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Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils at the ballot box, you could rank your preferences, like they did in Maine for the midterm election.

Paul Matzko
Tech & Innovation Editor

Matthew Feeney is the director of Cato’s Project on Emerging Technologies, where he works on issues concerning the intersection of new technologies and civil liberties. . Before coming to Cato, Matthew worked at Reason magazine as assistant editor of Rea​son​.com. He has also worked at The American Conservative, the Liberal Democrats, and the Institute of Economic Affairs. Matthew is a dual British/​American citizen and received both his B.A and M.A in philosophy from the University of Reading in England.

Peter Van Doren is editor of the quarterly journal Regulation and an expert in the regulation of housing, land, energy, the environment, transportation, and labor. He has taught at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Princeton University), the School of Organization and Management (Yale University), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From 1987 to 1988 he was the postdoctoral fellow in political economy at Carnegie Mellon University. His writing has been published in theWall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Journal of Commerce, and the New York Post. Van Doren has also appeared on CNN, CNBC, Fox News Channel, and Voice of America. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University.

Tired of voting for a political candidate you don’t particularly like who represents a major political party you don’t particularly like so that another candidate who you dislike a little bit more won’t win office? If so, then ranked choice voting might be the electoral reform for you.

Ranked choice voting is a system in which voters don’t just vote for a single candidate for each listed office on their ballot. Instead, they rank all of the candidates running for that seat, 1–2-3 and so on. Then, if no candidate wins a majority of the first place votes, the least successful candidate on the ballot is eliminated and those who preferred them as their 1st choice are then distributed based on their 2nd choice. And so on and so forth until one candidate passes 50%.

Paul and Matthew are joined by Peter Van Doren as they discuss the ramifications of Maine changing to ranked choice voting (RCV) for federal elections in 2018, compare it to other alternative voting methods in other countries, and try to predict the ways it could transform American politics by validating third parties.

What is the “first‐​past‐​the‐​post” voting style? Does the U.S. voting system have an alienation problem? What is the Hastert Rule? Are third parties largely shoved to the side during U.S. elections?

Further Reading:

Micro‐​Targeting Voters with Big Data, Building Tomorrow Podcast

“Pay No Attention to the Man Who Won’t Stand Behind the Voting Curtain”, written by Jonathan Banks

Some Very Good Reasons Not to Vote, written by Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus



00:06 Paul Matzko: Welcome to Building Tomorrow, a podcast about how tech and innovation are changing the modern world for the better, or at least can change the world for the better. With me in the studio are Matthew Feeney, Cato’s director for Emerging Technology, and Peter Van Doren, editor of the Regulation journal. Today we’re gonna talk about a method of voting that is relatively new, to the US at least, called ranked‐​choice voting, which could transform American politics in significant ways. But first, you might be thinking, “Okay, you said tech innovation. How is voting a technology?” I’m glad you’ve asked. We here at Building Tomorrow have an expansive definition of what counts as tech. I think sometimes folks have something of a vulgar understanding of tech as like new material things, like a cellphone or one of those As Seen On TV kitchen gadgets that you use once and then never again. But the simplest definition of tech is as a recipe of knowledge. Any new combination of inputs and process that create a product is a tech. For example, when primitive man discovered rubbing sticks together and that friction could make fire, that was technology. When factory owners discovered the gains and efficiency from assembly lines versus do it all yourself craftsmanship, that was technology.

01:23 Paul Matzko: And so too is a new way of voting. Voters make inputs, the vote is an input, a new process for apportioning or counting those votes is devised, and the product, in theory, in an improved means of selecting representatives. So voting is a tech, we’re in our wheelhouse, but let’s kick things off with something kind of basic. Let’s start with what is wrong with how we currently vote, how we currently do things in the US. Maybe Matthew, you can launch us here. When we talk about how we currently do things in the US when it comes to voting, most elections are what we call first‐​past‐​the‐​post voting. What is that? And maybe you can tease some of problems with that for us.

02:04 Matthew Feeney: Yeah. First‐​past‐​the‐​post is, put simply, whoever wins the most votes in a given constituency wins, and it’s the form of voting that Americans are the most familiar with. It’s used the most and it’s very simple. So in a constituency, whether it’s a congressional district or a state assembly district, voters show up to the polling booth and they cast their vote and whoever gets the most votes within that area is elected. We’re very used to it, but it’s not the only voting system out there. And there are a couple of issues associated with it, namely that it encourages people to vote for the lesser of two evils, for people to perhaps not vote with their conscience. And part of what I hope to get to in this podcast is, well, how do we know a good voting system when we see one? If we have a view of voting systems as being good, if they accurately reflect the preferences of the voters, and voters have an incentive to vote with their conscience, then first‐​past‐​the‐​post as practiced in the States seems to fail. But it’s certainly not the only system out there.

03:17 Paul Matzko: Well, and there’s… I should note for our listeners as well that… And we are familiar with this, ’cause we see it in elections quite frequently, when we say the person who gets the most votes, just to be clear, we don’t even mean a majority of votes. It doesn’t have to be 50 plus 1, it’s typically a plurality. So that’s why you can have a situation like in the most recent presidential election, in 2016, or the election in 2000, where someone who got actually a minority of the votes, 48%, 49% or less, can actually win against someone who had more votes. In neither case does one candidate have a majority of votes. It’s get somewhat complicated because of the Electoral College and that’s a whole another conversation, but it is quite routine that in the US we have representatives who are selected by a plurality of voters and not the majority. That’s become ordinary, I think. And when we talk about some of the flaws here, you mentioned people not feeling free to vote with their conscience.

