Podcast Episode: Rewriting Election Rules
Reclaim Idaho has gathered a new coalition behind a ballot initiative that would institute open primary elections and instant runoff general elections in Idaho. Markie McBrayer from the University of Idaho Department of Politics and Philosophy joins Logan Finney this week to explain instant runoff elections, or ranked choice voting, and what political scientists know so far about how the process works.
READ: Rewriting Election Rules with Markie McBrayer
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports: Joining me on the podcast this week to discuss ranked choice voting is Markie McBrayer from the University of Idaho. Thank you so much for joining us.
Markie McBrayer: Thanks for having me.
IR: For a little bit of context, we’re having this conversation because activist group Reclaim Idaho and their coalition of supporters have filed an initiative that would institute open primaries and instant runoff general elections here in Idaho. We’ll have some more in-depth coverage of the primary aspect in other Idaho reports coverage online.
Markie, we’ve got you here today to talk about ranked choice voting or instant runoff voting. For our audience members who aren’t familiar with this concept, can you first just explain it?
McBrayer: Let’s say that we’re all running for mayor. Okay, so Logan is running for mayor, I’m running for mayor, and Melissa is also running for mayor. You would go in and you would rank who you prefer most. So maybe you put Melissa as top, me as second, and then Logan –
no offense – we put you as the third ranked candidate. And so everyone in the town does this, and then they tally up who has the most first choice votes.
The candidate who comes in last for first choice votes – if no candidate has received more than 50% of first choice votes – then we would take the candidate with the fewest first place votes and eliminate them. The voters who chose that candidate as their first choice are reallocated to their second choice. And then they continue doing this, until one of those candidates, say Melissa, gets 50% of those votes. So it tends to go in rounds where you’re eliminating the lowest ranked candidates, and then reallocating the votes from the lowest ranked candidate to the other candidates.
IR: That’s different from like some states here in America that have runoff elections, like in Georgia where if a candidate doesn’t get more than 50%, the top two go to the next election. But this is different in that it’s an instant runoff, right? It’s all done on that same Election Day?
McBrayer: Exactly, so it’s just tabulated the same day. The difference, too, is between voting on Election Day and then another runoff election maybe a month or two later, is that you can have different like swaths of the electorate on either of those days, right? It can be different people voting. Whereas here, you’re talking about the same people, right? It’s done instantly, so you know by the next day.
IR: What sort of advantages does this type of system have over what we currently use? That’s called a “winner take all” or “first past the post” election where you don’t need to get a majority of votes, you just need to get more than all the other candidates.
McBrayer: I will speak about this in hypotheticals, in terms of advantages. A lot of what proponents argue is that it will reduce negative campaigning, because if it’s more about ranking candidates. Like, if I made a really terrible ad against you, that might not be super appealing to some voters for me to be the second ranked candidate. So, it sort of discourages negative campaigning.
It also means that it might be more representative of the preferences of the electorate, a more complete expression of preferences. As opposed to like, I just have to choose one, I instead get to rank 1 or 2 or 3 candidates, even as many up to ten.
It also probably discourages strategic voting, at least hypothetically. That’s the expectation. By strategic voting, I mean like in presidential elections, sometimes maybe your preferred candidate was the Libertarian candidate or Jill Stein but you know that they’re not going to win, so you instead default to one of the two major political parties candidates.
It is also theoretically might encourage more candidates to run because it reduces some of those barriers. You tend to not have primaries filtering people out. You could have two or three Republican candidates, two or three Democratic candidates in the same general election.
Theoretically – I’m just going to keep saying that over and over again – theoretically, the idea is that it could increase the diversity of candidates. We we know from the gender in politics literature that women tend to not pursue elections that are hyper competitive. Because of the nature of a ranked choice voting election, we might expect that women will enter these races more. That is not really borne out in the literature. There’s also potentially the idea that it would provide more qualified candidates from which you can choose. Again, mixed evidence on that.
IR: Let’s address that elephant in the room. Like you’ve said, a lot of this is theoretical and a lot of this is mixed evidence. This has been an idea in political science for a while, but it’s relatively new that it’s being implemented in the real world, right?
