Ranked-Choice Won’t Fix Our Electoral System

America’s electoral system is broken; it’s created a corrupt, two-party duopoly where politicians are unaccountable to their constituents. Alaska and Maine realize this, and have decided to adopt ranked-choice voting — but it won’t fix our democracy.

The US uses a system called first-past-the-post, the most simple electoral method, in which voters choose one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. This inherently creates a two-party system, since voters are afraid third parties and Independents will split the vote, thus helping the major party they like the least.

Since alternative candidates can’t win: there’s no way to hold politicians accountable; both parties are corrupt, so voting for one is little different than voting for the other. Furthermore, most people are unrepresented, since primaries tend to elect candidates from the largest faction.

Ranked-Choice Voting

RCV ballot
RCV ballot from Wikipedia

Ranked-choice voting — or instant runoff voting — was presented as the solution to this problem. In this system, voters rank each candidate in order of preference, then the votes are tallied as if everyone voted for their first choice.

If there’s a majority: that candidate wins; if not: the worst-performing candidate is eliminated and their votes are re-allocated to whoever is listed as their next choice. This will repeat until one candidate comes out on top.

Seems great, right? There’s just one problem: this doesn’t help third parties very much. While RCV will diminish the “they’ll split the vote!” mentality, in reality, it doesn’t do much systemically.

RCV Simulation

Let’s say there are four candidates: a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, and a Green. In the first round, they get 30%, 29%, 20%, and 21% respectively. That looks great on paper, but none of them got a majority, so the Libertarian is eliminated.

Let’s say their votes are split almost evenly among the other parties (for expediency’s sake); the Republican would now have 37%, the Democrat would have 36%, and the Green would have 27%. Again, there’s no majority, so the Green is eliminated — leaving no third parties left.

The Democrat would win with 63% of the vote, which is better than the Republican winning with 30% — but we still end up with a two-party system.

FPTP Simulation

If this same election was held under first-past-the-post: the Libertarian would get… maybe 3% and the Green would get somewhere around 1%. Let’s say the left-over Libertarians are evenly split and all the left-over Greens go to the Democrat — in this scenario: the Democrat wins with 57% of the vote.

While third parties might be able to win in a few, niche districts, ranked-choice voting would usually just eliminate them in the first few rounds — the Democrats and Republicans would still hold a tight grip over American politics.

Approval Voting

Approval ballot
Approval ballot from Wikipedia

Although ranked-choice voting won’t save our democracy, that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless — we just have to change how we think about voting! Approval voting is not only simpler than RCV, but it actually helps third parties as well!

Under this system: voters get to choose any number of candidates, and the candidate with the most votes wins! There’s a variant called favorability voting — or combined approval voting — (the system I prefer). The only difference is that you can also vote against candidates.

This can result in more than candidate getting a majority of the vote, but that’s actually a good thing, since it shows most people would be happy if they we’re elected!

Approval voting helps third parties, because it never eliminates them. Let’s do another simulation to prove my point:

Approval Simulation

Just like before, let’s say 30% of voters are Republicans, 29% of voters are Democrats, 20% are Libertarians, and 21% are greens. As we established earlier, the Libertarians like each party equally and the Greens like the Democrat. Let’s say half the Greens like the Libertarian.

This would increase the totals to 37%, 63%, 34%, and 27% respectively (all rounded to the closest whole number for simplicity).

Let’s say one-fourth of both major parties like each-other, one-fourth of Republicans like the Libertarian, one-fourth of Democrats like the Libertarian, and half of Democrats like the Green. The grand total would be:

44% for the Republican, 71% for the Democrat, 49% for the Libertarian, and 42% for the Green. The Democrat still wins, since this is a safe, blue district, but the second-place doesn’t go to the Republican — it goes to the Libertarian (who was the first to be eliminated in RCV)!


America’s electoral system is broken, but we don’t fix it by eliminating third parties in run-off elections, we fix it by re-thinking voting all together! There are plenty of other electoral methods to consider, but we can rule out ranked-choice.

I ain’t saying Alaska and Maine were wrong to change their electoral methods — I’d support such a change here in Arkansas — I’m saying it doesn’t go far enough; we shouldn’t stop with ranked-choice voting, but rather use it as a stepping-stone to an even better system!