A few weeks ago, Alaska held a special election using ranked choice voting. This was Alaska’s first general election using ranked choice voting, and it also made the state one of the first major jurisdictions in the United States to employ the new voting system. For years many, election experts have pushed ranked choice as a way to fix the problems in America’s elections. In their view, this new system would create more excitement and give more people a voice by offering marginalized candidates a fighting chance. Over the last few years, three major jurisdictions have held ranked choice voting elections, and they have consistently created issues that could lead to more problems in elections.
Maine first held an election using ranked choice voting in 2018. That cycle had a competitive congressional race where the Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin, initially finished ahead, but over a week later, the Democratic challenger ultimately won the election. The race led to costly litigation and heated rhetoric.
Two years later, Maine had a competitive senate race and the media did call the election by the morning after. But this speed only came because Republican incumbent Susan Collins won in a landslide with over 50% of the vote, and by close to double digits. If Maine had had a closer race that cycle, it might have taken weeks to get the results and led to the same controversial rhetoric the rest of the nation saw. The only way to avoid a long convoluted count with ranked choice voting is for someone to win by a large margin. So in close elections, ranked choice voting will undermine confidence in the results.
About seven months after Collins’ victory in Maine, New York City used ranked choice voting for their mayoral primary. This election faced a lot of scrutiny. In the month leading up to the election, experts noted that the race could face major delays in the count. Despite this notice, the election still experienced so many delays that it took over two weeks to declare results. The public and media faced confusion over the election results. Then-mayoral candidate Eric Adams accused two of his opponents of racist actions by trying to strategically ally using ranked choice voting.
Vox claimed that the issues in counting the ballots did not occur due to ranked choice voting, but instead were the result of problematic policies and personnel in the New York City government. This theory may have some truth as it did take a lot of time in 2020 to count votes in New York City without ranked choice voting.
But even if Vox’s claim is true, it still further demonstrates why ranked choice voting is a bad idea right now. Many jurisdictions currently have a lot of problems counting votes in a timely manner. The influx of mail-in voting has already complicated things, so adding ranked choice voting to these jurisdictions would put stress on an unsound structure.
Alaska has faced similar problems. Like New York, Alaska has long had delays in counting votes, especially lately with the large amount of mail-in ballots. But ranked choice voting has still created further confusion and chaos. It took two weeks to count the initial ballots, and then after that, Alaska took another day to sort through ranked choice voting.
A Democrat ultimately won the seat, but the Republican candidates combined had initially received roughly 59% of the vote. The results have created raucous debate over whether the outcome spells good news for Democrats, despite the fact that the Democrat only initially received about 40% of the vote.
On top of these issues, ranked choice voting has failed to deliver on its signature promise: increased representation of third parties. Advocates for ranked choice voting have claimed that it would make voters more open to third-party candidates. But nothing has materialized. Before ranked choice voting, Maine came close to electing an independent governor in 2010, and they elected an independent senator in 2012. Yet in 2018 and 2020, the independent candidates for governor and senate had lackluster showings. In Alaska, an independent candidate who previously had a lot of support even dropped out, claiming an independent candidate could not win.
Federalism allows for America’s states to conduct their votes in different ways. These differences allow the country to see what systems work best. It is clear from seeing ranked choice voting in action in different jurisdictions, that ranked choice voting will make elections worse in the U.S.
Todd Carney is a lawyer and frequent contributor to RealClearPolitics. He earned his juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.