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What you need to know about ranked choice voting
Sep 12, 2023
Episode 1002

What you need to know about ranked choice voting

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We'll explain what this voting system is all about and how it works.

This year alone, lawmakers in more than two dozen states have introduced or passed legislation in favor of ranked choice voting systems, where voters rank candidates in order of preference on their ballot.

Advocates sing the praises of ranked-choice elections, saying it could be an antidote to the United States’ extreme political polarization. Others say switching to a new voting system would be too complicated for voters.

“Despite what many detractors say, ranking is a pretty natural thing for us to do,” said Maresa Strano, deputy director of political reform at New America. “We do it all the time. Picking out ice cream, pizza toppings, any number of things.”

On the show today, Strano unpacks ranked choice voting: what it does well, where it falls short, and what our voting systems have to do with the broader economy.

Then, a new strategy for wiping out medical debt is catching the attention of some local governments. And we’ll get into why mixed signals about the U.S. economy are complicating things for the Biden campaign.

Later, a listener shares how they learned the difficulty of farm work firsthand. Plus, this week’s answer to the Make Me Smart Question comes from sci-fi writer Andy Weir, author of “The Martian.”

Here’s everything we talked about today:

We want to hear your answer to the Make Me Smart question. You can reach us at makemesmart@marketplace.org or leave us a voicemail at 508-U-B-SMART.

Correction (Sept. 18, 2023): An earlier version of this episode mischaracterized the legal challenges to ranked choice voting.

 

Make Me Smart September 12, 2023 Transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kimberly Adams 

Hello, I’m Kimberly Adams, welcome back to Make Me Smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.

Kai Ryssdal 

I’m Kai Ryssdal. Thanks for joining us, everybody. It is Tuesday. Today, the 12th day of September on the agenda today something called ranked choice voting some of you are probably familiar with it. Others of you, including myself, not so much really. But it’s a different way of voting that a lot of people are used to. Voters, as the name suggests rank the candidates in their order of preference. More than two dozen states have introduced or passed legislation in favor of that kind of voting in their states and obviously gaining in popularity.

Kimberly Adams 

Yes. And you know, political conversations like this warm my little nerdy heart. So however, if you’re wondering what this has to do with economics, well, here’s the thing. The field of economics is ultimately the study of choice and how we make choices and therefore ranked choice voting is basically about increasing choices for the voters. It’s a stretch, but work with me here. Anyway, tear to tell us more about all of this is Maresa Strano, she’s the deputy director of political reform at New America, which is a public policy think tank. Welcome to the show.

Maresa Strano 

Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Kimberly Adams 

So for Kai and others who maybe you don’t love to delve deep into the wonkiness, what is rank choice voting and how does it work?

Maresa Strano 

So you already gave a great intro, it is a preferential ballot system. And that sort of stands in contrast to what most of us in the United States are used to, which is that you see a ballot, you’re asked to pick one candidate, boom done. In this case, with rank choice, you get to rank your candidates in order of preference. So you know, you’re number one, maybe you love your number two you liked number three, tolerate and kind of so on. Depending on the number of rankings allowed. Then if a candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, they are declared the winner. Easy peasy. If no candidate receives an outright majority, an instant runoff is triggered. Hence why rank choice voting is sometimes called instant runoff voting. So the voters who ranked the eliminated candidate as as their first choice, they’ll have their votes transferred to their next highest ranked candidate still in the race. And that process will continue. Until a candidate has a majority of the votes, it might sound a little complicated, but if you can just maybe imagine someone doing a hand count physically, like, you know, walking a ballot over to a different pile after that candidates been eliminated, it starts to make a little bit more sense feel a little bit more intuitive. And again, this is just a way to ensure that when you’re electing somebody, they’re not just elected based on a narrow slice of the electorate support, but they clear a majority and a people who can at least tolerate them.

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh, well, oh, well, if you put it that way. But look, is it better than the voting most of us are used to?

Maresa Strano 

Oh, that’s a that’s a tough one. I mean, voting is pretty subjective. election systems are subjective. I mean, there’s a standard set of criteria that we tend to judge systems by those things include things like fairness, simplicity, the things like majority winners. And in that sense, rank choice actually does a pretty good job. It is not actually that complicated, despite what many detractors say ranking is a pretty natural thing for us to do. We do it all the time, you know, picking out ice cream, pizza, toppings, any number of things. And the, you know, the cost of adopting ranked choices, not that high. The cost of voters is not that high either. And it it does a pretty good job of of doing what advocates say that it will do maybe not as good a job as advocates tend to tend to say, but that’s kind of typical of the game when you are trying to push for a major change in an election system.