04:27 Paul Matzko: And that’s kind of become commonplace. The key part of the human condition is that we get used to… You do something long enough, it starts to feel normal. You might not like it, but it feels routine and normal, and this is true with, I think, this idea of voting for the lesser of two evils. Very few people were excited to vote for anybody in 2016. Sure, there were people who loved “I’m with her,” or loved Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again,” but all the data suggests that most people who voted in 2016 were unenthusiastic about their options; they voted against someone rather than for someone. And a lot of them would say kind of a pox on both their houses when it comes to political parties. The data I saw was that 68% of Americans say that they’re unhappy with the two‐​party choices, the major party choices they have, and would prefer a third major party existed. So that’s over two‐​thirds of Americans are not happy with the choices they have, which means when they go into the voting booth they’re voting typically for, “Eh, who do I feel least bad about?”

05:39 Peter Van Doren: I’m less troubled by all of this than you are.

05:42 Paul Matzko: And this doesn’t bother you?

05:44 Peter Van Doren: No.

05:44 Paul Matzko: Why doesn’t it bother you, Peter?

05:45 Peter Van Doren: We need to have a… In voting, there are theories of voting, and so everyone except the median voter is always unhappy. By definition. And when you have two choices, and there are theorems about if you were to rate people on a ideological spectrum, the left always is unhappy, the right is always unhappy, and some weird person in the middle who doesn’t know very much is the median voter, and okay, that’s just the way it is.

06:23 Matthew Feeney: But you can have people who are unhappy with the people who make up a legislative body while also being happy with the voting system, saying, “I wish people voted differently.”

06:38 Peter Van Doren: Well, you’re right. There are many different ways to aggregate preferences into collective choices, and they differ. And so then you’ve already pre‐​supposed… You’ve had a normative discussion in your heads without telling everybody what it is, and thus you’ve concluded that one way of aggregating preferences into outcomes is somehow better than some other way of aggregating preferences into outcomes. Given that underlying preferences can be stated and are stable, there’s no vast literature that tries to work through who wins, what kinds of preferences are represented under what kinds of aggregation systems. And so, I’ll give you an example. There’s a literature that says in 1972, under any system other than the one we had, Muskie would have won the nomination on the Democratic side, not McGovern. So the question is, is would that have been better or worse? Well, it depends on what you want collective choice systems to do. We could talk about conflict resolution, we could talk about… In other words, there’s conflicts in society, so the question is, do you want that represented in the legislature where every side has somebody in the legislature? Or do you want to in effect urge, or create incentives, for compromise before elections are held by having parties, two parties rather than multi‐​parties?

08:11 Matthew Feeney: Well, if we… So maybe we could take it to a very small constituency and a very simple election, so the neighborhood I grew up in, let’s say. And all the neighbors were going to vote on how much everyone should chip in for raking leaves, or something like that. If we did a poll before this election and it revealed that 60% of residents would be happy to pay more than they currently are, and 40% are less likely, and they voted for a body of 10 people to decide this issue, would it be a good voting system if six of the people who ended up being elected backed paying more, and four of the people less? I think Peter’s right to say there is a unexamined perhaps assumption here, which is if the legislative body reflects popular opinion, we seem to think that’s by definition a good election system, but it’s not necessarily the case.

09:10 Paul Matzko: Well, it’s by definition a more, a more democratic system, like in the sense of a system that most closely represents the desire of the demos of the people, then the 60% of the people is the most accurate reflection. Having six out of 10 representatives reflecting 60% of the people in the area, that’s a more democratic way. Now, whether that’s preferable to… Right, that is an assumption.

09:39 Peter Van Doren: We could have lots of policy referenda and no legislature at all. Or think of the West, think of California; they have referenda all the time and the voters get to decide, and the literature isn’t very positive about that. The California voters have voted for X and not X [chuckle], sometimes at the same time, so…

10:03 Paul Matzko: Yeah, cut out the middle man and just vote for it directly, and yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

10:06 Peter Van Doren: So, I guess… I’m more… In other words, even trying to figure out what people’s preferences are about public policies. Matt said there’s public opinion polls, well, I’ve never known… Economists are suspicious of that because it’s never attached to money.

10:24 Matthew Feeney: Well, and it doesn’t…

10:26 Peter Van Doren: In other words, there’s no budget constraint.

10:28 Paul Matzko: It doesn’t do a good job of expressing intensity of preference either. You might have 60% of the people who mildly prefer paying more for leaf raking, but the 40% really hate it, therefore… And so, if the goal is really assessing the net mood towards leaf raking, the 60–40 split might not actually represent the intensity of preference, ’cause it’s an up or down vote, versus a system where there’s a… And another way of apportioning how much your vote counts, which there’s theories for doing that that we can get into later, but to your point.

11:05 Matthew Feeney: Yeah, it is. It also raises this interesting issue of delegates versus representatives, that we have representatives, not delegates. We vote for people and then their job is to go to Washington or the State House and exercise their conscience, and not constantly be on the phone calling around saying, “So what should I do? What do you think?” Which is a different kind of job. Peter’s mention of referenda reminded me of… As I’m sure listeners are aware, there’s this big fuss over the pond, in England and the UK, about Brexit.

11:40 Paul Matzko: Speaking of unintended consequences.

11:42 Peter Van Doren: The British voters are both for and against it at the same time.

11:46 Matthew Feeney: It is very odd to hear the reasons why now there are people who are backing what they are, of course, calling a people’s vote, which is a second referendum. And there’s a very popular British political show called Question Time, which is weekly and is in front of a studio audience and it takes people across from the political spectrum and usually a commentator or a cultural icon or something. And what’s astonishing in recent weeks was people in the audience saying something like, “Well, we shouldn’t have had a referendum, ’cause we’re not experts.”


12:20 Matthew Feeney: But why is Brexit different to education or foreign policy or… It struck me as somewhat bonkers.

12:27 Peter Van Doren: Does the US want a wall or not?

12:30 Matthew Feeney: Yeah.

12:31 Peter Van Doren: Try to figure… That some people do, but if you introduced how much it would cost and it would require the eminent domain to take away lots of private land in Texas. So if you’re Tea Party, you’re against immigrants, but are you for private property? In other words, all the complications of actually building a wall. Many wall supporters might be for it and against it, depending on the information they were provided.

