New Research: RCV Doesn't Lower Turnout and Increases It When Replacing Runoffs

Posted by David C. Kimball on October 26, 2016

Some reporters recently have reported on research that, based on only a few elections and without factoring in election competitiveness, suggests voter turnout has been adversely affected by introduction of ranked choice voting (RCV) in local elections. FairVote's research does not support this conclusion. Nor do the findings from a much more extensive research project led by University of Missouri-St. Louis professor David C. Kimball and presented at the September 2016 American Political Science Association annual meeting. Kimball's research shows that RCV does not adversely affect turnout; rather it increases voter turnout in the decisive election when it replaces a two-round runoff system. The research also found that the "residual vote" (ballots that are not counted due to voters skipping a race or making a mistake) declined after introduction of RCV.  His new paper with Joseph Anthony is available onlineHere, Professor Kimball, writes a guest post summarizing his findings.

This November, voters in Maine and Benton County, Oregon, will vote on measures to adopt ranked choice voting (RCV) for many of their elections. As the name implies, ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (first choice, second, choice, and so forth). This is different from our typical plurality rules in which voters simply select their top choice. RCV offers voters a chance to provide a fuller expression of their candidate preferences. Voters can indicate back-up selections without hurting the chances of their most-preferred candidates. Since the voting rules are different, however, there has been a lot of speculation about how voters will respond to ranked choice voting.

As more jurisdictions in the United States consider adopting ranked choice voting (RCV) it is important to evaluate RCV alongside the plurality voting rules it typically replaces. The best evidence we have in the United States is from a small number of cities that have adopted ranked choice voting for local elections over the past decade. In recent research, Joseph Anthony and I examine the degree to which voters turn out and properly cast their votes in local elections. We compare eight cities using RCV rules to demographically and geographically similar cities using plurality rules. Furthermore, we examine elections before and after the adoption of ranked choice voting rules, which allows us to rule out differences between the two sets of cities that already existed before ranked choice voting rules were adopted.

Many cities hold a primary election to winnow the number of candidates for local offices, like mayor or city council. Then they hold a runoff election where voters choose between the top two finishers from the primary. One of these elections is usually scheduled in November to coincide with other state and federal contests. The problem is that there is a sharp drop in voter participation in the other election (a primary held prior to the November election or a runoff held after November). RCV rules are designed to hold one election in place of two separate primary and runoff elections, which is why RCV is sometimes called “instant runoff voting.”

We find that RCV rules help avoid the substantial drop in voter participation in local primary and runoff elections. Beyond that, however, RCV does not appear to have a strong impact on voter turnout and ballot completion in municipal elections. When we only examine elections held in November we find no meaningful change in turnout when RCV rules are used.

There is some concern that voters are more likely to make mistakes with ranked choice voting rules, since these rules are different and somewhat more complex than just selecting one’s top choice for an office. However, when we examine voting errors in our study, we again find no difference between ranked choice voting and plurality rules. Finally, some argue that ranked choice voting may exacerbate socioeconomic and racial disparities in voter turnout. Our research includes a case study of Minneapolis elections conducted before and after the adoption of RCV rules. We find similar levels of socioeconomic and racial disparities in voter participation in plurality and RCV elections.

Ranked choice voting has been used for a relatively short period of time in a limited number of American cities, so we are somewhat cautious about the conclusions we draw from this research. In addition, voters in statewide or federal contests might respond differently to RCV rules than they do in municipal elections. Nevertheless, so far we don’t find evidence that ranked choice voting reduces voter turnout.

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “laboratories of democracy” to describe the federal nature of American government. That is, states and cities have some ability to adopt new public policies and see how they work on a relatively small scale.  The rest of the country can learn from those experiences and determine whether those local policy experiments should be scrapped, modified, or expanded to other locations. The most reliable way to determine how voters handle elections with ranked choice voting is to try it at the state and local level and observe the results. 

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