Kimberly Adams 

So the complaints about the system that we have been out and about for years that, you know, if you’re a Republican voting in a mostly democratic area, you’re kind of throwing your vote away. You don’t even get to say that the primary system blocks out independents unfairly from early on getting to weigh in on the process, and that we end up with extreme candidates on one side or the other. But what do we know so far about how well ranked choice voting works in the US?

Maresa Strano 

So great question. I mean, the key here is that we’re still pretty new to RCV, or rank choice voting, and loving the data.

Kimberly Adams

Loving that for you.

Maresa Strano

Yeah, you know, we do, the data is still pretty thin on the ground. But we do know a bit so far. And we know that it does a pretty good job of promoting civility, you know, reducing some negative campaign tactics of electing more consensus, candidates promoting more consensus based governing, and electing more women and people of color to Office. So where it’s sort of falling short, and this is kind of a bummer for those like myself, who were really jazzed about rank choice voting, as it was beginning to spread in the last decade or so is that the promise that it will reduce extremism that it will elevate third party candidates and kind of break what my colleague Lee Druckmann calls the two party doom loop that’s causing so much trouble for us in our political culture and our elections. It’s not so far proven to really improve that. So it seems like the two party system continues to have a stranglehold even in places where rank choice voting has been adopted. And, you know, we we’re still tracking it. We hope that over time as more states, so Alaska and Maine right now have rank choice voting, but they also have strong independent tradition. So we don’t want to extrapolate too much from their experiences. But we hope that as it’s adopted more widely, we’ll be able to see and measure more accurately. Its impact on these things like polarization like negative partisanship, and whether it creates more space for new voices and new parties to emerge and compete meaningfully.

Kai Ryssdal 

Is there a natural limit to this? I mean, you could see it working in city council elections and congressional district elections, maybe I guess, in in senatorial races statewide, if there’s three or four candidates, but you know, certainly in a state like California, it’s very expensive. And you don’t get that many candidates able to run statewide. Is there a limit?

Maresa Strano 

Well, there doesn’t have to be a limit. I mean, it’s Australia has been using both single winner and multi winner ranked choice for over 100 years at this point. Across the board. Yeah, it’s used in Ireland and Malta and a number of places. And we’ve kind of already stressed tested it in a different different levels of government from the, you know, city, county municipal level states. And also, we’ve seen it used in state party conventions. In presidential primaries, there doesn’t need to be a limit, because what you’re really just dealing with is a different kind of ballot.

Kai Ryssdal 

Right. Right. So sorry. So what’s the holdup? What Why is it not more widely adopted?

Maresa Strano 

Well, as you might imagine, political insiders, incumbents, party leaders aren’t really enthusiastic about changing the rules that elected them that preserve their hold on power. So you’re left with a lot of the onus being on grassroots efforts on organizers on on, you know, sympathetic state legislators here and there, and city council people. And change is really hard. Structural change is really hard. It’s not super sexy, either.

Kai Ryssdal

Says the woman whose job it is to make it sexy.

Kimberly Adams

What are you talking about? I’m totally into it

Maresa Strano

As much as we try. Well, yeah, what we what we’re seeing, though, is that when people use it, and they experience it, they do tend to like it, and it will spread. So there’s like, there are these little like RCV epidemics happening and are endemic in places like California, Minnesota. So I think that we will see more adoption, more wide adoption in the coming years, but at the same time, as it grows in popularity, organized opposition forms alongside it. And we’re seeing, you know, a doubling of state legislative bills seeking to ban it in the last year and more states actually are actually banning it. But again, the sky’s the limit in theory.

Kimberly Adams 

That’s actually what I wanted to ask you about was there have been quite a few legal challenges against this idea. What is the argument there and how well has it been holding I’ve been in courts when it’s challenged.

Maresa Strano 

Yeah, a lot of the disputes have to do with constitutionality questions, this idea that it violates the principle of one person, one vote, which the consensus seems to be among among judges, lawyers that it does not. So that’s not the biggest concern. But it’s still a very present one, if you are, if you’re if you’re a lawyer who’s helping advance the Senate and effort in a state or a city, or you’re an activist, and also if you’re a policymaker, and you’re concerned about this, taking time and being held up, indefinitely, tied up in in, in the legal system, it. But again, this has become a kind of a feature of our elections in recent years, where everything is subject to seemingly endless litigation. It’s hard to find something that’s just settled nowadays.

