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In Response: Don’t be taken in by unproven ranked-choice voting claims

Advocates of instant-runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, have a long history of overselling the system. Such was the case with the June 20 letter, “Ranked-choice voting is a proven system,” which casually dismissed previous criticisms of instant-runoff voting made by Eric Erdmann, a credentialed mathematician with subject matter expertise. Erdmann wrote a commentary in the News Tribune June 10, headlined, “Ranked-choice voting is not the answer.”

The June 20 letter claimed that a 2009 ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court proved instant-runoff voting treats all votes equally and has “none of the flaws imagined in (Erdmann’s column).” But Erdmann’s claims were objective and well-proven.

Fact: Instant-runoff voting doesn’t guarantee a majority winner. In the 2009 instant-runoff voting mayoral election in Burlington, Vt., the Democrat was favored to the progressive by a large 54 percent to 46 percent majority. But the progressive candidate won. In fact, it’s even possible for a candidate to win when a majority of voters favors an opposing candidate and the opposing candidate gets more first-place votes.

Fact: Instant-runoff voting doesn’t eliminate spoilers. In Burlington, a group of Republicans could have gotten their second choice instead of their third if even a handful of them insincerely had ranked their second choice in first place. So they were punished, essentially, for ranking their favorite candidate in first place, in much the same way as Green Party voters can feel punished when a Republican narrowly defeats a Democrat under traditional vote-for-one voting.

Fact: Instant-runoff voting does not treat all voters equally. In Burlington, your preference for a Democrat over a progressive was registered if you were a Democratic voter but not if you were a Republican voter. The Supreme Court was simply factually and mathematically wrong on this one.

Claims of increased turnout and cost savings are similarly specious and anecdotal. When examining the multitude of ranked elections in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past decade, for instance, statistically insignificant changes in such metrics can be noted.

Despite these facts, Duluth’s “Rank Your Vote” campaign website brazenly proclaims that instant-runoff voting guarantees majority winners and eliminates the spoiler effect.

Score voting (also known as range voting) and approval voting are indeed “proven” alternatives. In 2011, the Voting Power and Procedures Department at the London School of Economics evaluated 18 different voting systems, including instant-runoff voting, and selected approval voting as the best. In the book, “Gaming the Vote,” a tour de force of voting system science, author William Poundstone examines the five commonly discussed alternative systems and comes out in support of score voting.

Unlike instant-runoff voting, score voting and approval voting are mathematically proven to make it 100 percent safe to vote for your favorite candidate. They are proven to be countable on ordinary voting machines without upgrades and to allow precinct subtotals, unlike instant-runoff voting. And they’re proven to reduce ballot spoilage rates, whereas instant-runoff voting increases them.

Voting theory is a complex and math-heavy subject. I encourage readers to put more stock in independently verifiable facts presented by math experts than in pronouncements made by lawyers.

Clay Shentrup of Berkeley, Calif., is co-founder of the Center for Election Science.