Sri Lanka Presidential Election Demonstrates Value and Ease of Ranking Candidates

Posted by Austin Plier on January 09, 2015
Yesterday (January 8, 2015), more than 12 million voters in Sri Lanka participated in a fascinating presidential election with ranked choice voting, showcasing how RCV can work among a wide range of electorates.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat this morning after a close but unsuccessful attempt at a third term in office. Sri Lanka's Election Commission announced that former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena had won roughly 51.3 percent of the vote, with Mr. Rajapaksa garnering 47.6 percent--a margin of just under 450,000 votes. The political upset has caught the attention of the international community, as Rajapaksa was a heavy favorite with a considerable advantage in terms of resources over his opponent.

For advocates of ranked choice voting (RCV), the method in which Sri Lanka’s highest office was elected is what made this election so fascinating. Sri Lanka uses a form of RCV that is called the "contingent vote" system, to elect their President, which is very close to the RCV systems as current implemented in Minneapolis and the Bay Area. There are two key elements that are explained in a detailed blogpost in Sri Lanka on how to vote:

  • First, voters can rank up to three candidates, just as is the case with the voting equipment in place in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Oakland.
  • Second, the winner must finish in the top two in first choices.If no candidate capture a majority in the first round of counting, ballots whose top-ranked candidate has been eliminated are then added to the totals of whichever of the two finalists is ranked next on that ballot. The candidate with the most votes after this second round of counting is the winner. No American city currently uses this form of RCV, although it has been proposed in New York City, Vermont and elsewhere because it so closely simulates a a single "instant runoff."

With ranked choice voting, Sri Lankans avoid a plurality winner for president, as well as costly run-off elections. Mr. Sirisena won a majority in the first round of counting with 51.3 percent of the vote, so the contingent voting system didn't come into play, and only voters’ first choices ever had to be counted. But rather than have a whole second election if he had been below 50%, the next preferences  of the trailing candidates would have decided the election without asking everyone to come back for a new election.

Still, there are important takeaways from this election for advocates of ranked choice voting. First, Sri Lankans had 19 choices on their ballot on election day, and could vote their conscience without fear of electing their president for the next six years with a plurality of votes. Had no candidate crossed that 50% threshold, the 1.1% of voters would who preferred other candidates would have second choices already noted. This combination of choice and consensus is empowering.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that more than 12 million Sri Lankans successfully voted in an election in which they could rank their choices, and close to 99% of all votes cast were valid.

This successful presidential election proves unequivocally that allowing voters to rank their choices is a simple and effective way for voters to elect the highest of political offices.
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