Ranked-choice voting + beer

Letters to the Portland Phoenix editor, June 17, 2011

Perhaps the following example illustrates what's wrong with plurality voting in terms Al Diamon can understand (see "Got What It Takes," June 10). A group of frat boys is voting on what beverage to serve at their next party. There are three votes for Kool-Aid and two votes each for a dozen different brands of beer. Why on earth should that mean everyone has to drink the Kool-Aid?

Ranked-choice voting doesn't give fringe candidates the power to muck things up – it takes that power away. With an instant-runoff election in Florida, the Y2K disaster would never have happened. Nader would undoubtedly have had even more votes in the early rounds of counting than he did in the actual election, but it wouldn't have mattered, because the final round would have decided the winner on the basis of the same straight-up choice between Gore and Bush as if Nader and Buchanan hadn't been on the ballot in the first place. (Geek note: Ranked-choice is not the same as instant runoff. Ranked-choice is a method of voting. Instant runoff is one method of counting ranked-choice ballots.)

If the Portland mayor's race ends up attracting three or four strong candidates and a mixed bag of random outliers, as Al Diamon predicts, he's correct that it will take many rounds of counting before the winner is finally decided. But that doesn't mean things will descend into chaos and the election will be decided on the basis of voters' fifth choices or worse. What it means is that the preliminary rounds will eliminate all the marginal candidates, and each of those rounds will involve a very small number of ballots. If votes are counted by computer, the process will take seconds — if they're counted by hand, it might take minutes. Then, when the counting reaches the last two or three rounds, we get to the real decision process, and the candidates remaining will be precisely the ones who were among the top few choices on almost everyone's list.

With ranked-choice voting, the decision will be made on the basis of which of those candidates most voters really like. With plurality voting, it depends on the accident of who draws votes from whom, and the winner in a multi-candidate race is likely to be the one who is most different from the others. In a small field, that might be Jesse Ventura and it might be Paul LePage. In a big field, it might be Phillip Morris NaPier Thu Peoples Hero.

Bob Wake

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