As a growing number of colleges and universities switch to ranked choice voting (RCV) for student government elections, they are revealing new ways that the system can improve election processes and outcomes. In early March, an election mishap at the University of Houston provided an example of how RCV can, among its many other benefits, make elections more resistant to unexpected obstacles.
Votes had already been cast in the University of Houston’s 2021 SGA election when, citing violations of the school’s campaign guidelines, the SGA Supreme Court disqualified every member of one of the SGA’s major parties. In a traditional voting system, the mass disqualification would have led to one of two outcomes: either the party’s supporters would be left having wasted their votes on candidates who were forced out of the running, their opinions about the operation of their school left unaccounted for due to events they couldn’t control, or the SGA would have had to pay for and administer a whole new election. However, the University of Houston is one of over 90 higher education institutions where students use RCV to elect their SGA leadership. Students who voted for the #RiseUp party simply had their votes counted for the other, still eligible candidates they ranked, and no re-do or disenfranchisement was necessary.
The key to ranked choice voting’s impact in any scenario is that it creates a backup plan for voters. Should the candidate they rank 1st become ineligible for any reason, they still have a say in the final election result. Most often, this happens when a candidate doesn’t have enough support to be viable, but in the 2021 SGA elections at Houston, it happened because a whole slate of candidates were disqualified altogether. The outcome at UH demonstrated that RCV elections aren’t just more fair and representative than traditional elections; they’re more resilient. They capture voter preferences even when unforeseen events throw the election off track. Schools and governments who want their elections to be capable of withstanding unexpected mishaps should look to RCV as a fairer and more resilient method for democratic decision-making.