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The ballot for the mayor's race in Portland, Maine, demonstrates a drawback to ranked-choice voting: It is complicated. Maine voters were asked to give their ranked preference for some or all of the 15 candidates. Despite the complexity, only about 150 of more than 20,000 ballots had to be tossed due to errors.
Monday, November 14, 2011

One man, one vote – but not necessarily for only one candidate

David Brooks

No offense to Nashua candidates, but the most interesting election in New England last week occurred in Portland, Maine. This isn’t because of the result, which ended with somebody-or-other becoming mayor, but because they used a ballot that looked like an SAT exam.

In the process, Maine’s largest city became one of a handful of government bodies around the world using “ranked-choice voting,” an alternative to the standard “vote-for-just-one-person” ballot that is, depending on your point of view, either the future of real democracy or a pointy-headed attempt to fool the people.

There are a number of variations of this method, all of which depend on allowing voters to indicate their relative preferences when more than two candidates are running for one seat.

Portland had a whopping 15 candidates running for mayor, and the ballot asked every voter to rank the 15 candidates, from No. 1 to No. 15.

Because this was the city’s first election using ranked-choice ballots, which voters decided they’d like to try, I assumed on the Granite Geek blog that this would produce chaos, as if you’d asked 20,000 people to do a Sudoku puzzle on deadline. But I was wrong.

“We told poll workers to call us and give us feedback if you get negative response (from voters), but we didn’t hear any,” Nicole Clegg, the city’s communications director, said in an interview Thursday. “Either voters had done their homework before they got to the polls, or once they got there, they figured it out quickly.”

Most impressively, only about 150 ballots had to be tossed out because they were wrongly filled in.

Nobody had a majority of the No. 1 choices, so no winner was announced election night.

The next day, the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes was eliminated and the votes of his supporters were distributed among the other candidates depending on each ballot’s No. 2 choice. When that didn’t produce a majority winner, the candidate with the next fewest No. 1 votes was eliminated and his or her ballots distributed among the others. When that didn’t produce a majority winner, it happened again, and so on.

This is why the system is often called “instant-runoff voting,” because calculations take the place of a separate runoff election.

The process had to be done a dozen times before a majority winner was named, Clegg said. It took all of the next day to figure out who won, using special software and ballot scanners from a company called TrueBallot.

What’s the point of such delay and complexity and extra polling cost?

Advocates say preferential voting (yet another name for it) does a better job of reflecting the electorate’s true wishes in a multiple-candidate election. After all, most of us like more than just one person on such a ballot, but in standard plurality voting, we have no outlet for that opinion.

“Allowing voters to name only their top choice is akin to ranking students based only on the number of A’s they receive,” argued Donald Saari at the University of California-Irving, who was inspired by the messy presidential election of 2000 to advocate other voting methods in a book titled “Chaotic Elections.”

As a bonus, say advocates, the system leads to more balanced politicians, because candidates can’t count on extreme elements to gain a plurality but must think about their effect on all voters.

Advocacy groups like FairVote.org also argue that ranked-choice voting reduces “strategic voting,” in which people cast ballots only to block somebody, and gives minor-party candidates a better chance.

Portland isn’t alone in its new status. Various forms of ranked-choice voting have been used here and there in the United States since 1912. Cambridge, Mass., uses ranked-choice in its council elections, and San Francisco has started using it, too.

It’s also used for some or all multiple-candidate races in the city of London and the countries of Australia, Ireland and a few other places, as well as a number of professional and award-giving organizations.

Some people would like to see it in New Hampshire. This year, a few state representatives, some associated with the Free State Project (libertarians, for some reason, like ranked-choice voting), tried to get a mild version considered for New Hampshire elections. The bill went nowhere.

Not everybody is a fan, however. Tellingly, it has been tried and dropped by several places over the years – most recently Burlington, Vt.

That city held two mayoral elections with ranked-choice ballots. The 2006 vote produced an obvious winner – the man who got the most No. 1 votes also ended up as the victor – but the 2009 vote didn’t. The eventual winner had been ranked No. 1 on 29% of ballots, compared to 33% for an opponent, and eventually won because more voters ranked him as No. 2 or No. 3.

That oddity, combined with the usual tussles found in local politics, created a backlash that led voters to return to traditional plurality elections.

This points to the biggest weakness of alternative voting methods: They’re not intuitive, not easy to grasp, leaving lots of room for confusion and suspicion.

Saari’s book, for example, uses flattened tetrahedrons and probability matrices to explain the system. When I was trying to explain Portland’s vote to my wife the other night, I got tied up in knots, although that might reflect on me more than the process.

Also, there are many incompatible methods of ranked-choice voting. You can use single-transferable ballots, optional-preference ballots, Borda counts, several ways to arrive at winners under what mathematicians call the Condorcet criteria, and probably other methods I’ve never heard of.

As for Portland, it seems happy, but that may be because the election was non-controversial. The eventual winner had been listed No. 1 on the plurality of ballots – in other words, he would have won under a normal election.

Burlington rejected ranked-choice voting the first time that the result raised eyebrows. That leads me to wonder whether voters feared that it was somehow a trick, not a reflection of their wishes. That doesn’t bode well for widespread adoption.

Personally, I think it would be terrific to use this voting in our presidential primaries, which tend to have lots of candidates with overlapping supporters. At the very least, it would be fun to try.

I’m not holding my breath, though.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.