13:00 Paul Matzko: Depending on how you ask the question, basically.

13:02 Matthew Feeney: Didn’t our resident director of polling, Emily Ekins, recently release a poll about paid family leave hinged to cost?

13:09 Paul Matzko: Yes.

13:10 Matthew Feeney: So yeah, which I suppose we should have some more polling like that for some people.

13:14 Paul Matzko: She’s consciously trying to introduce economist’s notions into public opinion, so that being for or against something isn’t free. The typical public opinion question is, there’s no budget constraint and there’s no trade‐​offs.


13:29 Paul Matzko: Okay, assume a can opener.

13:33 Matthew Feeney: Right. Sorry, go ahead.

13:35 Paul Matzko: Oh, yeah, I was gonna say… So I think you’re right, Peter, to point out some normative assumptions going into how the question got set up. But rather than coming down on the one side that this is the proper set of criteria, I think we can identify here are the implications for good or for ill of how we currently do things, and here are the implications, possible implications, of changing that up. And then, our listeners can decide whether or not they think those mix of things are beneficial or not.

14:10 Peter Van Doren: I think you’re quite correct to point out that electoral systems, when confronted with more than two candidates or two choices at a time, there’s possibilities, you talked about… The technical terms are sincere versus strategic voting. Do you vote your preferences or are you trying to guess what everyone else is going to do and then vote in a way that enhances what you want, even though it’s not what other people want, etcetera, etcetera. So there’s a whole literature on that. And then, you mentioned intensities, which is, again, what some of the schemes we’re gonna talk about today do is try to get people to rank order possibilities rather than yes/​no. And that introduces the possibility of intensity that you described, and that’s useful, because in the current, in first‐​past‐​the‐​post, we throw away lots of information. Whereas if we forced voters to rank order choices, then there’s still ways of aggregating given that information that differ, but at least we would have all that information to make our choices.

15:19 Paul Matzko: So maybe something to note here, a few more features or flaws. When you look at the first‐​past‐​the‐​post system, when you talk about throwing away information, this shows up. And one of the ways that it shows up is that our system, and we’ve alluded to this, tends to depress the viability of third parties. So the number of parties… Essentially, you have two major parties, the party in power, the party in opposition, in the US, and then, our third parties are the vestigial organs of parties, rather than viable parties themselves. This is unlike much of the rest of the world, where they have functioning multi‐​party democracies, maybe three or four as in… This is fairly common in Great Britain, maybe more, and even more parliamentary systems like Germany or other countries, but having more than two parties. We are actually somewhat odd. And there are other countries where that’s true, but we are relatively odd in having only two viable parties, so…

16:18 Paul Matzko: What we should expect then is to say in a system, that where voting is done differently and votes are apportioned differently, what appears to be more normal is that people want more choices than just two, like in a sense the default is people prefer more political options; in the US we constructed a system which constrains some of those choices. So people who would have voted for a third party, instead feel that they need to vote more strategically, they can’t waste their vote, I need to vote for a Republican or a Democrat, ’cause they are the only people that have the chance of actually winning. And so, it shoves third parties kind of off to the side in election contests, which means third parties, their main route to significance in the US, as opposed to other countries, is that they tend to try to spoil elections with the goal of pushing a party, one of the major parties, in another direction, they try to absorb them.

17:19 Paul Matzko: It’s influenced by subsumption, it would be like the Dixiecrats in the mid‐​20th century. They’re unhappy with the National Democratic Party moving to be more in favor of desegregation, more pro‐​Civil Rights. And so these racist white Southern Democrats said, “We’re going to make it harder for the Democratic party to win by bringing this third‐​party, the Dixiecrats, until one of the major parties listens to our concerns and helps us continue to maintain white supremacy in the South,” right? And it worked, they eventually got subsumed. It was a multi‐​decade process. They eventually get subsumed by the Republican Party, during the 1960s and ‘70s. So that might… In that particular case we’re not saying, “Yay, Dixiecrats.” But that is the path, that’s the path to political viability for a third party, whatever the content of their beliefs are.

18:11 Peter Van Doren: Again I would… So the design of electoral systems, do you want conflict resolution to occur prior to elections, or do you want conflict resolution to occur as part of coalition formation within the legislature?

18:28 Paul Matzko: After the election, yeah, yeah.

18:28 Peter Van Doren: So think of Israel, right? Where the religious, the ultra‐​orthodox parties, a minority in Israel, but a very intense minority, are represented in the legislature in the Knesset. Whereas strong minorities in the United States have to do what you described. And there’s pressures within parties to sort of accommodate them, but also to say, “Well, you’re a wackadoo and you’re not the median.” Think the Tea Party or think the New Left. The woman from the Bronx in New York City who was elected…

19:06 Paul Matzko: Alexandria Ocasio‐​Cortez?

19:07 Peter Van Doren: Yes.

19:08 Paul Matzko: Yeah, yeah.

19:08 Peter Van Doren: So, right, in our country it’s the same. We have strident right sub‐​parties and we have strident left sub‐​movements. And do you want them in represented as… Do we want four parties in the legislature or do we want two with a conflict resolution occurring? Prior to or after elections?

19:29 Paul Matzko: It’s gonna happen one way or the other, whether it’s intra‐​party or party coalition formation between parties. The question is, is one preferable to the other? And it depends on…

19:41 Matthew Feeney: I think there’s a interesting argument to be made from a libertarian point of view that, I haven’t taken a look at what the data reveal about this, but I would be skeptical that coalition governments are good at moving into liberal directions. Now, I could… But it seems that because you’re all… In these situations that we’ve talked about, where no party has a majority so they’re pushed into… Thrust into coalition negotiations. One is putting third and fourth party sometimes into, one might argue, a disproportionate amount of power that only 6% or 7% of people voted for you and now you get to decide…

20:28 Peter Van Doren: No, that’s the…

20:28 Matthew Feeney: Your leader could be the Deputy Prime Minister.

20:29 Peter Van Doren: Exactly.

