Preferential Choice Voting Simulation: How a New Electoral System Could Change Democracy

In more and more elections across the country, voters have the option of ranking multiple candidates instead of choosing just one. It’s called preferential voting, and its proponents say it promises to improve democracy as we know it.

In a traditional voting system, voters select a single candidate. With ranking voting, they rank candidates in order of preference.

With a traditional ballot, all the votes are added together and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate did not obtain a majority of the votes. (This system is sometimes called “plurality voting”.)

With the ranked ballot, if none of the candidates receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his votes are distributed to his voters’ second-choice candidates. The process repeats itself until one of the candidates receives more than half of the votes.

Preferential-choice voting is more complicated – and perhaps more confusing – than plurality voting, so why bother? To see what it’s all about, we can start by imagining an electorate made up of 200 voters.

Voters are positioned according to their preferences for political candidates. When it comes to politics, voters more on the left like liberal candidates, while those on the right prefer conservatives. When it comes to style, voters on the top like brash candidates, while those on the bottom prefer measured candidates.

In this imaginary electorate, voters are spread evenly across the political spectrum, but in real life they might not be. A more moderate electorate, for example, would cluster around the middle.

Moreover, actual voters rate candidates based on more than two qualities, and they may not even be fully aware of the factors on which they are basing their votes. But to simplify, the voters of this imaginary electorate always prefer the candidates closest to them.

In this three-candidate race, if plurality voting is used, Caroline Lavender wins even though most voters did not prefer her. green bucket hat and Alice Orange are both conservative and compete for similar voters, ensuring their mutual defeat.

However, in a ranked choice system, Green is eliminated after the first round, and his voters’ second preferences are assigned to the remaining candidates. In the second round, Orange wins a majority of support and wins.

Voters who preferred Green aren’t thrilled, but they’re happier to settle for the other conservative, Orangethan they would have been with the Liberal, Lavender.

“Ranking-choice voting is great for finding the majority-favorite winner,” said Deb Otis, a researcher at FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for election changes like ranking-choice voting.

Research also suggests that ranked voting encourages more candidates, especially women and people of color, to enter races in the first place. Ranked choice advocates say potential candidates don’t have to worry about becoming “spoilers,” weeding out voters of a similar candidate who has more support.

Notice how, in the plurality system, Green acts as a spoiler by attracting more voters who would have preferred Orange more Lavender than the reverse. In such a system, Green can choose not to run at all. But in the ranked choice system, Green don’t cut anymore Oranges victory.

“Right now, candidates are often discouraged from even entering the race. They’re told that if you run, you might siphon votes from that other candidate you generally agree with,” Otis said.

Preferential voting can accommodate more than three candidates. Below you can drag candidates to get an idea of ​​the dynamics of preferential voting. Can you guess who will win the election after the first ballot?

Preferential voting is not without detractors. Critics say it delays results and confuses voters. In November 2020, following opposition from Governor Charlie Baker (R), voters in Massachusetts rejected a referendum that would have instituted preferential voting in the state.

“At a time when we need to promote turnout and make it easier for voters to vote, we are concerned that [ranked-choice voting] will add an additional layer of complications for voters and election officials, while potentially delaying results and increasing the cost of the election,” Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito (right) said in a statement.

Voters who participated in preferential elections tend to say they understood the process, according to exit polls compiled by FairVote.

Sometimes, like in the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Maine, a ranked-choice election is the same as a plurality election, as the winning candidate gets a majority of the first-preference votes. In New York’s Democratic mayoral primary the following year, however, it took eight rounds of voting before Eric Adams secured a majority.

Critics of ranked voting also point out that some voters may choose no one beyond their first choice, possibly leaving their voices speechless in the final result. Other voters may not be counted in the final round due to “ballot exhaustion”, in which all of their preferred candidates are eliminated before a winner is chosen.

San Francisco has used ranked choice voting since 2004. Maine became the first state to use it in 2018, and voters in Alaska adopted ranked choice voting in a 2020 ballot initiative.

[At Virginia’s GOP convention, being second choice in governor’s race is a good Plan B]

In May 2021, Virginia Republicans chose former private equity firm executive Glenn Youngkin in a ranked-choice convention that narrowed the field to seven candidates. Youngkin won the general election in November. The state may be on the verge of seeing more preferential-choice elections in the future; in April 2021, the Virginia Legislature passed a law that allows municipalities to use ranked ballots in local elections.

About this story

This article uses Yee diagrams to visualize simulated voting systems.


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