McBrayer: This is fun. It’s actually not an entirely new idea. These look really similar to something called preferential ballots from the 1890s through the 1910s, during the age of progressive reforms, however, those didn’t really catch on. You can read more about those in some of Jack Santucci’s work. They didn’t really catch on though, but now you’re seeing more cities in the past five to ten years – and even states now – adopt ranked choice voting. But because of how recent this is, because of how few cities and states have adopted it, we don’t have a lot of observations from which to run analysis on. I’ll put it that way. We don’t have a lot of evidence in favor or against for how well this might work.
IR: We addressed the theoretical advantages, where it could make campaigns a little less negative. It could generate more diverse candidates on the general election ballot. What about the disadvantages? What are some of the common criticisms for ranked choice voting?
McBrayer: So for those of you listening to the podcast, who knows if you followed my explanation at the beginning, about like, reallocating votes from the third choice to the other candidates, right? It’s a little complex to explain. I remember first learning about it like six or seven years ago, and watching a YouTube video that the city of St. Paul had made, and it involved sticky notes. I had to watch it like three times where I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ The idea here is that it can potentially be a little bit confusing. However, there’s also research that suggests that it’s no more confusing than a “first past the post” system. There’s not necessarily evidence that it is would be more confusing than a first past the post system.
However, it would be different than what most people are used to, and that can be a little bit of a hurdle. The other thing is that it might lead to more ballot errors. If you don’t quite understand what you’re doing with the ballot, it might lead to you messing it up, right? Like, maybe you you really wanted to rank Logan first for mayor, but you ranked him last. Like you didn’t understand how that works. And then, that might mean that your ballot is counted in a way that you didn’t want, or maybe it’s even discarded because you filled it out incorrectly.
The other thing is, like as I mentioned before, if there are more candidates entering the field, it might be difficult to know what their positions are on everything. So, in the instances of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, there was a race, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago that had a field of 30 candidates. You as a voter, that might be a difficult thing for you to identify which person is the candidate for me, right? Having to do that much research on 30 candidates could be could be pretty overwhelming for an average voter.
I think one of the other things that we’ve seen discussed, at least with Alaska, was exhausted ballots. Or ballots that get thrown out if that person’s top two candidates or top three candidates don’t end up making it into those later rounds, and so their votes aren’t necessarily counted in in the final tallies.
IR: If there were, say, five candidates on the ballot and a voter only ranked three, and then all three of those candidates had been eliminated by the end.
McBrayer: Exactly. Exactly.
IR: I will note that under the specific petition filed by Reclaim Idaho, it would be four candidates that advance from the primary onto the general ballot. We wouldn’t necessarily see a field of 20 candidates, but that that same principle is definitely still at play.
IR: You’ve referenced a few places where this has been instituted in municipalities, like St. Paul. Some states have started trying it, I’m thinking of Maine and Alaska. In these places where ranked choice voting has been implemented, what sort of effects have been seen?
McBrayer: There are a few dimensions that we will look at. One is the effects on candidates. Does it encourage candidates, more candidates to run? There is mixed evidence. Does it improve the quality of candidates? Again, mixed evidence. There is a really great conglomeration of essays from Lee Drutman on ranked choice voting pretty recently, and the way that they framed it was null to small effects. Null to small effects. So like, I think that that’s what how we should frame this discussion, is like in terms of null to small effects.
Effects on campaigns themselves – this is probably the most robust finding in all the literature – is that it does seem to lead to less negative campaigns. So that’s one that does bear out a little bit more in in the scholarship.
Does it improve turnout? Mixed evidence on that, too, and there’s even research that shows that it might deter turnout.
There was one piece on what effect does ranked choice voting have on, like the behavior of city councilors and their ideology, and again, null effects. So for the most part, I think you could easily sum this up as null to small effects. There was a great piece from Melody Crowder-Meyer and literally the title is like, not a catastrophe, not a panacea, right? Like, it’s not a disaster, but it’s not everything that it’s being sold as either.
IR: For the supporters of this measure – as it’s been filed in Idaho as a ballot initiative – their motivation for doing ranked choice voting, in tandem with open primaries, is to address what they call extremism or too much ideology in elected officials. Was that the motivation in other places that have implemented RCV? I know you said that one of the goals is to be moderating or to allow more ballot access. Has that largely been the motivation where it’s been tried?