20:30 Matthew Feeney: You’ll probably get another ministerial seat. You’re gonna wield a huge amount of influence…

20:34 Peter Van Doren: So in effect, in Israel, there’s this continual discussion over whether… The ultra‐​orthodox have a disproportionate… Because they can…

20:42 Paul Matzko: They hold the margin…

20:43 Peter Van Doren: They hold the margin between governance and not.

20:46 Matthew Feeney: But they’re called kingmakers, these parties, right? They just get to…

20:49 Peter Van Doren: So the US system is designed, in effect, on purpose to not allow that to happen.

20:55 Paul Matzko: Though, arguably, we do have the same thing, but, again, we do it intra‐​party. So it’s the power of single issue or single constituency voting blocks. So for us it’s like the anti‐​abortion folks within the Republican Party. They’re a very powerful block even though they’re a relative minority of American voters.

21:14 Peter Van Doren: But it depends on whether the so‐​called Hastert Rule, right. The rules of the speaker in the house, whether there’s a formal or informal rule within the party that all legislation that the majority party is gonna bring to the floor, has to have a majority of the majority party, which is the so‐​called Hastert Rule.

21:36 Paul Matzko: Yeah. [chuckle]

21:37 Peter Van Doren: Named after disgraced speaker, Dennis Hastert. Prior to that, prior to that rule the US parties did not have that informal mechanism of inclusion. Because the cleavages within the parties, there were Southern Democrats, Northern Democrats, Eastern Republicans and Western. They were divided and so they could never have that rule, ’cause they never would… So you had cross‐​party coalitions in the old days and now you sort of have seen that disappear. So even within the US, the treatment of minority positions within parties has changed over time and how they affect legislation.

22:18 Paul Matzko: To make a counter argument, on the point about some odd… What would in another country be an odd minority party with strong preferences for a particular set of positions or for the sake of a particular community, having disproportionate influence. Well, we still have that here, even though we do it intra‐​party. So as folks have noted in 2016, as long as the Republican primaries were competitive, Donald Trump never really won. He averaged less than 40% of the Republican vote in Republican primaries until basically everyone else had dropped out. So he on the back of about 40% Republican primary voters, then won the general election in which, and this is a whole another conversation about how American voters essentially are always gonna switch back and forth between voters depending on economic conditions and how long one party has been in power versus the other. So it’s inevitable. It was an election that skewed naturally and heavily Republican based on the fundamentals. So in other words, the preferences, if you take that 40% of Republican primary voters against the entire voting population of the US, it’s a very small percentage. We’re talking about something like less than 10% of the American electorate effectively elected Donald Trump by selecting him to be the Republican nominee in an election that was going to naturally skew Republican.

23:53 Paul Matzko: So a very intensely motivated faction within the Republican Party got their guy in the White House. To me that’s not all that different than in a system where the Trump representatives in the Republican party were a third party. There was this new populist, whatever you wanna call it, ethno‐​nationalist party that formed, that held the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats and so had disproportionate influence. Both situations, you can have an intensely motivated small minority have disproportionate political influence.

24:32 Matthew Feeney: Yeah, that’s probably true. I do think that the conversation changes when you’re discussing how representatives who will stand are chosen. What’s sort of interesting is that in the United States, with the primary system, a lot of these choices are taken out of the hands of the party. They can come up with rules about this, but both major parties send out candidates to the field and members of the party or citizens, they vote. Which is very different to a lot of European parliamentary systems, where the leader of the Labour Party is chosen under Labour Party rules. Labour Party members actually can vote, but the Conservative Party for instance, it’s not conservatives out in the country, it’s a different process.

25:23 Paul Matzko: That’s true, yeah.

25:24 Matthew Feeney: And it’s something that I…

25:26 Peter Van Doren: And in fact our… The primary system you described in the United States came out of the Vietnam War, the McGovern‐​Fraser Commission which said that the riots in ’68, right… Democratic…

25:40 Matthew Feeney: Because people felt… Well, yeah.

25:42 Peter Van Doren: How could you nominate Hubert Humphrey when…

25:45 Paul Matzko: Smoke‐​filled rooms picked this unpopular Vice President for… Yeah.

25:48 Peter Van Doren: And so this is outrageous. And therefore we need primaries, and a whole two generations later, we now… [chuckle] We don’t like parties. It’d be really good to go back to, same people in a room picking somebody.


26:02 Peter Van Doren: So I’m behind claims that people are for or against processes. And hearing you today… And I’m not criticizing, I’m just saying, behind these notions of process are notions of… People have preferences over substantive outcomes and when they don’t get what they want…

26:24 Paul Matzko: They wannna change the process.

26:25 Peter Van Doren: They wanna change the process. And then lo and behold, generations later, the process doesn’t do what people want it to do and they wanna change the process. So I’m a sort of substance reductionist. Which is, behind claims of process superiority or inferiority are really, “Gosh, that person or persons or policies don’t deserve the light of day and I wanna make sure they are in the dark forever.” Right? To be honest and…

26:54 Matthew Feeney: Yeah. Well, I remember living in England during a referendum on changing the voting system because there were widespread complaints. Because the way that the House of Commons… The composition is determined. There are 650 constituencies and each of these 650 constituencies has won first‐​past‐​the‐​post election. So whoever wins the most votes in that constituency, you go to the House of Commons. Of course, a lot of parties weren’t fans of this and would’ve preferred ranked‐​choice voting. Because UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, would, I think, get… The fourth number… The fourth most popular party by popular vote, I think. Something like that. And yet they only had one MP.

27:35 Paul Matzko: ‘Cause they had what? 10%, 8% of the national vote or something?

27:39 Matthew Feeney: I don’t know the exact figures, but they were certainly after, I think, Conservative, Labour and the Lib‐​Dems. Or maybe even beat the Lib‐​Dems. They were easily one of the most popular parties by popular vote, but they only won in one constituency, so they were backing… But again, is that a legitimate gripe?