Kai Ryssdal 

Sure, on the on the getting back to what Kimberly said about about, you know, this is sort of, you can squint and put this in the economic framework, but let me take it a little sideways, right. The point of having elections is to get policies enacted policies that are enacted, affect our lives every single day, whether we know it or not. What do we know if anything? Or is it too early to know what effect rank choice voting might have on more mutually acceptable policies, because you know, as you know, better than anybody else in this conversation, they call it bipartisanship. Now, when you get one vote from the other side, and that’s not really bipartisanship, right, so what do we know about policies that come out of rank choice voting, if anything?

Maresa Strano 

Right, it’s such an important question. And unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest things at this point for us to measure. So we commissioned a study, I think, two years ago at New America to evaluate policy responsiveness in rank choice voting jurisdiction. So when you have RCV, do you see policies that more accurately reflect the will of the majority of voters than you had before? And it’s really hard, it’s just really hard to tell so far, we think maybe not so much. But if you think about policy being kind of downstream from the ideological position, or the just the the kind of mentality of the elected official, if you are electing people who are a little bit more moderate middle of the road, people like Susan Collins in Maine, or Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, whose seats arguably were were preserved, thanks to rank choice voting in their respective states, then you can say, yes, maybe this does translate to more bipartisanship. But is it a direct cause? Or is this correlational? Time will tell, I wish I had a better answer for you. I think that I think that there’s still a lot left for us to learn on that front.

Kimberly Adams 

So rank choice voting is sort of one of these ideas that is spreading, you know, and gaining in popularity, getting pushed back all the things. As somebody who’s an expert on electoral reform, what kind of other big changes could we make? Or even small changes do you think we can make to just make our electoral system especially at the federal level, just, you know, be less awful?

Kai Ryssdal 

That’s a low bar. But you know,

Kimberly Adams 

the bar is in the you know, the subterranean caves? Go ahead.

Maresa Strano 

No, not at all. I mean, it’s easy to adopt the position that any change is good change right now. But anytime you make a change, you have to educate voters, you have to kind of get people on board, you have to earn this perception that it’s legitimate. So it’s important as we are trying to support lots of different experiments to also make sure that we’re kind of backing at least the rightish horses, that we’re pretty confident they’re going to work. And something that in in my, my team at New America that we’re really excited about, is more party based, as opposed to candidate based reforms that can help depolarize the system by making it a little more proportional. So how can we break the two party stranglehold on government? How can we force the two parties to have to do a better job than they are now when so few races are competitive? And they’re just they don’t have the incentives really to fulfill their roles in the political system in our democracy. So things like fusion voting where you can cross nominate candidates that gives third parties a real, meaningful role in In elections, and then ultimately, proportional representation, and there is a proportional form of rank choice voting that is gaining steam that holds a lot of potential. It’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is something that we have a strong history with in the United States. It was in 24 cities during the Progressive Era up to the mid-century. Portland, Oregon, just adopted it. It’s in Cambridge, it’s in Albany, California.

Kimberly Adams 

What is this one? I don’t understand how it’s different.

Maresa Strano 

Oh, yes, I’m so sorry for not explaining. So with proportional rank choice, it’s basically the same system. But your thresholds are lower. So you have multiple winners, each of whom needs some threshold, less than 50% of the vote to win a seat. But you’re still using a ranked ballot. So city council’s use this. Anytime you have a governing body that is elected, you know, at large seats, and you’re electing multiple people at the same time. So this could be used for state legislatures, Congress. But yeah, proportional representation is the heart of it.

Kimberly Adams 

Okay, it seems like there’s so much more to say about this. But we have such such a long, long election season ahead. So let’s end it there. Maresa Strano is the Deputy Director of political reform program at New America. So thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

Maresa Strano 

Thank you both so much. It was a real pleasure.

Kai Ryssdal 

I learned stuff. There you go. I learned stuff. It’s all you can ask.

Kimberly Adams 

Me too. Yeah, we got smarter. One of the other things I’ve been, I’m interested, like, I’m surprised but not surprised, that more states don’t do is a proportional distribution of electoral college votes, like the winner takes all system, the Electoral College, kind of defeats the purpose of the Electoral College, which was to give better representation to smaller states and stuff like that. But yeah, it seems like there’s a lot of things that we could do differently to increase, how well represented people’s, like how much weight people’s votes carry, and balance it out a bit more, but we just don’t because of status quo.

Kai Ryssdal 

Right? Because you know, that, well, changing all this stuff means that the people in power are gonna have less power. And in people who’ve never had power, we’re gonna have more power. And that, of course, changes everything.

