Caucuses in particular have been derided as old-fashioned, opaque or inaccessible. Their critics got a significant boost last week, when Iowa’s caucus was plagued by technological and human mistakes, delaying results and plunging the first official voting of the 2020 campaign into chaos.
But even before Iowa, a new idea was catching on for 2020: ranked-choice voting. At least four states that have relied on caucuses to choose their Democratic presidential nominees — Alaska, Kansas, Hawaii and Wyoming — will use the method to select their delegates this year.
Ranked choice changes the very act of voting by allowing people to shift their support from losing candidates to more viable options as the field narrows, essentially doing on paper what caucusgoers have typically done in person. Versions of it had two high-profile real-world examples this weekend: the Irish election, and the best picture at the Academy Awards.
It has a complicated history and comes in many forms, but ranked-choice voting has been gaining converts across the United States in recent years. Several cities now use it in municipal elections. Maine uses it for some state and federal elections, though many Republicans there wish it weren’t so. And the presidential hopefuls Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, Bill Weld and Elizabeth Warren have warmed to the idea.
How does it work?
On a ranked-choice ballot, voters can rank the candidates they like rather than choosing only one. The process varies; a ranked-choice presidential primary and a ranked-choice mayoral election would be structured differently.
But here’s a simple version: In a single-winner election, if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those who marked that candidate as No. 1 get their second choice counted instead.
That can go on for several rounds until a candidate emerges with a majority.
With ranked choice, voters can support outsider candidates without worrying about wasting their ballots. And candidates can win only with support — or at least tolerance — from a majority of the electorate, which can help prevent polarization.
That’s in contrast to the plurality or “first past the post” elections that are typical in the United States, in which candidates can win even if most voters oppose them, as long as the opposition is fractured.
Where did this idea come from?
Ranked-choice voting has lately gained a reputation as a new, progressive reform. But its history is long.
The multiseat version, in which candidates are elected to fill multiple open seats, was promoted by the philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1861. A single-winner version was developed about a decade later by William Ware, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
There was a wave of interest in ranked-choice voting in the United States about a century ago, helped along by the contentious 1912 presidential election, when Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft essentially split the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, won.
That helped strengthen the case for electoral reform, and an array of cities, including Ashtabula, Ohio; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and New York City, experimented with forms of ranked-choice voting.
The practice fell out of favor in many places once it was no longer useful to those in power. But now several cities, including San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Santa Fe, N.M., use ranked-choice voting. Even New York City joined that bandwagon (again) in a ballot referendum in November.
Jack Santucci, an assistant teaching professor of politics at Drexel University, said that ranked-choice voting starts to look attractive when an electorate is confronted with the right mix of polarization and fragmentation — for example, when a party or candidate maintains control with support from only a plurality of voters, while opposition groups are fractured.
Something like that appears to be unfolding now in the United States, where President Trump’s base of support is strong but not especially broad, and where Democrats are grappling with some internal division.
Versions of ranked-choice voting are also used in national elections in Malta, Ireland, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Ranked choice can make politics a little more stable and even “a bit boring,” said Ben Reilly, a professor of social sciences at the University of Western Australia. “Even in an electorate where there is a wide diversity of viewpoints, the winner will be a candidate who can hit that middle ground.”
What are the arguments for and against?
Proponents of ranked choice say it can make campaigning less divisive. Ranked-choice elections sometimes beget campaign videos like this or this, in which smiling opponents stand side by side and encourage people to vote for both of them.
Candidates are more civil when they have an incentive to appeal to voters as a second or third choice, said David O’Brien, a staff lawyer with FairVote, an organization that promotes ranked-choice voting.
“Coming out of a primary, you end up having a nominee who has more support, and the primary itself probably hasn’t been as vicious and bitter as you might have seen otherwise,” he said.
Vicki Hiatt, the chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said she expected higher turnout in this year’s presidential primary in the state. She added that people were happy they would be able to cast their ballot without strategizing about electability.
“Sometimes they’re voting for the lesser of two evils,” she said. “So most people have said to me: ‘This is great. Now I can vote for who I really want.’”
Critics of ranked choice say it can upend electoral politics in unpredictable ways, cost money or dampen turnout. And in some states and cities where ranked choice has come up for a vote, opponents argued that the cause was supported by dark money or other outside funding.
In 2018, Paul LePage, a Republican governor of Maine who had won two terms in office without a majority, called ranked-choice voting “the most horrific thing in the world” and questioned its constitutionality. Republicans in Maine are still fighting it today.
And in New York in November, members of the N.A.A.C.P. and the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus spoke out against ranked-choice voting. They were partly worried that it could hurt candidates of color, and that a more complicated ballot could reduce turnout.
“It’s not just this fluff about your first choice, your second choice and your third choice, like you’re playing hopscotch,” said Adrienne Adams, a Democrat who represents portions of southeast Queens. “This is so much more intricate than that.”
She added that ranked ballots could introduce opportunities for candidates to game the system. “Ranked-choice voting just has the potential to erode that voting power that we’ve worked so hard for,” she said.
Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said that while ranked-choice voting might have intuitive appeal to people who favor reform, it was not a panacea.
“The Democratic Party position now is that we need to remove barriers to voting, and I think ranked-choice voting is counter to that,” he said. “My research shows that when you make things more complicated, which this does, there’s going be lower turnout.”
How does ranked-choice voting affect results?
Researchers are still trying to figure out whether it is easier for political outsiders to win under ranked choice, and what that might mean for diversity in political representation.
Dr. McDaniel said that because ranked-choice voting “usually advantages people who are incumbents or well known, or who have a lot of campaign funds,” there was no guarantee that it would shake up the status quo, or that candidates from racial or political minority groups would benefit.
There are also concerns about whether the system could enable new forms of foul play. Dr. Santucci said it was possible that in the single-seat version of ranked-choice voting, a lone candidate of color could be edged out of a race by opponents who conspire to do so. He and Dr. Reilly have also argued that multiseat ranked-choice voting could be implemented in ways that are poorly conceived and deeply unfair.
But some research suggests that ranked-choice elections might promote diversity among political representatives. One study in 2018 found that in the Bay Area in California, there were better outcomes for women and candidates of color under the system.
Sarah John, an author of that study and a researcher with the University of Virginia and the Sunlight Foundation, said ranked choice was still a fairly novel system in the United States.
“It will take some time for researchers to come to definitive answers about its effects,” she said. “Until then, the jury is still out, as it were, on whether ranked-choice voting will improve or hurt turnout and descriptive representation.”