27:56 Peter Van Doren: Well, the US does have a modification in some states beyond the complicated system you described early on in Maine, which is we have run‐​offs in some states. So the appeal of majority rather than plurality, there’s a lot of sentiment for that. A lot of the mischief you described is about when there’s more than two candidates, then someone can win who has below a majority and all the people who voted for lots of others really don’t like that person who won. That’s the dreadful scenario you described. A simple, non‐​complicated way to avoid that is to have run‐​off.

28:41 Paul Matzko: Well, so you have a… It’s a collective action problem, where you…

28:44 Peter Van Doren: All these people have voted for all other people. If they were in a room and could talk to each other, they would all oppose the person who had the most votes. That’s why you…

28:53 Paul Matzko: Right. They knock each other out. Yeah.

28:54 Peter Van Doren: And so how do you… What’s a simple rather than a complicated way to avoid that? And the answer is, a run‐​off.

29:01 Paul Matzko: But the difference… We should probably explain here what we’re talking about, the ranked‐​choice voting in a second. But the problem with even the run‐​off is that… So let’s say you have a field of five candidates, one of them… You still have the same problem. Let’s say you have one Democrat and then four Republicans who because of the local… The local party establishment is fraying and they can’t select just one, they knock each other out. So only one Republican who may or may not even be the most popular of the four Republicans ends up running against the Democrat… And losing ’cause you picked… Again, they won the Republican nomination. They made it into the top two with 10% to 15% of the vote.

29:39 Peter Van Doren: I’ll give you the most absurd example, which is, today’s Washington Post actually talks about Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live. We had 33 candidates for 11 positions.

29:49 Paul Matzko: [chuckle] Oh, my gosh. Okay, okay. So it’s for 11. But still.

29:53 Peter Van Doren: It was the nightmare. It’s what you’ve described, which is, first of all, how you figure out what’s… I tried and, basically, I couldn’t figure out any information about hardly any of them. And so your point’s well taken that when there’s a lot of candidates, even run‐​off may not…

30:16 Paul Matzko: Run‐​off is preferable. I think it absolves part of that problem of the collective action, people beating each other out. And thus getting someone who most voters are not big fans of ends up winning because of the people that are generally preferred by the voters knock each other off. But ranked‐​choice voting, maybe we should explain what ranked‐​choice voting is here. I’ll talk about Maine, I suppose. Ranked‐​choice voting is the idea, you look at your ballot and instead of being asked the binary question, do you vote for… You cast… Well, I guess it’s not binary, technically, but you cast one vote and that’s it. Who do you want to be representative? The Democrat, the Republican, the libertarian, the Green Party or whatever. You cast one vote and that’s it. Who is first, who is going to win. A ranked‐​choice vote says you should select not only who you would most want to see win, but who you would want if the first placed person doesn’t win, who the second most palatable option is. So I’m gonna vote for the libertarian, but if the libertarian doesn’t win, I would prefer the Green Party. Which is probably not gonna be a lot of…

31:26 Matthew Feeney: I’d like to meet that person. [chuckle]

31:26 Paul Matzko: They’d be an interesting person. I’m gonna vote for the Democrat or the Republican as my second choice. And then a third choice and a fourth. So you’re ranking everyone on your ballot in order of preference. Then what happens with a ranked‐​choice vote is, if no one wins the majority of the vote… So, let’s say, all the candidates are knocking each other, no one… There’s someone with 30%, someone with 25% and so on down. You then start to apportion votes, people’s first place votes for lower tier candidates. The person who came in last. I don’t know, the…

32:01 Peter Van Doren: The person with the least first place votes.

[overlapping conversation]

32:03 Matthew Feeney: The Monster Raving Loony Party.

32:05 Paul Matzko: Yes, that’s right. [chuckle] The Leopards Eat People’s Faces Party…

32:08 Peter Van Doren: Their second choices are then reallocated to…

32:11 Paul Matzko: Are reallocated. So you voted for this really marginal party, they didn’t win, you take them off. Who’s their second place person? They then get that vote. And so on and so forth.

32:21 Peter Van Doren: Until…

32:22 Paul Matzko: Until someone gets a majority.

32:23 Peter Van Doren: Correct.

32:25 Paul Matzko: That might be done right away if it’s a really narrow election or it might take a couple of those reapportionments. And so the idea, then, is that you are more… You help really strongly mitigate this collective action problem and more accurately represent the preference order of the majority of the voters.

32:44 Peter Van Doren: You create incentives for sincere voting rather than strategic, to use the jargon, and that’s a good thing.

32:51 Paul Matzko: And this happened in Maine and it’s, I think, why it’s particularly notable. Maine’s not the first example of ranked‐​choice voting in the US, there have been a dozen cities. Like Minneapolis, San Francisco, places like that have done… Municipal elections have been decided by ranked‐​choice voting. But it’s the first Congressional… Really the first Federal election, national‐​level election to have ranked‐​choice voting. And that’s because in Maine there’s this long tradition of independence, independent voters going back… I think it was nine of their previous 11 governors have won without majorities of the voters. And we’re talking Paul LePage, who’s very unpopular in Maine. He won in 2010 with 38% of the votes. We’re not talking about 48 versus 49. 38% and he won the top state level position. And, again, there’s a long history of this. And people got fed up. They were tired. When you only win with 38% of the vote… And arguably Maine is… And he’s a Republican… Arguably, Maine voters tend to skew a little bit towards the Democratic voter on the net.

34:02 Matthew Feeney: So to be clear, he won 38% of the vote in a first‐​past‐​the‐​post governor’s election, right?

