Beyond the Spoiler Effect: Can Ranked Choice Voting Solve the Problem of Political Polarization?

37 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2023 Last revised: 6 Nov 2023

See all articles by Nathan Atkinson

Nathan Atkinson

University of Wisconsin Law School

Edward B. Foley

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Scott Ganz

Georgetown University - McDonough School of Business; American Enterprise Institute

Date Written: April 5, 2023

Abstract

Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) is growing in popularity among election reformers, who have coalesced in particular around Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), a specific form of RCV that has recently been adopted in Maine and Alaska and will likely be proposed in many more states as ballot initiatives in the coming years. While reformers hope that IRV can ameliorate extremism and political polarization, this paper presents empirical evidence that undercuts these hopes. For instance, Alaska’s very first election following the state’s adoption of IRV signaled that the method may fail to elect the candidate most preferred by a majority of the state’s voters. Extrapolating from Alaska’s experience, and using a nationally representative sample of over 50,000 voters, we analyze the prospective effects of adopting IRV in every state. This analysis shows that IRV tends to produce winning candidates who are more divergent ideologically from their state’s median voter than do other forms of RCV. And the effect is most pronounced in the most polarized states—precisely the electorates for which IRV is being promoted as an antidote to existing divisiveness. We conclude by highlighting other formulations of RCV that result in more representative outcomes and are thereby better positioned to combat extremism and political polarization.

Keywords: Condorcet, polarization, median voter, representation, majority rule, instant runoff voting

Suggested Citation

Atkinson, Nathan and Foley, Edward B. and Ganz, Scott, Beyond the Spoiler Effect: Can Ranked Choice Voting Solve the Problem of Political Polarization? (April 5, 2023). University of Illinois Law Review, Forthcoming, Georgetown McDonough School of Business Research Paper No. 4411173, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4411173 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4411173

Nathan Atkinson

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

Edward B. Foley (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States
614-292-4288 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://moritzlaw.osu.edu/faculty/edward-b-foley/

Scott Ganz

Georgetown University - McDonough School of Business ( email )

American Enterprise Institute

1789 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States

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