By TRENT ENGLAND and JASON SNEAD
Democracy is not “heads I win, tails you lose,” but some left-leaning reformers want it that way. When they disagree with election outcomes, they demand wholesale changes to the process. Ranked-choice voting, or RCV, is the latest example.
Normal elections are “one person, one vote”— each voter casts one vote in each race, with a single, simple process for counting votes. But in RCV elections, voters can rank multiple candidates and there may be many rounds of counting, adjusting and recounting votes.
The mess this creates is not theoretical. This summer, Arlington County, Virginia, experimented with RCV in a primary election. The Washington Post noted “emerging pushback” before election day, with “frustration … focused on the wonky, hard-to-follow way that votes are counted.” Civil rights groups raised concerns about disenfranchisement. After the election, Arlington officials announced the county will go back to normal elections.
RCV has been historically rejected. The system was invented in Victorian England but failed to gain traction there. It was tried in various American cities early in the 20th century, but every one of them subsequently repealed it. More recently, Utah created a pilot program for local governments to use RCV. Half of those that tried it have already ended the experiment and returned to a normal process.
So who really wants RCV? And why? Most of the push comes from a network of advocacy organizations on the political left. They claim RCV will reduce partisanship, make campaigns less negative, and give voters more choices. None of that seems likely. In fact, the system has flipped two congressional seats — in Alaska and Maine — from Republican to Democrat.
The leading proponent of RCV is FairVote. The Maryland-based think tank identifies itself as “the driving force for RCV.” Founded in 1992, the group pushes RCV at the local and state levels. Supporters are a who’s who of far-left donors, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, other Soros-connected foundations, the Arnold Foundation, and the Tides Foundation.
Another group pushing RCV is Unite America. Despite claims to bipartisanship, its leadership leans way left. For example, its board has three former members of Congress — two Democrats and one Republican. The latter is former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who was the most liberal Republican in Congress at the end of his time in office, according to American Conservative Union rankings.
The founder of Unite America, Charles Wheelan, ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat and has contributed to numerous Democratic Party causes. The co-chair of Unite America’s board, and one of its major funders, is Kathryn Murdoch. She also gives almost exclusively to Democratic candidates and campaign committees. In 2019, The New York Times reported that Murdoch and her husband had “already invested millions” in Unite America. Since then, Unite America has pushed RCV in at least 17 states.
Another major backer of RCV is Katherine Gehl, who advocates a more comprehensive — and radical — change to elections called “final-five voting.” She previously worked for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and was an Obama appointee. She has served on the board of Unite America and runs her own national nonprofit, the Institute for Political Innovation.
Gehl’s final-five proposal incorporates RCV into a scheme that would also eliminate political parties from the nominating process. Instead, a preliminary election would include all candidates regardless of party. It would be open to all voters, with each casting a single vote, and then the five candidates with the most votes would advance to a final RCV election.
A version of this plan became law in Alaska in 2020. Voters in Nevada passed it as a state constitutional amendment in 2022, with supporters outspending opponents more than ten to one. Gehl, the top donor, gave more than $6 million. Kathryn Murdoch gave $2.5 million. Because Nevada requires amendments to pass in two successive general elections, it will only take effect if passed again next year.
RCV is often part of the larger agenda to reduce or eliminate the role of political parties. Gehl says the parties have “plagued and perverted” our politics and is hard at work bankrolling a shift to a system where major donors would have even more power.
Ranked-choice voting is a particularly dangerous proposal. By making elections more complicated and less transparent, RCV threatens to accelerate distrust in democratic processes. This can only drive down participation and feed suspicions—held by voters on both sides—that elites are rigging the game. And in the case of RCV, these suspicions may be close to the mark.
Trent England and Jason Snead are coauthors of The Case Against Ranked-Choice Voting, from which this article is adapted. This column first appeared in The Daily Caller.