34:09 Paul Matzko: First‐​past‐​the‐​post, right. And because, basically, the Maine Democratic party would squabble. And then independent candidates who tended to be probably more into the Democratic party would enter anyways and split that… Split, if you will, the Democratic left vote. And so the Republican wins despite not being particularly popular. And that’s become normal. So Maine decided, “Hey, we’re gonna try this thing called ranked‐​choice voting.” And for the first time it actually kicked in in an election just this last November. Republican incumbent running for re‐​election in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Bruce Poliquin, won the first round with 46.2% to Democrat Jared Golden’s 45.5%. So pretty close, 0.7% difference. No majority, so then they did the apportionment thing. And the 4th place person got apportioned, then the 3rd place person. And in the end, the Democrat, Jared Golden, gets an upset victory and reverses the result. It’s all kind of in court right now. Essentially, the court case comes down to, “I lost and don’t like losing so I’m going to try to sue to prevent the election.” It’s almost certainly going to go the way of the ranked‐​choice voting thing.

35:26 Peter Van Doren: Or those ballots that came in by canoe, were they legal from the Northwoods?


35:35 Paul Matzko: I’m sorry, to the beaver fur trappers in far northern Maine.

35:40 Peter Van Doren: Guess what, though? Today’s Washington Post, I happened to read it before I came in. So this system is being proposed in Montgomery County because of the 33 candidate for 11 seat problem.

35:49 Paul Matzko: Because of the 33. Yeah.

35:51 Peter Van Doren: Guess what? The various advocacy groups representing minority voters said it would be unfair because, to be delicate, they said, those with low information would go into such a voting system and find it extraordinarily confusing and would be discouraged and would not vote. So I had not anticipated that kind of concern, but there it was in today’s Post that voting systems have to be simple for the less involved and less educated voter, but it’s the first time I’ve seen that.

36:39 Matthew Feeney: It strikes me as a… Again, I haven’t looked at the relevant data, but the diversity of voting systems in functioning democracies seems to be a strong counterpoint to that. Now, maybe Germans and New Zealanders walk into polling places and really don’t know what they’re doing, just randomly filling in boxes. But it strikes me as not the case and I…

37:06 Peter Van Doren: Well, even think of Maine, the state that enacted this system of voting, I think would rank rather low on income and education relative to the country as a whole, and yet they adopted it, so…

37:19 Paul Matzko: Yeah. And we were gonna spend a chunk of the show talking about alternative systems; there’s a thing called the D’Hondt method that Feeney was gonna talk about, and there’s other mixed proportional systems like in New Zealand, there’s democracy vouchers, which are really about campaign finance, but you could apply as well to voting itself being tried in Seattle, but for the sake of time we won’t go into that. But to your point, Matthew, there are dozens, the D’Hondt method is just one. There are dozens of different ways of apportioning votes to try to more closely represent the will of the people being tried all over the world with relative success. No one says that’s not a legitimate democracy because they counted the votes this way versus that way.

38:06 Matthew Feeney: Right.

38:07 Paul Matzko: And people understand it just fine, and yeah…

38:10 Matthew Feeney: We should… We’ll put explainer websites and videos in the show notes for this so that anyone interested in how these different methods work can go and check it out for themselves. I want to stress that while we’ve been talking about ways in which to choose legislative bodies, there are legislative bodies that use these voting systems among themselves to apportion ministerial seats, for example, so the Northern Irish Assembly being one example. So don’t think of this as just a method for citizens voting for legislatures, but also how some legislatures determine certain seats and memberships.

38:45 Paul Matzko: Well, and we did this in the US as well. Jefferson, the D’Hondt method is actually kind of based off of something Thomas Jefferson did when it came to apportioning… So we’re talking about apportioning votes to candidates, but Jefferson had this method, how do we decide which states get how many representatives? And used something very similar to this D’Hondt thing we’re talking about. So it’s not just about apportioning votes, it’s also apportioning seats or positions. All this stuff kind of touches all of those things, even if we don’t have time to go into them in more detail. So maybe here, for the last bit, we should talk about what are the consequences, what would we expect the consequences to be of ranked‐​choice voting or alternative voting apportionment for how we do elections? What are the expected outcomes, good or bad?

39:41 Matthew Feeney: So I would take a guess that if this was widely adopted for congressional elections, so for House and Senate, I think in the near future you would see actually relatively little change, ’cause I think there would be some growing pains, potentially. And also, people, it takes a while for tribalism to wear off and people might not have liked Republicans that much, but they’ll continue voting that way. But in the long term, it provides incentives for what Peter describes as sincere voting. So we should expect in the long term, if this was widely adopted, more Greens, libertarians, to end up in these chambers. But I don’t think it would actually reflect polling of the support for these parties, actually, that quickly. That’s a guess.

40:30 Peter Van Doren: One thing we haven’t talked about at all are electoral system entry barriers. In other words, how do you get on the ballot in a state? So we have not talked at all about how it varies, how many signatures do you have to gather. Some states, you have to have so much of the vote in the last election to be on the ballot in this election.

40:52 Paul Matzko: Or to be allowed to debate or…

40:54 Matthew Feeney: Yeah.

40:55 Peter Van Doren: So all of that… So in addition to the aggregating systems we’ve discussed, there are all these behind‐​the‐​scenes electoral get on the ballot rules that vary tremendously by state, which tend to be barriers to entry to minority viewpoints of all sorts. And New York State’s an exception. They have Democrat, Republican and ongoing liberal and conservative parties for almost all seats on the ballot, which is unusual. Most other states really make it quite difficult to be a minority party and get on the ballot.

41:32 Paul Matzko: I do think on the net… And you’re absolutely right. And what’s notable is that these rules for who gets on the ballot are the state legislature, which is, usually, always controlled by one of the two major parties, erects barriers to entry for challengers that undermine the two‐​party establishment. So, unsurprisingly, they’ve rigged the system. But in a ranked‐​choice voting system we should expect third parties to be more relevant. It probably won’t win too many more elections. I suppose it increases the odds on the margin some, so instead…

42:08 Peter Van Doren: ‘Cause you would undo the system. You’d be willing to vote sincerely, not worrying that your vote would be thrown away or would cause chaos, which it does sometimes under the current system.

