Opinion: ‘Ranked-choice voting Is bad for everyone’

Harvard University Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield shares his thoughts on ranked-choice voting

Harvey Mansfield
Harvard University

Ranked-choice voting Is bad for everyone. It appeals to progressives because it allows them to vote twice — once for show and once for real.

Harvey Mansfield
Harvey Mansfield

When it comes to counting votes, America’s political parties want to keep or gain their own advantage. The public interest, however, demands a nonpartisan method. No neutral method has yet been devised that merely elicits the people’s will without twisting it one way or another. Ranked-choice voting is an attempt that has its own twist and will make elections worse for both parties.

The idea isn’t new but it has gained favor, mostly from the left. It can be dismissed as too complicated and, coming as it does from professors, too demanding for most voters outside New York City. But I would like to present three deeper faults in it that concern how voters think, for ranked-choice voting is intended to make them think in a certain way.

First, by ranking choices a voter is required to divide his vote between a favorite candidate and some merely acceptable ones. The first choice is what the voter privately wills — the representative who suits him best. This choice is not directed at the common good, which requires that voters consider what others want. In a free country voters should desire a common good superior to the wishes of private individuals to prevail.

Ranked-choice voting makes the common good inferior to each person’s private first choice. The common good of the country typically gets ranked second choice or below for each citizen.

Ranked-choice suffuses the spirit of systems where multiple parties vie to build coalitions after votes are cast. In the U.S., parties aspire to gain majorities through the voting rather than by secret, chancy negotiation afterward. Each looks for ways to bring together difficult companions: Republicans must reconcile the interests of evangelical Christians and libertarians; Democrats must balance the desires of progressives and moderates. Ranked-choice voting splits these coalitions and requires the pieces be brought together after the election, and not by voters. In presidential elections, the Electoral College produces a majority intended to recognize the importance of the states, one that sometimes differs from a popular majority. But in any case it is a coalition majority.

Voters in a coalition are reminded that most of them didn’t get what they wanted but avoided what they most disliked. Though this is often true, it should not be the goal. The goal should be a first choice willed as a compromise rather than a first choice abandoned for a compromise. This seemingly slender distinction makes a big difference in common trust and the way Americans think politically.

It is often thought that the sole purpose of an election is to make government accountable to the people and representative of their will. A second fault of ranked-choice voting is that it aims to perfect this idea by offering some success to as many shades of opinion as possible. But another, greater purpose for elections was intended by the Constitution’s framers: to find competent governors.

A good result from an election relies on its accuracy in representing the people’s will. The voters should get not only what they want, like consumers, but also what is good for them as citizens. Competency among those elected is never assured, but it will stand a better chance when voters are selecting the candidate who is best for the job as well as the one most representative of their will. Ranked-choice voting may bring competency along with accuracy, but accuracy is all that is asked for. Again, elections are held not to buy products but to put people in office. Competency ought to include the ability to unite the country in a majority, not just to make pleasing speeches to the voters known as “the base.”

A third fault: Ranked-choice voting rewards extremism in the electorate. Voters who make extreme choices should be punished via exclusion from the majority. Ranked-choice voting rescues them from the penalty they deserve for throwing away their ballot on an extreme first choice. One suspects that progressives like ranked-choice voting because it would allow them to vote twice: once for Bernie Sanders and once for Joe Biden.

Compromise is prudent, but resorting to prudence when first-choice morality seems to fail teaches voters that morality is at the extreme and prudence is strategic. Teaching in a classroom, one could say it combines the worst of Kant and Machiavelli. Outside the classroom one recognizes the pairing, typical in our time, of virtue-signaling with cagey maneuver. Ranked-choice voting gives both morality and compromise a bad name. The better way is to make one’s first choice prudently, thus tempering extremism and promoting compromise.

By the way, a question for progressives: If equity consists in making human beings equal to one another, why is it just or reasonable to rank them?

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard University.

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  1. David

    Mail in votes should not be ranked choice. Not because it is too difficult, but because there are too many low information voters. It should not be easier to vote than to pay attention to what you are voting about.

  2. Eric

    All these arguments are total nonsense. What evidence does he have that RCV makes people choose a selfish first vote? His Bernie/Biden example just illustrates choosing the candidate you don’t like but think can win over the candidate you believe is actually best for the country, I.e. picking the least worst choice.

    The whole alliance stuff actually describes how America has become divided. Those are the ONLY alliance options. It may have worked when there was an implicit agreement to work across the aisle. That just means democracy worked in spite of the parties. Today’s scorched earth politics and vote along party lines leaves people with increasingly extreme options and exposes how broken the party philosophy is. “Parties aspire to gain majorities through voting rather than secret negotiation” No, they do it through wedge issue politics and gerrymandering. Look around you.

    Then look at Alaska’s recent election. Voters REJECTED the extreme, showboat candidate and actually elected someone focused on policies. Sure it’s surprising it’s a democrat but what will happen next time? Republican candidates will be forced to focus on issues instead of theatre, bringing them back towards the center. Next time there’s probably a couple centre right candidates and Alaska swings red again, but with an intelligent, reasoned candidate, not some conspiracy spouting lunatic.

    If we get enough of that we’ll soon have a congress that works across the aisle like it used to. Then we can go back to alliances that make sense, where candidates represent their constituents, not some overarching ideology. And how will those deals get formed? In agreements between congressmen who must defend their fully public voting records to their constituents, not by party leaders behind closed doors. Mr. Mansfield seems to have forgotten that it is our government that has been formed to operate democratically, not our political parties.

    1. David

       intelligent, reasoned candidate, not some conspiracy spouting lunatic.”
      That is so very subjective and unhelpful. In this day and age of censorship and medical fascism it is dangerous as well.
      But you have a point about the scorched earth politics. It is just that the center/right people are unable to do anything but pretend to be conservative on most issues.
      Here in the 17th district we have two center/right candidates who were first past the post by refusing to even debate in the conservative arena. Ranked choice voting would have gotten us at least one conservative from those primaries.
      Instead we got none.
      But the reason ranked choice voting IS unacceptable, is that it is unverifiable unless done at the precinct level. We don’t solve problems that way, we create more problems. Lately that seems to be what we should expect from the government however.

    2. Nash Emrich

      YES! I’m so glad you took the time to write this response. I was honestly struggling to follow the logic of the author at times because they seemed to just be making things up. RCV actually does the opposite of so many of his points!


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