Ranked-Choice Voting, Runoff, and Democracy: Insights from Maine and Other U.S. States
51 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2021
Date Written: January 19, 2021
In recent years, a growing number of scholars and policymakers have called for electoral reform in the United States; many suggest ranked-choice voting (RCV), with a few proposing runoff. The expected benefits include greater openness of the electoral arena to new parties, greater ideological moderation, and greater voter satisfaction. To what extent did RCV and runoff live up to these expectations in the United States in 2020? Whereas until recently the impact of RCV could be assessed only for local elections, we take advantage of the implementation of RCV in Maine to assess together the effects of the three distinct rules — RCV, runoff, and plurality — in federal elections. Across a dataset for twelve competitive 2020 federal elections, the electoral arena was more open to new parties and candidates under RCV in Maine than under runoff or plurality elsewhere. Also under RCV in Maine, one candidate broke the national pattern of ideological polarization. Yet, in the context of Maine’s political history, these gains were modest. Further, RCV has been fiercely opposed by Maine’s Republican Party, especially after a loss in a 2018 congressional election by a Republican to a Democrat in a “come-from-behind victory.” (In a “come-from-behind” victory under RCV, the winner of the first-preference votes loses after the allocation of additional-preference votes.) In a survey experiment administered on 3,471 registered voters throughout the U.S., voters were less satisfied with RCV than with runoff or plurality, and especially less satisfied with a come-from-behind victory. Overall, these results highlight the challenges that arise with change; voters and candidates require time to understand and adapt to new electoral rules.
Keywords: electoral reform, plurality, runoff, RCV, Maine, survey experiment
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