42:23 Paul Matzko: So you take Maine 2nd Congressional District, still early on, I think your point, Feeney, about this over time, the effects becoming larger. But even at this first test case in Maine, you have something like a combined 8% or 9% of voters in the 2nd Congressional District went for the third and fourth candidate combined. Which is higher. Most elections, third parties, it’s usually 2% libertarian, 1% libertarian, half a percent green. So we maybe tripled or quadrupled the number of voters in one congressional district willing to vote for someone other than the two major parties. And that’s significant, then, too, ’cause I think it leads into our next bit.

43:06 Paul Matzko: So even if it doesn’t mean… You might have a few more third party, libertarian, green, socialists, whatever, getting seats, a few more. You’d get a lot more attention paid to the issues they care about. The not nice way of talking about this is horse trading. But you can imagine, it has already happened, actually, in Maine, the third and fourth candidates in that election, both basically said, “We want our supporters, if we don’t win, we want our supporters to put number two, this Golden guy, the non‐​incumbent.” And Golden went out of his way to court them, saying like, “Obviously, I want you to vote for me first, but hey, I’m attentive to your concerns, I promise to do this with my platform.” Whereas the incumbent was like, “No, this is a terrible… I don’t like this system,” didn’t court them.

43:56 Paul Matzko: So again, if you want a more empowered multi‐​party system with libertarians or whoever, radicals of any stripe, having more influence, this seems like a pretty good way of doing it. Major party candidates have to be more directly attentive to what you want.

44:11 Peter Van Doren: Well, earlier you said in your intro, you said… I forget the data. You said, “Public opinion polls show people are very dissatisfied with their choices.” Well, this would, I think, at least at some level, solve the problem. In other words, you’d get to express yourself, voting has expressive purposes, and yet… Given you know that you are… That you don’t have many fellow travelers, you then vote second and third the way that you also believe but it won’t… Your initial choice won’t cause chaos. And so, that would solve maybe… We haven’t used the word; I’m surprised: Legitimacy. Right? Is that… No, I…

44:56 Matthew Feeney: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s an important question.

45:00 Peter Van Doren: Getting people to buy into this preference aggregation system is important.

45:06 Matthew Feeney: Well, that’s why you had a lot of people in the wake of the last presidential election, the hashtag, “Not my president.”

45:11 Peter Van Doren: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

45:11 Matthew Feeney: Because I think it strikes that some people just find it intuitively grossly unfair that someone who didn’t actually win the popular vote is somehow a winner, right? And, we don’t have time to get into the constitutional arguments and the history behind the Electoral College and everything, but that’s a crucial issue in all of this.

45:28 Paul Matzko: But it would feel a lot more legitimate, if in that election, or say in 2000, if they then apportioned those third party spoilers based on their second choice votes. And so they could say, rather than Bush isn’t my president because he didn’t win the popular vote, you say, “Bush is my president, because once we took into account the second choice preferences, and they actually did have a… ” Right? That… It helps… And legitimacy, and it matters, because when it comes down to it, democracy is just a bunch of paper, or ink on paper, and people agreeing that the authorities have authority; that they have a legitimate claim to power in a society. Legitimacy matters because it’s how a governing system functions.

46:13 Peter Van Doren: Let me throw out something from the literature. Most of our listeners have probably heard of Rawls, John Rawls and his Theory of Justice and the Rawlsian Veil of ignorance, which is a thought device in political philosophy to imagine you didn’t know anything about where you were in the income distribution or anything. And what kind of set of rules would you choose for collective choice of once we actually started society. The problem that arises in such a calculation, is how wacko do you think you and your descendants will be, I.e., are you a permanent minority? So, notice even though you alluded to the Electoral College, notice if we change to in effect a majoritarian non‐​Electoral College system, everyone in fly‐​over country might conceive of themselves as being in a permanent minority. That is, they’re never, ever conceivably, ever going to be in the majority, ever again, and dot, dot, dot, dot, dot. So under the… So then, we tend to think of… Anyway, trying to figure out how to deal with permanent minorities, or people with chronically minority outcomes, under majority rule, or any kind of system. Does that factor into legitimacy?

47:43 Paul Matzko: Well, we do want to avoid… Madison, James Madison, was very attentive to the balance between… He didn’t want tyranny of the majority. So democracy was something of a dirty word, at the time, the idea of a pure democracy. So you don’t want a system of where 51%, or in our case, a plurality, they just get to dictate terms to the permanent minorities who have essentially no voice, ’cause they can’t get the majority coalition together. He was also attentive to the problems of faction. So he didn’t want a system where a majority has all the power. But he also didn’t want lots and lots of warring factions that can’t effectively govern. So he wanted to strike a middle road, but… And whether or not he did that successfully or not is an open question. But, it’s to your point. You have to be concerned about both of these concerns. I think the idea of ranked‐​choice voting is that, yes…

48:38 Peter Van Doren: So, for example, urban people now feel the Electoral College doesn’t serve their interests. And I guess, in some sense, they’re correct.

48:46 Paul Matzko: Yeah.

48:46 Peter Van Doren: But the Electoral College serves the interests of states that are empty or emptying out.

48:52 Paul Matzko: Yeah. It does. It does. Yeah.

48:56 Matthew Feeney: I do think the people who object to the Electoral College should actually carry Peter’s thought experiment further when they finish listening, which is… Well, if it was really the case that to become president, you just needed a plurality of the popular vote to win, then they just… They would all be flying to Texas and California, Florida, New York. And if you want the alienation problem in this country to get worse, why would anyone fly to…

49:25 Peter Van Doren: Iowa.

49:26 Matthew Feeney: Michigan, or Iowa, or any of these places? That would make American politics, I think, much more divisive. Which isn’t an argument one way or the other about the Electoral College. It’s just something to observe.

49:36 Paul Matzko: So the Electoral College is a technology, is a structure meant to try to strike that balance, right?

