Science Cafe wonders: Are alternative voting systems a savior of democracy or a confusing gimmick?

  • 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: 1/20/2020 6:41:08 PM

The overwhelming response to the Monitor’s ranked-choice ballot experiment last month – it got more mailed-in entries than Letters To Santa! – has prompted Science Cafe N.H. to discuss the topic of alternative voting systems Wednesday night in Concord.

As always at these free events, we’ll spend two hours asking questions of a couple of expert panelists, including Deputy N.H. Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, who has helped run more elections than just about anybody in the state except his boss, Bill Gardner, and discussing whether it makes sense to let people vote for more than one candidate at a time.

I have long been a skeptic of alternative voting systems, but in recent years I have changed my tune. I think they could do some good to dampen down the divisive frenzy that politics has become.

But maybe I’m wrong.

Consider Jim Campbell, a political science professor at SUNY-Buffalo. He studied ranked-choice voting (a.k.a. RCV) – where you give a rank to all the candidates in a race, instead of only putting a checkmark next to one of them – and was less than enthusiastic.

“RCV seems to be winning a great deal of acceptance and I hope the paper makes it clear why RCV is not such a good idea,” he wrote in an email.

Campbell does agree that RCV will increase voter turnout because it offers more options.

“Voters can stand their ground in favor of their first-choice candidate without fear of helping to elect the opposition’s candidate. In addition, potential voters are more likely to find a candidate in the larger field to be worth turning out for,” he and co-author Shawn Donahue wrote in a paper examining the incentives of ranked-choice voting vs. traditional (a.k.a. “plurality”) voting presented the annual meeting of Northeastern Political Science Association in Philadelphia.

So far, so good. But surprisingly, he argued that RCV will do the opposite of what many fans believe by making us more politically splintered, not less.

“Plurality rule rewards party unity and punishes party division. RCV does the opposite. In short, plurality rule encourages compromise and the consolidation of political views. The ranked-choice voting system encourages the expression of contentious views and discourages compromise,” the pair wrote.

This is surprising because the most compelling argument for alternative voting systems, in my opinion at least, is that they should force candidates to flee from the extremes.

Right now in a multiple-candidate race like the Democratic primary you can win by appealing to a non-majority core of voters; it doesn’t matter if a good chunk of voters hate you. But if you need support from people other than your core to get the necessary majority, as is required in RCV, then you can’t enrage too many people; you’ve got to reach a balance.

That’s the argument, anyway. Campbell’s paper disagrees.

“The RCV and plurality rule electoral systems treat united parties and divided parties very differently. Plurality rule rewards party unity and punishes party division. RCV does the opposite. In short, plurality rule encourages compromise and the consolidation of political views. The ranked choice voting system encourages the expression of contentious views and discourages compromise.

“The plurality system tilts to aggregation (helpful to governing) and the ranked choice system tilts to articulation (helpful to participation). Although its advocates embrace RCV as a reform reducing the hyper-conflict of polarization, it is likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Based on this rational choice analysis, RCV is a system that generally enables divisiveness.”

Who’s right? Unfortunately, Campbell wasn’t able to make the drive from Buffalo to Concord and back just to be on our panel for two hours, so he won’t be there to support his position against detractors amid the Makris Restaurant buffet and beer.

Nobody wanted to drive here from Portland, either, so we won’t have a panelists from Maine, where they are ramping up for the nation’s first statewide ranked-choice voting election. There is, however, a slim change we’ll have some non-traditional discussion from the Pine Tree State; you’ll have to show up to see what I mean.

As ususal, it starts at 6 p.m. at Makris Lobster & Steak House in Concord. You must call for a reservation, even if you’re not eating: 225-7665.

For details, check sciencecafenh.org. Otherwise, I’ll see you there.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com.)




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