Kimberly Adams 

And who would want that right, exactly? Well, I’m just anyway, we love to hear from folks in Alaska, or Maine or elsewhere who have ever voted with a rank choice ballot, or whether if your community is considering switching to some one of these ranked choice voting systems, what you think about it pros, cons stuff we maybe didn’t get to, to context about it. We’d love to hear from you. Our number is 508-827-6278, also known as 508-U-B-SMART. You can also email us makemesmart@marketplace.org. And we will be right back.

Kai Ryssdal 

That was Drew Jostad pushing the buttons in the control room across glass for me. Great job doing a great job. All right. Time for some news, Kimberly Adams, please. Yes.

Kimberly Adams 

So mine is from The Washington Post daily 202 newsletter. It’s usually all about politics. But they have, they went a little bit to the side today, which is sort of political, but not really. It’s their big idea section and they’re talking about medical debt. So folks may have heard of this group RIP medical debt, which is this nonprofit, that raises money, and they use that money to buy up medical debt that has gone into collections. And they can buy that debt for like pennies on the dollar. And then they just use donations to eliminate it. And then the people who have this medical debt, often quite a burden on their personal financial situation. They just get a letter in the mail and they’re just like, congrats, you don’t have medical debt anymore. Just because which, you know, lots of people crowdfund around this and do it just you know, because, but it looks like this group is starting to do partnerships with cities and towns and other kinds of local governments to use government funds to pay off people’s medical debt. So there’s going to be a little bit more than a year ago, Illinois’s Cook County reached out to RIP with an idea. They had funds leftover from the 2021 COVID stimulus bill, known as the American Rescue Plan Act and they wanted to find a creative way to use it. In May, Cook County announced it was partnering with RIP to erase $79.2 million in medical debt benefiting more than 72,000 Cook County residents. The county entered a three year agreement with a nonprofit. And the goal is to abolish $1 billion in medical debt total. And, you know, you can make an economic argument for this, the you know, the city is spending money and that would eliminate the debt that people have, which could, in theory, put more money back into the economy, improve your tax base, whatever. But it’s fascinating to see, government’s stepping into this space using federal, like, local resources, I find that interesting. I will be surprised if there’s not more pushback to it. But it’s also yet another example of sort of socialized socializing the cost of a private profit. Again, but you know, that’s, that’s how it works. I think it’s just very fascinating. They have a nice long write up about different places where it’s being experimented with. The Biden administration is apparently talking about the partnerships that are being formed. And it looks like Toledo, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, are using or have passed legislation to use American rescue plan money to purchase medical debt. This is fascinating. It’s just something want to keep an eye on.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, for sure. Totally fascinating. Okay, so mine is, it’s a little bit of a no kidding guy, of course. But on the other hand, it plays sort of directly into what we were talking about before, which is the politics of this economy. One of the things I’ve really been trying to figure out is why President Biden is having such a tough time getting credit for the good and improving economy, right, inflation is down, the economy’s growing, job market is slowing, but not substantially. And that’s a good thing. And that, you know, Federal Reserve gets a lot of the credit, but presidents get some credit and also a disproportionate share of the blame. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. And of course, the answer is, well, geez, you moron inflation. That’s why, but we got some data today from the Census Bureau that really sort of crystallizes it and gives you some insight into the size of the challenge that President Biden is going to have in the next you know, where are we month, year, whatever it is, plus or minus till the election. From the Census Bureau today, Americans inflation adjusted median household income fell to $74,580 in 2022, down 2.3%, from a year earlier and down 4.7% from the peak in 2019, the last year of the before times, so people are in addition to having to deal with higher prices, just feeling poor overall. And that’s a real challenge if you’re the guy in the white house, right, whether fair or not, and I’ve said this a zillion times on there, I’ve said it a zillion times on this on this podcast, presidents get a disproportionate share of credit when the economy is going well, they get a disproportionate share of the blame when it’s going badly. Biden now I think, is stuck in sort of the neverlands where it has been terrible. But now it’s better. And he’s getting credit for the terrible and he’s getting not enough credit for the for the good. And it’s just bizarre because economies are weird.

Kimberly Adams 

Well, and also because part of how people feel about their personal economies is what they see. And and it’s so much easier to see these just sort of 100 extreme examples of other people living so much better. Totally. All right. That is it for the news. Let us do the mailbag.

Mailbag

Hi Kai and Kimberly. This is Godfrey from San Francisco. Jessie from Charleston, South Carolina. And I have a follow up question. It has me thinking and feeling a lot of things.