49:43 Peter Van Doren: For a union of states, not a…

49:45 Paul Matzko: Right. And it’s meant to give folks who would otherwise be a minority, or be a permanent minority, a voice despite the fact that they aren’t as big of a state as Virginia or New York. So, it was designed as a tech to try to help solve that, or strike that balance. Ranked‐​choice voting is again, another tech meant to try to mitigate that balance is, and it does so. So, let’s say you removed the Electoral College, we get rid of the plurality system, and so, “Oh, no. I live in Iowa, which used to be important because I got all these disproportionate electoral significance. I get two senators from North Dakota, even though it has the population of Poughkeepsie,” or something. Like, okay, so, you remove all that. So now you’re in this permanent minority when it comes to national influence, except, again, ranked‐​choice voting means that even though you are small, you’re a permanent minority, as long as you’re passionate, as long as you have very discreet concentrated interests, you can punch above your weight.

50:47 Paul Matzko: So, yes, Iowa, in the ranked‐​choice voting system would have less influence, because of the Electoral College, but arguably more influence, because, well, the Iowa corn lobby or hog lobby, if that’s propelling their votes, they could say, “Hey, we’ll trade off. We know we’re not gonna win as much significance, but we’ll trade off or votes in exchange for a promise.” You see, again, that negotiation can still happen, giving permanent minorities a voice and helping solve the alienation problem.

51:17 Paul Matzko: So that, that would be, I think, my answer there. Just for time’s sake, a few more things. One of our colleagues noted that there is a connection, this isn’t with ranked‐​choice voting per se, but it has to do with proportional representation, that countries with more proportional representation, where essentially they apportion seats in the national legislature based on the percentage of the popular vote. So, multi‐​party systems tend to have larger welfare states, have more government. And the colleague made the argument that because of that, they should be suspicious about system, about moving in a more multi‐​party‐​friendly direction. And so, what do you guys think, as libertarians, should we be suspicious of ranked‐​choice voting pushing us in a multi‐​party direction because it means a bigger welfare state, a more intrusive government?

52:16 Matthew Feeney: Is there a reason you’re concealing the name of this colleague, so that I don’t have to [chuckle] go to their office and…

52:21 Paul Matzko: Well, I don’t… It’s irrelevant.

52:24 Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I don’t have enough information to make a…

52:28 Peter Van Doren: See, we need to…

52:30 Matthew Feeney: I don’t know.

52:31 Peter Van Doren: What we need is, again, remember I said, process versus substance. So, we need to know someone who makes this claim that has to somehow study the, if we could figure it out, the true preferences of the population for redistribution, and then somehow then make the argument that if those preferences were aggregated in a republic‐​style, first‐​past‐​the‐​post system, without… A non‐​parliamentary system, outcomes would somehow be different. And there was… Take the underlying preferences of Italy or France or whatever, crank them through a US system, and they would have a smaller welfare state. Might be… I don’t know, I’ve never… I tend to be suspicious of that kind of argument, and then say there’s a whole literature that says that… Well, two things. One, states that trade a lot. In Europe, they have smaller countries, and so, they trade a lot, and so, one price for free trade is sort of a safety net. And the voters understand that, and so, they have freer markets in return for a net through which they cannot fall, ’cause trade can sometimes makes you redundant. And… Shoot. What was the second?

54:01 Paul Matzko: So, what I hear from what you’re saying, Peter, is this idea that, yes, there’s a correlation there, but maybe this isn’t… We’re reading a causal element into this correlation that… It just so happens that because of the literal size and shape and structure of these regions, and… That we’re getting this outcome. It doesn’t have to do with the proportion system, the voting, or even representation system, per se, just has to do with the happenstance of the region.

54:32 Peter Van Doren: And second, I remember the second thing I was gonna say, even though the size of government in European countries is larger than ours, their tax systems are less progressive. So, ironically, there’s a lot more benefits for workers in those countries, but the workers pay for them through consumption taxes. The VAT, notice the French are rioting in part because Macron wants to raise the price that they face to pay for their stuff. And it’s large. The price of what they consume is large. And so, the US has a progressive tax system, ironically. In Europe, European countries, capital doesn’t pay for stuff in Europe, workers do. So, be careful. So…

55:19 Paul Matzko: Questions of correlation and causation get messy.

55:22 Peter Van Doren: So in other words libertarians might say that the welfare state is larger in Europe, but it’s not a tax on capital. So, in some sense, that might be… Whereas in the United States, the price, the tax on capital actually may be greater.

55:34 Paul Matzko: I also think, and this goes back to something we were discussing before, which is that speaking to the alienation problem, a system… So, if the complaint is, if we more closely represent the median will of the voters, the voters want bigger government, and since we don’t want bigger government, we should not more closely represent the will of the people. So, this is… This is rule by technocratic elite versus…

56:06 Peter Van Doren: I worry about that. I’m a Democrat with a small d.

56:09 Paul Matzko: It’s not really sustainable, I mean, any nation. Yeah.

56:10 Peter Van Doren: For example, how many… Three states in the United States, I think in the last election had referenda on whether to expand Medicaid or not in Republican states and they all approved. So now, to be sure, it’s not clear they’ve explicitly understood that the feds promised to pay for this expansion, but eventually, they’re gonna probably renege then maybe your own state’s gonna have to… It’s a complicated choice, but I… I’m wary of deciding we know what… So I agree with you.

56:42 Paul Matzko: The hoi polloi, they don’t know what their interests are, so we’re going to do what’s best for them. And that can get you in trouble over the medium term, for sure.

56:53 Peter Van Doren: Although, Brexit does give one pause.


56:56 Paul Matzko: That’s right. No matter what system you have, people are gonna do dumb things with it.

57:02 Peter Van Doren: There we go, that may be the…

57:04 Paul Matzko: The moral of this story. Well, thanks guys were coming in for this, I think, stimulating and complicated discussion about ranked‐​choice voting and voting alternatives. And for you, listener, until next week, be well.


57:19 Paul Matzko: Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed our show, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. To learn about Building Tomorrow or to discover other great podcasts, visit us on the web at lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.