None Of The Above: How Rank-Choice Voting Could Change Cleveland’s (And America’s) Political Landscape

By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

Eighty million Americans sat out the last presidential election in 2020. Of those who did vote, 85 million of them were registered to one of the two major political parties. If non-voters were their own political party, they would nearly equal the numbers of Republicans and Democrats combined. Throughout the summer, The Cleveland Observer spoke with non-voters for our article series, None Of The Above, to find out why so many Clevelanders choose to avoid participating in the political process.

“I don’t think your vote matters in this country,” says Free, 26, of Ohio City. Vincent Robinson, 35, from Glenville, told us he’ll consider voting when he sees “that my vote matters.” “It’s pointless,” says Jazzi, 53, living in downtown Cleveland. “There are no good options on the list to choose from.” ‘My vote doesn’t matter’ and ‘candidates don’t align with my values’ were the two most common reasons given by respondents on why they personally choose to not vote, and also, why they think others in their community don’t vote.

Rank-choice voting is a system that’s been implemented around the world to help resolve concerns about a lack of good candidates and the actual impact of a single vote. ‘Rank-choice’ means voters rank the candidates from first to last by their preference, not just selecting one candidate or another. Any candidate that wins 50% or more of the total vote automatically wins. If no one does, the candidate with the fewest first-rank votes is eliminated, the second-choice preferences are moved up, the votes are re-tallied, and the process continues through the ranked choices until a 50% majority is reached by the remaining top candidate.

Here’s an example: What is your favorite musical instrument?

Instrument

# of first-choice votes

Percentage

Drums

45

45%

Piano

25

25%

Guitar

20

20%

Clarinet

10

10%

No one got 50% of the first-choice votes, and the clarinet has come in last, so the clarinet’s first-choice votes are eliminated, and everyone who voted for the clarinet as their first choice will now get their second-choice distributed among the remaining candidates.

Instrument

# of votes w/clarinet’s second choices moved in

Percentage

Drums

50

50%

Piano

25

25%

Guitar

25

25%

Clarinet

0

0%

Of those who voted clarinet first, 5 of them chose the guitar second, and another 5 chose the drums second. With those votes now distributed to the other candidates, drums are now the winner with a 50% majority.

Rank-choice voting can increase the impact of an individual vote by widening the field of potential winners beyond just the two main political parties’ chosen candidates, making it more likely voters will find a candidate that does align with their values, though may not necessarily be affiliated with those parties. It can also discourage negative campaigning, as candidates who may not be voter’s first choice could be their second or third, so the emphasis can become more focused on what voters want rather than attacking one opposing candidate. If the drums launch a disinformation campaign against the clarinet, clarinet fans could get angry and rank the drums below their second-choice, and those extra 5 votes the drums needed to win the majority wouldn’t have been there in the next round. Though the clarinet came in last, its first-choice voters still had an impact in the final decision.

Third-party voting, though popular among many voters, tends to be discouraged by members of the two main political parties, particularly the Democrats, as it is the party most negatively affected by third-party candidates, accusing them of “stealing” votes that allow Republican majorities to surface and win elections. Rank-choice voting is not restricted to selecting just one candidate, so voters can choose a third-party option as their first choice and a main-party option with their second-choice, so the vote is not “lost” should their first choice not win.

Critics of rank-choice voting say it creates too many choices for voters who don’t have time to properly research candidates, the process is too confusing, and ballots of voters who choose not to vote by rank and only select one, or two candidates, may be completely eliminated. If you voted for the clarinet as your first-and-only choice, and did not rank the others, your ballot is eliminated and the drums, or guitar, does not get your second-choice vote.

The State of Alaska is one of the most notable places to have implemented rank-choice voting. Rep. Mary Peltola recently won her election to become the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress through the use of rank-choice voting. Republican Nick Begich came in third behind Peltola and Sarah Palin. Nearly 15,000 Alaskans who had voted for Begich as their first choice crossed party lines and chose Peltola as their second choice, securing her victory.

Alaskans voted in favor of implementing rank-choice voting statewide in 2020, and appear to be happy with their decisions. Exit polls from the primary election in August show 85% of voters thought the new system was ‘simple’, and two-thirds of them did choose to rank candidates. “I can choose to vote yes or no to a situation, but the other option can still be what we have to go with because the majority [of two] always wins,” says Mari, 19, of Wade Park. She explained she just became eligible to vote and is registered, but hasn’t done it yet. She says she’s been “extremely busy” since becoming of age, and would feel more motivated to vote when “I…see that we’re voting for things that actually help us and everybody is heard.”

Footnotes:

“New York City Voters Just Adopted Ranked-Choice Voting…”, Anna Purna Kambhampaty, 2019. 

“Ranked-Choice Voting”, Ballotpedia, 2022. 

“Polling Shows Alaskan Voters Understand Ranked Choice Voting”, Alaskans For Better Elections, 2022.

You will find more infographics at Statista, <https://www.statista.com/chartoftheday/>