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Politics vs Math
Trent England • Feb 27, 2024

Sean Parnell and I have writtenextensively about potential conflicts between ranked-choice voting (RCV) and the NPV interstate compact. My latest, Popular Vote Compact Collides With Ranked-choice Voting, just ran in RealClear Policy.

In short: If it’s not math, it can’t be democracy.

Ranked-choice voting “allows voters to rank candidates by preference. If no candidate has a majority after counting the first-preference votes, then the least popular candidate is eliminated, and his or her voters have their next-preference counted.” When the NPV compact was drafted, there was no serious consideration of ranked-choice voting in presidential elections (or any other state-level elections).

NPV cannot change to meet new circumstances. The compact does not allow members to update it in any way, even for changes to state and federal laws (e.g., the Electoral Count Act). So what happens decades later now that states have adopted RCV?

Two states—Alaska and Maine—will use ranked-choice voting to choose presidential electors this year. Other states are considering similar proposals. According to Ballotpedia, there were about 150 bills related to ranked-choice voting in state legislatures last year (although not all would apply to presidential elections). …

The easy answer for a state using ranked-choice voting, should NPV take effect, is to stop. That would ensure the state has a single election result that is compatible with other states. Otherwise, there would be results from each round of RCV counting, and these could be wildly different as some candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed to other candidates.

Whatever RCV states try to do, the real power is in each NPV state. The compact relies on the chief election official in each NPV state to determine national results. Those officials could simply ignore ranked-choice adjustments and use only the first-preference votes, since those are more comparable to ordinary votes in other states.

The one thing that should never be done is to combine RCV-adjusted totals. Doing that is similar to the basic mathematical mistake of adding percentages—it produces a meaningless result. Advocates for RCV admit this in other contexts. The Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center notes that “ballot data needs to be centralized” to conduct an RCV election. Precincts cannot independently conduct the RCV process and then aggregate final-round results. What’s true for precincts is also true for states.

But NPV lobbyists are rejecting math and insisting that states can combine ranked-choice voting results with other states’ results to determine a national popular vote winner. They even convinced Maine to pass a law telling NPV states to use their adjusted numbers.

Because democratic elections are based on simple addition, rejecting math puts democracy at risk. Combining adjusted vote totals destroys the premise of a national popular vote.

It might not be an issue of just a few votes, either. Consider what happened in Maine in the 1992 presidential election, when Bill Clinton came in first and independent candidate Ross Perot edged out George H.W. Bush for second. Perot received 206,820 popular votes while Bush received 206,504. Had RCV been in effect, Bush would have been eliminated and his vote total reduced to zero. If his supporters ranked other candidates, their votes would have been redistributed; if not, their ballots would be ignored.

Now consider a hypothetical future election with the NPV compact in effect and one or more large states using RCV. An independent candidate’s second-place finish in just one state could delete millions of votes for a major party candidate and even flip the outcome.

Whatever that is, it is not a national popular vote. And while these scenarios may not happen often, any combination of adjusted vote totals is mathematically meaningless.

The Electoral College is democracy in two steps: a simple, statewide popular vote (or by congressional district) in each state. Then the people’s elected officials—presidential electors—cast votes for president and vice president in another simple, majority-wins election. This is basic math, which is the foundation of any democratic process. Combining RCV-adjusted vote totals from different jurisdictions is not math at all, the result is meaningless, and it isn’t any kind of democracy.