Voting Problems

Redistributing ballots can affect results

As Benton County prepares to vote on whether to adopt ranked-choice voting for county elections, Oregonians are presented an opportunity to explore different voting systems. Ranked-choice voting has the most political traction right now, but it’s only one of several alternatives.

Among voting authorities, there is a somewhat ideological battle over which voting system is most democratic. Although no system is perfect, two dominant viewpoints commonly emerge: those who favor evaluative voting (which includes both approval and range voting), and those who prefer ranked-choice voting. 

Approval voting is similar to our current plurality voting system, but instead of choosing only one candidate, each voter may choose more than one. The candidate with the most approval votes wins. Both the American Statistical Association and the American Mathematical Association use this electoral system for their elections. It is more expressive than plurality voting, and it does not require new machines or software. On the other hand, approval voting does not require an absolute majority to elect a winner and it lacks political momentum. 

Range voting gives voters the opportunity to rate each candidate on a scale, and the candidate with the highest mean score wins. Although mathematically respected, it has not gained political attention. Some Olympic sports and academic tests use range voting. It offers voters a very high level of expressivity, but information costs can be high (rating more than one candidate requires more informed voters), and it sometimes requires new machines and/or software.

Ranked-choice voting, the method Benton County may approve next month, is more expressive than plurality and approval voting because a voter is given the opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference, but less sophisticated voters may be marginalized if they don’t understand how the winners are calculated. 

Additionally, ranked choice can create a false majority (e.g., third-ranked choices can get redistributed as first ranked choices; many ballots become redistributed or disqualified, so often an absolute majority is not achievable), manual recount and verification is difficult, information costs can be high (ranking more than one candidate requires more voter knowledge), and it sometimes requires new machines and/or software. 

To make informed choices, voters need to understand how the redistributing of ballots can affect the results. Sometimes it is more strategically savvy to rank one’s second preferred candidate lowest. For example, if I prefer the leading Democrat to win, it would be beneficial for me to rank that person as my first choice and rank any left-wing third party candidates lowest in the hope of the third party candidates’ votes being redistributed to the leading Democrat’s total count. 

For most Americans, voting is the only means through which they exercise civic power; therefore, it seems crucial for lawmakers and voters to take time to research the pros and cons when considering voting system alternatives (