God Save Us From “Reform”

I’ve practically given up on my home state of California, and long ago gave up on any chance for sanity in San Francisco, which shows fresh signs that its descent into madness continues unabated.  I had missed the story the San Francisco Examiner reports today on how the city has adopted one of the favorite “goo-goo” (for “good government”) reform ideas: ranked-choice voting, sometimes known as cumulative voting.

The idea of ranked-choice voting is that a voter gets to vote for more than one person, but indicates his or her first, second and third choice.  If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, then that candidate wins.  If no one gets above 50 percent, then the candidate with the lowest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the people who voted for that candidate will have their second-choice votes redistributed among the remaining candidates, and so on, until someone tops 50 percent of the tally when all the combinations are worked out.

Supposedly this method eliminates the need for costly runoff elections, but the reformers who have been pushing this idea for decades have a completely different purpose: it will encourage single-issue and minor-party candidates, and dilute the need for major party candidates to achieve broad, cross-party appeal.  It is not an accident, to borrow that old Marxist trope, that this idea finds its popularity mostly on the left.

If you want to see how ranked-choice voting might produce radically different results than our traditional system, consider that if ranked-choice voting had been place in the 2000 presidential election, a large number of left-leaning voters would have gone for Ralph Nader—maybe as much as 10 percent—and marked Al Gore as their second choice.  But since they had to choose just one candidate, Nader’s support mostly evaporated by election day, as most lefties made the practical choice for Gore.  Ninety-thousand Floridians, however, did in fact vote for Nader, and this made the difference for Bush.  But extreme voting should not be encouraged; the kind of choice our current system encourages political moderation in the Aristotelian sense of the word.  Above all, it allows voters to be unserious about their choices, or having to make a choice at all between serious candidates and fringe candidates.  As a practical matter, it would likely increase confusion and apathy among voters (how many would likely just check off the first three boxes on the ballot?).  And rather than producing political harmony, ranked-choice voting is more likely to increase political fragmentation and polarization even further.

Of course, it is hard to know whether ranked-choice voting will deliver crazier politicians than San Francisco already has under the old system.  But let’s hope this idea stays confined to the Bay Area. (Oakland is using it, too, and has already produced a quirky result where a mayoral candidate with the most first-choice votes ended up losing the complete ranked-choice count.)