Kai Ryssdal 

Okay, we talked about farm labor last week, how they don’t really have a lot of labor protections. There are labor shortages that affect us farm workers and us the rest of this economy because we’re all one economy. And we got this.

Sarah

This is Sarah and Bangor, Maine. Your show on farmworkers had me reminiscing back to a day in my late teens when my mom and my brother and I ambled down our dirt road by the blueberry barrens and we decided to try out a day of raking blueberries just for fun. It was back breaking work. And I’m pretty sure the foreman gave us the easy sections while leaving the rocky and the hilly areas for the more experienced folks who were mostly Native American and Latino migrant workers. And the kicker came a couple of weeks later when we got our check in the mail. And we had earned a collective $12 profit. While blueberries are usually picked by mechanical harvesters. But once in a while, I’ll be passing by a field being picked by hand. And I’ll be struck by a sense of awe and respect for those who still do this incredibly difficult work.

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, for sure. Holy cow 12 bucks for three of them.

Kimberly Adams 

He’s Yeah. Okay, before we go, we’re gonna leave you with this week’s answer to the Make Me Smart question. Which is of course, what is something you thought you knew, but later found out you were wrong about? And this week’s answer comes from sci-fi writer Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” and also, what was the other one I read of his about?

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh man, he’s got two.

Kimberly Adams

God I read the book, it was great.

Kai Ryssdal

Yeah, so we had the follow up and then he had the other one that was about the space creature. God anyway, let’s play the tape, we’ll get it on the backside.

Andy Weir

Something I once thought I knew that I found out I was hilariously wrong about was how to spell the word “eyesore.” This is around the time I was 15 or 16 years old. And I was reading the comics in front of my dad, and in one of the comics, the guy said, “Something, something, that’s an eyesore.“ And I looked at it and I said, “Hmm, what is he saying here? What is this word?” Dad looked at it. He said, “It’s ‘eyesore.’” And I’m like, “Well, that’s not how ‘eyesore’ is spelled.” He’s like, “Yeah it is. It’s E-Y-E-S-O-R-E. ‘Eyesore,’ like it makes your eyes sore to look at.” I was like, “Oh, I never even realized that that’s what it meant.” And Dad’s like, “I want to know how you thought ‘eyesore’ was spelled” and I said, “I thought it was spelled I-C-O-R.” And Dad said, “Well, that spells ‘icur.’” That was a fun little embarrassing moment for me, and that’s how I learned how to spell “eyesore.“

Kai Ryssdal 

And now ladies and gentlemen, he’s a professional writer. He’s a professional writer Andy Weir. So there was “The Martian.” Then there was “Artemis.” That’s the one about the moon. And then there’s his most recent one is called a “Hail Mary.” “Artemis” was fine. Not as good as “The Martian.” “Hail Mary” was great. That’s my editorial comment of the day.

Kimberly Adams 

“Hail Mary” was really good. I liked “Artemis.” I love that there was a, I like it when central characters don’t have to be likable. You know, I think that’s actually fun. So I have to say, I feel like the reason he may have spelled that word wrong is because he’s a sci fi and fantasy person. Because in many fantasy novels, in particular, that word I-C-O-R is used to refer to like, the blood of dragons, or other mystical creatures is called Ichor in a lot of different fantasy novels that I’ve read over the years, and so I wonder if that’s how it got sort of embedded into his brain. But who knows? I’ll have to find a time to ask him at some point.

Kai Ryssdal 

We will not know until you ask him. We, we want to we want to hear your answer to Make Me Smart question or what you think about dragon blood, take your pick. Our number is 508-827-6278. 508-U-B-SMART. That’s pretty funny.

Kimberly Adams 

I have to remind people I’m a nerd every so often, just in case they forget to remind us

Kai Ryssdal

I don’t think you have to remind us.

Kimberly Adams

Make Me Smart is produced by Courtney Bergsieker. Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletter, and today’s program was engineered by Drew Jostad with mixing by Bekah Wineman. Our intern is Niloufar Shahbandi.

Kai Ryssdal 

Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez composed our theme music our senior producer is Marissa Cabrera. Bridget Bodnar is the director of podcasts. Francesca Levy is the executive director of Digital and on demand and Marketplace’s vice president and general manager and the guy who only appears on the credits on Tuesdays is Neal Scarbrough.

Kimberly Adams 

He gets in on the long show.

Kai Ryssdal

I’d pick Fridays, if it were me.

Kimbelry Adams

I know. But who wouldn’t want to be with rank choice voting?

Kai Ryssdal 

See what I mean about not having to remind people that you’re a nerd. Oh my god.

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