Our experiment showed at least one thing: Some people love ranked-choice voting 

  • ballots, ballots, ballots!

  • David Brooks amid 375 ballots (on the table) and their envelopes (on the floor) for the Monitor's experiment in ranked-choice voting. Jon Bodell

Monitor staff
Published: 12/9/2019 4:49:58 PM

When the Monitor decided to run a mock Democratic primary using ranked-choice voting, there were two numbers I was particularly interested in seeing.

Here is one of them: 385.

That’s how many usable ballots were mailed in, and it’s a lot. It’s about three times as many as I expected and one of the biggest mail-in responses the Monitor has seen in ages. We even beat Letters to Santa! 

To me, this answered the biggest concern about ranked-choice voting: That the complexity will turn off voters. It seems the opposite happened.

I have heard just one negative reader comment about the enormous 16x16 grid, but more than a dozen readers included notes with their ballots expressing enthusiasm, including one who scribbled, “Thanks – this is great!” at the bottom.

Here’s the other number I was interested in: 14.

That’s the number of rounds it took to reduce our original 16 candidates to the point where one of them had a majority of the ballots.

Yes, it’s a lot. In fact, it’s the maximum number possible with 16 candidates, reflecting how divided our readers were about the huge Democratic field.

Imagine if we had been forced to hold 14 runoff elections, putting a new ballot in the paper every time and waiting for people to mail them in. We’d still be working on it after the Feb. 11  primary was over, maybe even after the November election. Now you know why ranked-choice voting is also called instant runoff.

Ranking 1 to 16

Here’s a reminder about how the system works. In November we printed a ballot with the 16 major Democratic candidates at the time (some later dropped out, some joined) and asked readers to rank them from No. 1 to No. 16, then mail in the result. Digital subscribers could print out the ballot and mail it in.

The lack of online voting was deliberate to prevent anybody rigging the results unless they wanted to buy lots of copies of the paper (which, frankly, would be fine with us). We did the Democratic slate only because there aren’t enough viable Republican candidates to make the test worthwhile on the GOP side. 

Once the 385 ballots were here, Features Editor Sarah Pearson and I took over an office and laid them out on a 20-foot roll of paper, giving each ballot to the candidate who got the No. 1 rank. (We didn’t include the ballot that had  “Trump 2020” written across it, although we admired that reader’s enthusiasm.) 

Every candidate was No. 1 on at least one ballot except for some guy who I didn’t even realize was running. But no candidate received anywhere near a majority of No. 1 votes: The leader had only 102, which was 91 votes short of 50%.

I’m not identifying candidates by name at this point because this isn’t a poll, an attempt to use ranked-choice to predict voter preferences. These weren’t random responses to make it viable as a poll. Rather, it was an experiment to see how people would react to a real ranked-choice ballot, so it’s not important which candidate was chosen. (But yes, I’ll tell you at the end.)

For the second round, we took the ballots from the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes and gave them to the next highest choice on each of those ballots, then counted again. Still no majority. So we did this again, taking the ballots of the fewest-No.1 candidate and divvying them up among whoever was next highest. Then we did it again, and again, and again.

It got to the point that some ballots were placed with the candidate that was the voter’s eighth  choice because their first seven choices had been eliminated! There were also 19 ballots that didn’t get counted at all later in the process because they left some candidates un-ranked and all their choices were eliminated.

That brings to mind a third interesting number: 156. This is how many ballots ranked all 16 candidates, not skipping anybody.

In other words, more than half of our readers did not have an opinion about everybody on the ballot. Usually, such voters marked the top four or five and left the rest empty – although a few jumped just over the middle rankings and marked one or two candidates at the very bottom, to indicate their displeasure.

And the winner is ...

Eventually, we got down to just three candidates who had 152, 126 and 104 votes respectively. We parceled out the 104 votes to the other two. It turned out voters who liked this candidate – Amy Klobuchar, if you must know – had a very strong preference, so almost all of them went to the eventual winner.

The final tally was 224 votes for Pete Buttigieg and 142 for Elizabeth Warren.

Here’s the twist: It was Buttigieg who got the 102 No. 1 votes, meaning he also would have won the election with traditional enumeration. To an extent, the hours that Sarah and I spent moving ballots around and counting and re-counting didn’t change a thing.

It did make one change: Warren was originally in fourth place but was boosted to second because virtually all of Bernie Sanders’ voters chose her as No. 2. This affection didn’t go the other way, however: Warren voters split their No. 2 among a whole host of alternatives.

Why all the fuss?

This was a fun exercise but you might wonder what the point is. The point, say advocates, is that alternative voting methods can help democracy.

“There are a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is that you’re able to send a much better picture of what the voters actually want,” said Tiani Coleman of Amherst, who founded Independent Voters of New Hampshire and has experience with ranked-choice voting, since it was used by the Utah Republican Party when she was its chair in Salt Lake City, years ago.

Coleman will also be a panelist at the January Science Cafe N.H. in Concord, where we’ll take all your questions about alternative voting systems.

The big news in alternative voting comes from Maine, which this year will hold the nation’s first statewide race using ranked-choice. Up to now, such systems have only appeared in some city elections as far as American government races go, although alternative voting is used in several foreign countries and by a number of organizations.

Long-time readers will know that I have long been skeptical of alternative voting methods, considering them an irrelevant gimmick, but in recent years have changed my mind. I think they are a tool that could help return our politics to a more rational level. Not by themselves, of course, but they could help.

I’m not the only person who is playing with alternative voting for the Democratic primary, by the way. An election with so many viable candidates is the perfect testing ground. As many as five state Democratic parties may use ranked-choice voting ballots in their contests this year, partly because it helps with the complicated process of divvying up delegates among many contenders.

If you want to learn more check out FairVote, a group that has long advocated ranked-choice voting, and its online presidential ballot Fairvote.org.

In the meantime, make sure you have registered to vote. Even if you can’t do it with a cool 16x16 grid, casting a ballot is still important.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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