Point Counterpoint: Should the US Adopt Ranked Choice Voting?



This month high school debaters across the nation will debate the resolution: “Resolved: The US should adopt ranked choice voting for its federal elections.”

Every election cycle, the media decries partisan polarization as the cause of America’s policy ills.  The story goes – most Americans are moderate and willing to compromise, but our elected representatives are hardliners who rarely break the party mold. 

Why are Senators and members of Congress so much more extreme than the average American?  Why is government gridlocked over seemingly commonsense things, like spending on infrastructure, raising the debt ceiling, and common-sense reform?  Why are congressional hearings clogged with useless grandstanding and brinksmanship that never translates into actionable legislation for the American people?

One possible answer to this question is the two-party system, where elections are essentially contests between the candidates that win party-primaries.  Because the winner is the candidate with a plurality of votes, it makes very little sense to run a third-party challenger.  Doing so would inevitably split the vote between the challenger and their closest ideological compatriot, which would result in both losing.  The winning candidate would be the least acceptable choice to both other parties.  This style of elections is called “winner-take-all.”

One alternative to the winner-take-all approach is ranked choice voting (RCV).  Ranked- choice voting is an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference on their ballots.  Just like in winner-take-all elections, if a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they are declared the winner.  If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated.  The eliminated votes are reallocated to the candidate that was indicated as the voter’s second preference.  An instant runoff election determines whether any candidate has won most of the adjusted votes.  The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.

 This topic is a deep dive into public policy and implicates some of the most fundamental aspects of our democracy.  The topic forces debaters to think about how different electoral systems create structural incentives for different kinds of candidates to prevail.  It also makes students consider normative questions, such as what type of candidates should prevail in an effective democratic system.  Fortunately, ranked-choice voting has been piloted in many countries and localities worldwide.  Smart debaters will take this topic out of the abstract and make it about the successes and difficulties that actual places have faced in their transition to ranked choice. Here are two opinions on the topic.

Nota Bene: High school debates center on a controversial topic and follow specific rules of debate to ensure a fair and clear response competition.  Competitors are required to argue both sides of the topic, both pro and con.  Arguments and opinions do not represent the opinion of the debater.  This article first goes through the CON side then PRO.

CON : No to Ranked Choice Voting

By Gwendolyn Berger

Ranked choice voting is a voting method that sequentially eliminates candidates in a series of rounds until it reaches a winner.  Voters list their candidates in order of preference. (1).

The CON side of this argument takes a few stances including the complexity of the election, the heightened risk for extremism, and decreased representation.  A common critique is that it is complicated and overwhelms voters (2).  An important part of voting is being well-informed about the candidates.  However, in ranked choice voting, responsible voters have to conduct increased amounts of thorough research when deciding the rankings for their ballot (4).  This is very time-consuming for the typical voter, especially if it’s for a local election with upwards of 20 candidates running.

Because of the complexity of these elections, it takes much longer to process than a traditional election.  The issue here is that even small delays can breed distrust about the election and destabilize America’s fragile democracy.

The effect is that it leads to a lower voter turnout which is undesirable in a democratic election. Furthermore, the nature of RCV leads to higher error rates on the ballots when compared to traditional elections (4).  Moreover, the system in which ranked choice voting works can promote extremist candidates. 

The issue with ranked choice voting is that it permits extremist candidates with narrow support bases to run in elections without acting as a spoiler for one of the other major party candidates.  In this type of voting, if no candidate gets a majority, candidates are dropped from the election and their support is reallocated amongst the remaining candidates until one wins majority (3).

As The Hill states, “ranked-choice voting makes it more difficult to elect moderate candidates when the electorate is polarized.”

The Hill explains that, for example, in a three-person race, the moderate candidate may be preferred to each of the more extreme candidates by a majority of voters. 

But, ranked choice voting makes it so voters with far-left and far-right views will rank the moderate persona in second place instead of first place.  Since ranked-choice voting counts only the number of first-choice votes, the moderate candidate would be eliminated, leaving one of the extreme candidates to be declared the winner.

This makes it more difficult for minorities to have a voice in the election because their preferred candidates may get voted out in the first round.  An article by Joseph Coll said, “Though previous studies have found potential benefits of RCV, some evidence suggests ranking multiple candidates instead of choosing one most preferred candidate may be difficult, with potential demographic disparities linked to age, gender, or racial or ethnic identity” (5).

This eliminates important representation in local, state, and federal elections. 

PRO : Yes to Ranked Choice Voting

By Stella Straub 

Ranked choice voting is an alternative to the winter-take-all approach that is used in various states and cities across the United States.  In this system, voters can rank candidates by preference on their ballots.  If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they are elected.  However, if no candidate wins the majority, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated and the eliminated votes are reallocated to the candidate that was the voter’s second preference.  An instant runoff election determines whether any candidate has won most of the adjusted votes.  The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. 

One of the major benefits to ranked choice voting is that it can help promote democracy and uphold democratic values.

Democracy in the United States is at a critical juncture. Polarization is incredibly high, and public trust in the government is increasingly low. 

“A December 2021 poll found nearly two-thirds of Americans saying that ‘American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing,’” wrote Peter Ackerman for the American Purpose in the 2022 article, “Ranked-Choice Voting Is More Democratic, Not Less”. 

RCV revolutionizes the voting system and strengthens democracy. 

“RCV, by contrast, encourages the election of candidates with the broadest electoral appeal.  It also makes it likely that candidates who win will have the support of a majority of voters.  A factional candidate might get 30 percent of the vote, but if that candidate doesn’t attract wider support, they won’t succeed in an RCV system,” wrote  Fredreka Schouten in the 2022 article, “Can ranked-choice voting save American democracy? We ask an expert” for CNN. 

RCV presents a promising solution in order to strengthen the health of American democracy in order to promote peace.

Another benefit of RCV is that it reduces political polarization by encouraging candidates to appeal to a wide base in the primaries.

“‘With ranked choice voting, you have an incentive to engage your opponent’s base and seek their second-and third-choice votes.’  Rewarding candidates with broader support in the primaries would create for better options in general elections, where the use of ranked choice voting would also serve to encourage bipartisanship and candidates to seek second-choice votes from communities they would normally ignore,” Ryan Suto wrote for Fair Vote in his 2022 article, “Want to fix our polarized politics?  Fix how we vote”. 

RCV encourages candidates to campaign across party lines, which is how it decreases polarization.  Additionally, it allows for more centrist and third-party candidates.  Voters are less discouraged by the idea of voting for a third-party candidate because they do not see their vote as a waste in a ranked-choice voting system. 

Lastly, ranked-choice voting encourages voter participation because voters feel more empowered to vote for candidates they truly believe in.  Research shows RCV increases voter turnout which is good for democracy. For instance, RCV improved turnout in mayoral elections in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“In the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Area, the introduction of IRV caused a 9.6 percentage point increase in turnout for mayoral elections.  The effect on turnout is larger for precincts that have higher poverty rates,” Eamon McGinn wrote in his 2020 report “Rating Rankings:  Effect of Instant Run-off Voting on participation and Civility.” 

Overall, ranked-choice voting can be beneficial to democracy by reducing political polarization and voter turnout.  Adopting this system may be the key to improving the state of American democracy. 

Point / Counterpoint is a regular feature in the Manchester Cricket by the Manchester Essex Regional High School Debate Team.  Readers who would like to respond, or follow up with the team, please email news@thecricket.com.


electoral systems, political systems, elections, united states, single-winner electoral systems, instant-runoff voting, counterpoint, voting, single transferable vote, ranked voting, approval voting, runoff election, peter ackerman