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National Popular Vote’s continuing problem with ranked-choice voting
Sean Parnell • Jan 17, 2023

For several years I’ve made the point that the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) is incompatible with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). That system, adopted by Alaska and Maine and proposed in others states, has voters rank multiple candidates and, if no candidate has a majority of first-place rankings, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred to those voters’ second choice. The process continues until one candidate has a majority of the remaining ballots.

The short version of our critique is that NPV expects every state will only produce a single vote total for each candidate. The compact directs the chief election official in each compacting state to aggregate vote totals from all states, but states using the RCV voting process may produce two sets of numbers for each candidate: the initial, “first place” vote total for every candidate (comparable to traditional election results), and then a final, post-RCV vote count. The difference between the initial and final vote totals can be tens or hundreds of thousands of votes (or even millions in some circumstances), and the chief election official in each state that is a member of the compact will be able to choose which set of numbers to use when determining the winner. This, needless to say, opens the door to all sorts of confusion and chaos in determining the winner, not to mention mischief and manipulation for those looking to exploit the compact’s defects for partisan purposes.

Last summer NPV, Inc. put out a memo, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Is Compatible with National Popular Vote, claiming that there is no conflict and trying to refute the criticisms that we at Save Our States (and a few others as well) have made. Suffice it to say the NPV memo is unpersuasive and continues the long history of NPV lobbyists and defenders refusing to acknowledge inconvenient facts. In response I’ve written a memo to address their specific claims: National Popular Vote Still Has a Ranked Choice Voting Problem.

My memo explains the following:

  • NPV, Inc. admits that if a third-party candidate finishes in second place or better in a state using RCV, the major party candidate finishing in third place will have hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes erased from the national vote count – they just don’t believe that’s a problem.
  • NPV, Inc. claims that the two states currently using RCV pose no problem because Maine will only report the final, post-RCV process vote totals while in Alaska the Republican candidate will always win a large majority, so RCV won’t be used. In fact, Maine will report both initial and final vote totals in official statements, and in four of the last eight presidential elections the Republican presidential candidate in Alaska only won a plurality (1992) or barely won a majority (1996, 2016, and 2020).
  • NPV, Inc. asserts that there are few votes at stake in the two states using RCV, so there is no reason to worry. But there are literally hundreds of thousands of votes that can be affected in Alaska and Maine, and four of the last sixteen presidential elections had close national vote margins (1960, 1968, 1976, and 2000). Which vote totals the election officials in NPV states choose to include in their national vote count could determine the outcome of a close election.
  • NPV, Inc. claims that because a leading advocate for RCV also helped to write the NPV compact, it must have been designed to work with RCV. This ignores that the RCV advocate cited has acknowledged the conflict between NPV and RCV and described the exact same problems we have raised at Save Our States. He recommends either major federal legislation or yet another compact to fix the problem.

There’s a lot more to be said on this issue – it turns out that a lot of people who are familiar with alternatives to plurality voting (which includes not just RCV but also approval voting, range voting, STAR voting, and other voting systems) are aware of the conflict between NPV and anything other than plurality voting. I’ll be putting up a post in a few days reporting on what some of them have to say on the topic. For now, I’ll just say it’s clear that the conflict between NPV and RCV cannot be dismissed or ignored, no matter how much lobbyists and advocates for the compact insist “Nothing to see here!