Ban RCV to prevent election disasters … like this one

Law & Principles

Trent England | February 15, 2024

Ban RCV to prevent election disasters … like this one

Trent England

Oklahoma legislators are considering a proactive ban against ranked-choice voting. It’s a smart move that would reassure state voters that they won’t face an RCV election debacle like the one experienced by some California voters.

Ranked-choice voting, or RCV, is an election system that was tried and rejected in some American cities nearly a century ago. Now it’s back again, pushed by a few liberal billionaires as a political cure-all.

With RCV, voters rank candidates on a ballot that usually looks like a grid. First-preference votes are counted and if no candidate has a majority, the least popular candidate is eliminated. Votes for that candidate then go to the second-preference on the ballot or, if there isn’t one, the ballot is eliminated. Votes are counted again, and the process repeats until someone has a majority of the adjusted votes on the remaining ballots.

Skeptics of RCV have warned that the process confuses voters, relies too much on technology, reduces transparency, and risks undermining voter confidence. Every one of those predictions came true in an Oakland, California, school board election in 2022.

California allows RCV for local elections. Alameda County, home to Oakland, adopted RCV and used it in its 2022 elections. At first, everything seemed fine. The county certified results and winners began taking office. Weeks later, as county staff prepared for Christmas break, they received a disturbing phone call. Independent researchers had examined the county’s election data and found a series of mistakes that threw off results in RCV races.

The trouble began with confused voters. Even RCV supporters admit it takes expensive education campaigns to help voters figure it out. Alameda County had done that, but voters still made mistakes. What mattered was that some voters did not rank anyone first, but did rank one or more candidates.

This mistake is only possible with RCV, and there are various ways to interpret and count these ballots. Alameda County rules said that preference votes should be moved up to eliminate gaps before counting begins. But the computers, which are necessary to run RCV elections efficiently, were programed to ignore the blanks in those rounds.

This changed the RCV vote totals, although most differences were small. Yet in an Oakland school board race, it flipped the outcome. There were three candidates: Mike Hutchinson, Pecolia Manigo, and Nick Resnick. Under any rules, Resnick had a significant lead in the first round. RCV was going to eliminate one of the other candidates. With the machines applying the wrong rule and discarding 235 ballots, Hutchinson was 41 votes behind Manigo, and was eliminated. But when those 235 ballots were adjusted and counted according to the rules, Hutchinson led Manigo by 37 votes.

This completely flipped the race. Hutchinson went from being eliminated in the first RCV round to winning. This happened because many more of the ballots that lacked a first-preference vote had Hutchinson as their highest-ranked candidate rather than Manigo. But then Manigo’s voters, in their next-highest preference, supported Hutchinson over Resnick by about two-to-one.

RCV creates new ways to make mistakes and new questions about how to count ballots. At the same time, it is over-reliant on technology, reducing transparency and accountability. The Oakland school board election was relatively simple, with just three candidates and two rounds of RCV counting.

It was March of 2023 before the Oakland election mess was sorted out. A court ordered a “recertification of the results,” and the rightful winner took office four months after Election Day. Consequential mistakes like this can happen in any large RCV election, and, in many cases, may never be detected.

Elections should be conducted so that voters can understand the process and trust the results. RCV fails this test. Even worse, it pushes elections into a technological black box where mistakes can go undetected. To avoid all these unnecessary risks, Oklahoma should protect our elections and ban RCV.

[Part of this post is adapted from The Case Against Ranked-Choice Voting by Trent England and Jason Snead.]

Trent England David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England

David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.

Loading Next