A version of this story appeared in the CITIZEN BY CNN newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
Welcome back to the CITIZEN newsletter after a brief vacation hiatus. In this edition, we’re focusing on a single big topic: ranked-choice voting.
Some critics of the US election process argue that when most voters head to the polls in November, they don’t really have much of a choice on their ballots.
That’s because legislative and congressional districts have been carved up – largely by politicians themselves – to make the maps so heavily Republican or Democratic that the people who vote in primaries have effectively picked the general election winners. And that means die-hard partisan voters – rather than the broader electorate – exercise enormous sway over who holds elective office in this country.
So, some places are taking a different route.
I reached out to Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University’s School of Law – and one of the country’s leading experts on election law and democracy – to explain the ins-and-outs of this option: ranked-choice voting or RCV, as he calls it.
Here are the results of the exchange, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Q: First, the basics. Can you explain ranked-choice voting and where we’ll see it play out in the upcoming midterm elections?
In RCV, voters get to do more than simply vote for one candidate. They rank the candidates in the order they prefer them, and voters can typically rank as many candidates as they would like to. So if five candidates are running, voters can rank them 1-5. The system gives voters a way to express their views about a number of candidates, not just one.
If no candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, then a candidate is eliminated and the votes on the latter’s ballot are then given to the candidates who were ranked second on those ballots. There are different versions of RCV under which the rules for determining which candidate gets eliminated vary, but in the version used thus far in the US, it’s the candidate who gets the fewest first-place votes who is eliminated. So if I rank candidates A, B, C in that order, and candidate A is eliminated, my vote will then go to candidate B.
In the midterms for national offices, we are going to see RCV used for the first time in Alaska, including for their important Senate race, in addition to House races. The Alaska Senate race will be a particularly interesting test of RCV, because GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski might have lost support among Republicans, based on her vote to convict then-President Donald Trump after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. But she has always had broad appeal across the electorate, including Alaska’s large number of independents, as well as some Democrats. Her chances might be much better in an RCV election than a traditional plurality-vote system – a system in which whoever wins the most votes, when voters can vote for only one candidate, wins the office.
Another test looming even sooner involves Sarah Palin’s attempt to win the special election for Alaska’s one House seat. In the primary, Palin finished first among the top four candidates, with 27% of the vote; but the state GOP backed the candidate who came in second, Nicholas Begich III.
The August 16 general election will use RCV, and if Palin is a factional candidate, while Begich draws broader support, he might well defeat her.
We will see it being used for national offices also in Maine, where it has been used before and made the difference in the election of one Democratic congressman.