Just Saying . . .: Ranked-Choice Voting, Simplified
Thursday, November 03, 2016 10:47 AM
As voting day draws near, people often come to me after church or at the bail bondsman’s office and ask if I can clearly explain anything, like how does ranked- choice voting work? That is a two-part question, so let us tackle the second part, about voting, first.
Contact the author by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or you may find him cowering after the election in a dark corner of an alehouse. © 2016, Tom Sadowski
If we are going to get more acquainted with the process of ranked-choice voting, it is best to give an example from everyday life. It surprises many people to realize that we make ranked choices all the time.
Say you walk into a bar we will call the Ranked Choice Democratic Tavern and order a shot of Jägermeister. The bartender says, “Sorry, not enough people order Jägermeister so we don’t stock it. “Fine,” you reply, “my second choice would be a glass of your best Merlot.” Again the bartender informs you that “only a few people order wine here and we only serve what more than half of our customers want.” “Okay then,” you may say, “this is a truly democratic saloon. Could I have a Bud Light?” and to your delight the bartender responds, “Sure, everybody is having a Bud Light.”
You have just experienced ranked-choice voting. You stated your desires in order of preference and when your preference was in agreement with what more than 50 percent of the other customers wanted, that is what everyone was served. Maybe not your first choice, but it’s agreeable to more than half of the patrons, which is the threshold in this democratic establishment with agreements set by absolute majority.
Now let’s play the same scene out using our traditional method of voting. You walk across the street into the “Simple Majority Public House” and order a shot of Jägermeister. The bartender says, “Here you go, one Low Tide, on the rocks.”
“But I wanted a shot of Jägermeister. What’s this ‘Low Tide’?”
“Look, buddy, there are seven people in here. I run a simple-majority democracy. Clancy over there wants a Bud Light, you want Jägermeister, Peabody here wants a Miller and that couple over there both want Merlot. But those three guys at that table wanted a Low Tide, that’s Allen’s Coffee Brandy and clam juice, they’re from Maine — so everyone gets a Low Tide. Simple majority rules; it’s in our constitution.”
“But my second choice is Merlot.…”
“Sorry but you only get to order once. That’s the way it works.”
At this point Peobody pipes up: “I would go for a Bud Light like Clancy but if I can’t have that, my third choice would be Merlot. That would make a majority, actually an absolute majority. I find a Low Tide deplorable.”
Rolling his eyes, the bartender lays it out. “Peobody, you know the rules here: one round; when the majority doesn’t agree on their first choice, then minority rules. If you want me to take your second and third choices into account, it ain’t gonna happen. You can go march yourselves across the street to that Ranked Choice Democratic Tavern where they do that, but not here.”
The big difference is absolute majority vs. simple majority. The Ranked Choice Tavern serves up what at least 50% of the people want even though it might not be some of the customers’ first choice, while the Public House serves up only whatever is ordered most in the first round, even if it is not supported by most of the customers.
When our founding fathers were meeting at inns and taverns while penning the Constitution, it is easy to imagine that they frequently were up against poorly stocked establishments where their first choices were not met. They peppered the Constitution with requirements that a two-thirds supermajority rule on important issues but left choices on many issues up to the legislatures or states without providing a voting rule. Now it’s up to us to decide if we want to live by simple or absolute majority rule.
I have to mention that the drinks at the Simple Majority Public House are cheaper and the service is faster but the Ranked Choice Democratic Tavern usually edges them out in customer satisfaction on Yelp and TripAdvisor. Hey, utopia is just one trade-off after another.
So there in a compact column is my take on ranked- choice voting.
As for the first part of the original question, “if I can clearly explain anything,” you’ll have to make your own decision. I suggest you take a vote.