and Civility?

A new study, conducted after the 2013 elections by the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University, suggests that ranked choice voting (RCV) may offer some positive potential in generating more civil outcomes in American elections. In a report released by FairVote [PDF], a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates for electoral reform (including RCV), municipal voters in cities with ranked choice elections were significantly more likely to perceive candidates’ campaigns to be less negative than in previous years. And candidates were significantly less likely to perceive themselves — or their opponents — as having propagated negative personal attacks.

Ranked Choice Voting and Civility?

Since 1941, ranked choice voting has been a feature of elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and more than a dozen other cities across the United States, including San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, have recently instituted the system. According to the League of Women Voters, ranked choice voting allows voters to rank up to three candidates, in order of preference, when marking their ballots. If a candidate receives a clear majority in the election, that candidate wins. However, if no candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes cast, second and third choices are considered in what amounts to an instant run-off election.

Potentially, this makes it easier for third-party candidates to receive significant numbers of votes. And it offers less incentive for major political parties to offer just one candidate apiece. Advocates, according to Minneapolis’ MinnPost, claim that RCV:

Alleviates the need to vote for a candidate you don’t prefer just because they can beat others you like less. With RCV you can vote your true preferences without fear of “wasting” your vote. This is good for independents and small-party candidates, and also avoids a situation where two “good” candidates split the vote and a “bad” candidate wins.

The Eagleton Poll study considered 2,400 voters, divided equally across cities with ranked choice voting and without. They examined municipal elections in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Cambridge, and compared them with Seattle, Tulsa, and Boston.

Among their significant results, they found that in answer to the question, “were this year’s campaigns more or less negative?”, 42.2% of respondents in cities with ranked choice voting perceived an improvement in tone, while that was true for only 27.8% of respondents in cities with traditional ballots. And they found that respondents in cities with RCV were more than 8% more likely to claim satisfaction with the conduct of campaigns.

This supports anecdotal evidence from San Francisco, from their initial implementation of the system in the mayoral election of 2004. According to the New York Times, that election saw campaign innovations like joint fundraisers featuring multiple candidates. The Times attributed such cooperation to the ranked choice voting system, and quoted Eugene C. Wong, then a mayoral candidate, saying that, in contrast to other kinds of elections, “I am not opposed to saying that if I don’t win, then I hope one of these other guys wins.”

We here at the Institute for Civility in Government do not advocate ranked choice voting, or any other specific changes to the electoral system. But we do support attempts to transform the venomous, adversarial culture that spills over from our partisan campaigns into the work of governing. And as an innovation, this looks to have potential.

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