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Ranked choice voting would have made Tuesday even worse

Do we really want to take the chance that someone other than the top vote getter might be declared the winner of an important race?

A voter holds a sign outside the central counting board where ballots in the general election are counted in the city at the TCF Center in Detroit, Wednesday, Nov. 4.
Associated Press

For a while late Tuesday night, amid the confusion of close races and the teetering balance of power in the Senate, it appeared that the rubber of ranked choice voting might hit the road screeching.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

I was surprised by my reaction. Regular readers of this column know I’ve been friendly to the idea of ranked choice voting, even though not quite a gung-ho supporter. But here we were, with the balance of power in the U.S. Senate seemingly on the line in the heat of an election night that resembled one of those dreams where you’re constantly running but not getting anywhere, and the thought of turning everything over to a new experiment in democracy seemed wrong.

Forget about whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, do we really want to take the chance that someone other than the top vote getter might be declared the winner of an important race (laying aside, for the moment, the Electoral College)?

But here we were, with Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican incumbent in Maine, ahead in a four-way race, but just shy of 50% of the vote. Maine has adopted ranked choice voting. That means voters there had the chance to rank the four candidates in order of preference.

If, after all ballots are counted, no candidate in Maine has 50%, the one with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the second choices of the people who voted for that person would suddenly become first-place votes for one of the other candidates, with their third- and fourth-place choices also being distributed as second and third place votes.

If this still doesn’t get anyone to 50%, the third-place candidate would be eliminated, with second- and third-place choices distributed again, resulting in a winner — a winner who might not be the same person who originally received the most first-place votes.

Maine’s example is important because Utah is experimenting with this form of democracy. The Legislature has approved a pilot project allowing cities to use it in municipal elections. Vineyard and Payson, two small towns in Utah County, used it last year without many complaints. The next step might be to expand ranked choice voting to larger elections.

But picking a city council member from a list of contenders this way is one thing. Choosing the balance of power in the U.S. Senate is quite another.

In the end, Maine never had to trigger its ranked choice system. Collins managed 51% and her main opponent, Democrat Sara Gideon, conceded.

But I was left wondering, would the people of Maine have accepted Gideon as a legitimate winner if the process had vaulted her into first place? What about the people of the United States, if that decision had changed the balance of power in the Senate? What if either Max Linn or Lisa Savage, the independents on the ballot, had been declared the winner after two rounds? What would that do to the nation’s trust in its election system?

In an editorial Monday, The Wall Street Journal said, “We don’t need empirical evidence to know (ranked choice voting) would make elections more difficult to navigate when trust in democratic institutions is already low.”

Trust and voter confidence are big issues right now. They are delicate and important attributes upon which democracy rests.

In a paper for the Heritage Foundation last year, Hans von Spakovsky and J. Adams said many voters might list only their top two choices, or perhaps only one. That might result in no candidate receiving a majority despite several rounds.

On the other hand, Americans would seem more likely to accept a winner, under the current system, who received less than 50% of the vote but who beat all the others. If not, the best remedy would be a runoff election, as Georgia is about to do with a Senate race.

It’s worth noting that voters in Alaska and Massachusetts soundly rejected ranked choice voting for their states on Tuesday. The momentum toward this novel system seems to be waning.

Ranked choice voting still seems like a good way to run a multi-candidate primary race. It is a great way to do a presidential primary, where one or more candidates might drop out before the votes are counted.

But it isn’t something Americans are ready to thrust into major elections already burdened by slow ballot counting, threatened recounts and allegations of fraud.