McBrayer: The interesting thing is that in a lot of places where it’s been adopted, it’s for nonpartisan elections. That’s not to say that partisanship doesn’t exist in nonpartisan elections. Partisanship certainly exists in nonpartisan elections. We know that from a huge body of work.
However, this is mostly adopted in nonpartisan election settings like municipalities (for city council or mayors). I think there’s the perception that, because it’s cities that are adopting it, it’s liberal places. But there are a ton of like cities in Utah, like, fairly conservative places where 14% of that city supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 – really, really low percentages of liberal preferences – are adopting things like these. So, it’s perhaps not just about polarization, but I do think that there is this demand to sort of change up electoral rules, in an attempt to potentially address some issues with polarization.
Is that how it bears out ultimately? Does it address polarization? That’s a bit less clear.
IR: In these places where it’s been implemented, who’s been the supporters? Has it been the local governments themselves doing it, or has it largely been via ballot initiatives? Can you answer that for me?
Editor’s note: Utah cities are able to opt into ranked choice voting under a pilot program authorized in state statute.
McBrayer: It is a lot of ballot initiatives. To be clear, it’s ballot initiatives, but sometimes they’re initiated within the city council themselves. The city council recognizes like, ‘hey, we should experiment with ranked choice voting,’ but then it has the support of the electorate in that place. But it’s mostly ballot initiatives where you’re seeing this. In 2020, we had Alaska and like eight cities pass it. In 2021, we have five cities pass it. In 2022, eight out of ten passed. So, it’s fairly popular as a ballot initiative. At the same time, we should recognize that the places that put forward these kinds of changes to electoral rules might be more prone to passing them anyways.
IR: Right. That brings us back home to Idaho, where Reclaim Idaho has been fairly successful when it comes to running ballot initiatives. Of course, there’s Medicaid expansion, and there’s the Quality Education Act which led to a special session. But this proposal, ranked choice voting, is quite a different pitch than funding for education or access to health care, isn’t it?
McBrayer: Yeah. We touched on that previously, that this can be a somewhat complex system to explain and therefore sell. That will be a hurdle to overcome, in trying to sell this as a ballot initiative. How well can you communicate complex electoral rules?
As someone who studies electoral rules themselves, sometimes you see the students’ eyes just sort of like glaze over when you when you start talking about rules. But rules do matter, right? Rules matter for lots of things. It will be an interesting way forward, though, because the state legislature has also come out against ranked choice voting and said no counties can administer ranked choice voting elections for cities, school districts, etc. Like, essentially counties are not allowed to administer ranked choice voting.
IR: The state took that step this legislative session, to say you cannot do a ballot initiative or local statute to even try this at a county or city level in Idaho.
McBrayer: Exactly. It’s interesting, too, because the national party, the RNC also had a resolution coming out against ranked choice voting. The interesting thing is the Democrats have not come out in support of it, either, but you are seeing the Republicans come out and say, like, we don’t want it.
Political scientists, we talk at conferences and things, and there’s even sort of this expectation that ranked choice voting might favor the Republican Party in national or state elections. Because the third party that tends to be most popular is the Libertarian Party, and so if they don’t make the cut, then those votes could be reallocated to the Republican Party.
I think right now – because of how I just sort of walked you through mixed evidence over and over and over again – I think because of the unknown, there’s some sort of hesitation from the parties about instituting electoral reforms like these. But to say that it would harm their party, I don’t know that that is correct. Based off of current evidence, that does not seem to be supported or questioned at all.
IR: Okay. From the political science literature, are there any other big takeaways that you think we should know about?
McBrayer: I sort of briefly touched on this, but a lot of this work that we have previously is based off of nonpartisan local elections. There is less work on what this looks like in statewide partisan elections. We know that it’s being done in Maine. We know that it’s being done in Alaska. But those are just a few observations. We don’t quite have expectations, or results, for what this looks like on those larger scales. I think that there are large gaps here about what we don’t know yet about this specific electoral reform.
IR: The ballot initiative petition is being reviewed by the Attorney General’s office and the Secretary of State’s office. If it is approved for signature collection, we will keep covering that, and possibly have you back to talk about this mechanical issue more and explain it for our viewers on TV if they have to care about it!
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.