Will My Vote Still Be Counted in Ranked-Choice Voting if I Only Like One Candidate?

It turns out that ranked choice is subject to the same “center squeeze” as plurality voting (aka hot garbage).

Ranked-choice voting seems designed for optimists who like a lot of the candidates running for office. What if I dislike most of them and only choose one candidate? Will my vote still count? —Russell S.

Ranked-choice voting’s biggest advantage is without a doubt the fact that it’s almost always evaluated by comparing it to our current system, which is a pile of hot garbage. (So hot it started a dumpster fire in 2016!) It’s like having Jared from Subway as your wingman—you can’t help but look good by comparison.

In a nutshell, RCV is a system that lets you vote for Ralph Nader or Jill Stein without accidentally getting George W. Bush or Donald Trump elected president. Once your protest candidate is eliminated, your vote goes to your second (in this case, probably Democratic) choice. For what it’s worth, both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have won in this scenario.

Yes, Russell, your vote will count. RCV is sometimes called instant runoff, because it’s like having a second runoff election after the worst-performing candidate is eliminated. In a normal runoff, supporters of the eliminated candidate return to the voting booth to pull the lever for their second choice. With RCV, we already know who that second choice is, so there’s no need for a second election. If you choose only one candidate, you’re essentially just skipping the runoff.

RCV is often touted as an antidote to partisanship: The fact that second choices count is supposed to favor compromise candidates. However, it turns out that ranked choice is subject to the same “center squeeze” as plurality voting (aka hot garbage).

Imagine three candidates; we’ll call them Castro, Hitler and Biden. In the first round, Biden gets 32% of first-place votes, Hitler gets 35%, and Castro gets 33%. It’s close, but Biden is eliminated. The Biden voters’ second choice was equally divided between Hitler and Castro, so Hitler wins, even though all the other second-choice votes went to Biden—he was the first or second choice of all the voters, but he’s still out.

Obviously, these numbers are made up, but real-life centrist candidates have lost to more ideological ones by the same mechanism. Is RCV better than plurality voting? Sure, but there are better alternatives—maybe it’s just as well that the current charter review process is starting to smell like smoke.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.