Rank Order Voting: A Tale of Two Cities

James Allison, December 23, 2015

Determined to be first in line at her polling place, Michelle sat up when her alarm sounded. She checked her campaign notes.

“Congress. I adore the lady running for the House, who has no chance to win this gerrymandered district. My notation is ‘NV,’ for ‘Not much point in voting there.’ The Senate race is different, because you can’t gerrymander the state. My preferred candidate is awful, his opponent slightly worse. ‘MV,’ for ‘Maybe worth voting there.’

State legislature is also gerrymandered, NV House and Senate.

Mayor. Great candidate, a slam dunk. The opposition hasn’t seated a mayor in 50 years. Deserves my vote, but doesn’t need it. NV.

City Council. Three at-large seats, six candidates, three from each major party. I like two Dems and one Rep, but I can’t vote for him because Reps seldom win an at-large seat, maybe because of straight-ticket voting. NV. Another seat is open in my Council district, two candidates. The one I like will probably win, but it could be close. DV, Do vote there.”

Michelle took stock. A bunch of NVs, and only one DV. She turned over and went back to sleep.

Meanwhile her cousin Nicole, in a nearby state, was having coffee and filling out her mail-in ballot, which she expected to deliver in person later that day. She was apprehensive about this new ballot the town had recently adopted. “Let’s see. Congress. Three candidates for the House seat, and I’m supposed to write a 1 beside the name of my first choice, a 2 beside my second choice, and 3 beside my third. I really like the Green, but I know she won’t win, so to rank her first is to throw my vote away.

Wait. That was the old system. But with this new rank order system, if she comes in last on the first count my ballot doesn’t get tossed aside, like before. Instead, the computer looks at my second choice and moves it up to first for the next ballot count. And it keeps doing that until a clear winner emerges. Because my ballot is in on every count, it carries some weight until a winner is declared. And the winner might be my second choice.

So if I want to express my true preference, I can rank the Green first without feeling that I’ve frittered my vote away. Because I haven’t. My ballot is still in play.

And just think. If enough Greens vote their convictions, they just might win the election! How cool is that!”

The Senate vote went the same way, but with four candidates to rank instead of three. And so it went with the other races.

As she rode her bike to the ballot drop box, Nicole had a sudden thought: “The major party candidates had been unusually nice this year. Maybe they hoped to have those second-place rankings?”

She could hardly wait for the next campaign.