RCV Voting Considered Harmful to Third Parties

Hand votingBEVERLY HILLS, CA (robinsrowe.com) 2021/2/11 – Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a voting system that takes into account when a second-place candidate in an election was generally more popular than the candidate who came in first using First Past the Post (FPP) voting.

In an election for one seat with three candidates, RCV takes into account when the FPP second-place candidate was ranked by more voters as their second-choice, was generally speaking more acceptable to voters.

How does RCV work in real life? I ran recently for a seat on a climate committee. An election that uses RCV. Two seats. Three candidates. Let’s see…

RCV Post-Election Analysis

Climate Committee Election 2021 Results
  Rank Total Points Rank 1 Rank 2 Rank 3
Candidate #1 1 48% 44% 56% 11%
Candidate #2 2 44% 49% 34% 10%
Candidate Rowe 3 8% 7% 11% 79%

In the RCV vote for two chair positions, I came in 3rd. While not nearly enough to have a shot at winning, getting 8% of the vote is a decent result for a candidate with no name recognition among the committee’s voters, running for the first time. The 8% are voting primarily for my platform, not me. Many voters vote for who they personally know or whoever is the most famous.

It’s interesting how RCV would have impacted the result had the race been only for one seat, not two. It wouldn’t change anything for me as the third choice, but it would have changed the winner. With RCV, it is Candidate #1 who is the winner. Under FPP voting rules, Candidate #2 wins.

Note how RCV changes the outcome when the votes are close. RCV will flip seats between the two leaders when the votes are close enough. That would be between the two major parties typically. Benefits third parties not at all.

Third parties expend significant resources lobbying for RCV voting. Effort that could have gone into campaigning for third party candidates. That wasted effort benefits the major parties. Keeps third party candidates out of office.

When a major party is consistently losing a district by a small margin, it would be in its interest try to change the voting rules to RCV. The major party could lobby for RCV directly, but the other major party would cry foul. Better to manipulate third parties into lobbying for changing the rules to RCV.

RCV is a single-issue underdog campaign of no benefit to third parties. That makes third parties perfect for lobbying for it.

RCV proponents in the Green Party name one Green candidate from a U.S. election who they think could have benefited, might have been a winner, under RCV. In the 2003 San Francisco Gonzales vs. Newsom mayoral election, Newsom won 53% to 47%. However, that was a run-off election. In any Top-two election, RCV and FPP must have the same outcome. There are only two candidates to “rank”.

What if the 10-candidate San Francisco primary was RCV? That election outcome was Newsom 42% to Gonzales 20%. No possibility that RCV could have elected Gonzales had that election been RCV.

That Green candidate Gonzales came close, had any chance, was due to coming in second place in the primary, then facing Newsom one-on-one in the Top-two election. The opposite of what RCV proponents believe. To win that election, under the existing election rules, the Green Party needed to work just a little harder to overcome Newsom’s 10:1 advantage in campaign donations.

The 2003 SF mayoral election analysis shows how RCV would have eliminated the Green candidate from the running. Counterintuitively, Top-two can be better for third parties. In a Top-two race, the third party candidate gets exposure that doesn’t happen with ten candidates on the ballot.

The best chance for third parties to win is with a large primary, FPP and Top-two rules. The election scenario in San Francisco in 2003 was best case for a third party upset. The Green Party needed to keep trying, seek out similar election scenarios, and squeeze out a couple more percentage points to achieve the win. Instead, the Green Party campaigns doggedly for RCV, with RCV in its bylaws as a party plank.

Fortunately for Greens, current Democratic Governor Newsom keeps vetoing RCV. Newsom, who would have won easily under RCV, is who is blocking it. If passed, RCV would ensure the Green Party will never win. Why won’t Newsom pass it? Maybe because Newsom has the same election analysis as above.

Seems reasonable Newsom could have the same election analysis, it being from his 2003 election. RCV would have stopped his mayoral opponent, made Newsom’s win easy. Why should Newsom block RCV now that he’s governor? Because RCV could benefit Republican opponents across California, a blue state with red districts.

That third parties lobby hard for RCV, when it can be of no benefit to them, seems either delusional or sinister. Are third parties being manipulated, used as a front by a major party? During the 2020 election, the Montana state Green Party was disqualified for being a Republican-funded front.

Returning to the analysis of my RCV election, the 8% vote return may not be any proof of a platform or personal rejection. Rather, how cautious or partisan voters are. That 98% of incumbents are reelected, in some cases after the incumbent died in office, indicates voters predominantly reject change. Tough break for Progressive candidates who are campaigning on a change platform.

A solution may be to seek out elections where it’s possible to run the first time unopposed. For example, a committee with two seats and only one announced candidate. Once seated, then incumbency works in favor to get the Progressive reelected in the next election.

The most consistent quality voters vote for is incumbency. It’s not that voters like who is in office. Congress has an approval rating of 25%. Many voters can’t remember the names of their representatives when asked. Voting is based on the familiarity of a brand name and voters believing they are voting for a winner.

To win, a candidate need not actually be an incumbent. To seem like one may be enough. For example, by being a game show host with a father figure persona. That worked for a President who had never won any election before.

Would fatherly game show host Alex Trebek of Jeopardy been elected president of the United States in 2016 had he run instead of the game show host who was elected? Maybe, or maybe not.

While who voters vote for may be driven by branding, what motivates voters to take the effort to vote for anyone is complex. Voters may vote because of being angry or fearful. Voter suppression may keep voters away by closing polling places in minority neighborhoods. Gerrymandering enables candidates to choose their voters.

Despite getting more votes from American voters than he had in the prior election (having the incumbency advantage) the incumbent American president (and former game show host) lost the 2020 election.

Due to more Americans voting.