Ranked-Choice Voting and the Bible

Your vote counts
Does it really, though?

Let’s start with a fairly non-controversial premise: People don’t trust their government. Last year, a Pew Research poll said just 25% of Americans trust elected officials to do what is right for the public.*

*Obviously some of that is unavoidable in such a politically polarized era, but even among Republicans, just 36% said they trust elected officials – and at the time, their party controlled the entire government!

It goes without saying that in a democracy, that’s bad.

Now, there are endless reasons why people don’t trust their elected officials, and there’s no one remedy to that problem. But one of the biggest steps we can take is to rethink the way we elect those officials in the first place.

Which is why I’m about to spend a thousand words or so talking about ranked-choice voting.

What is ranked choice voting, anyway?

Well, for a better explanation than I can offer in text, go watch this video and then skip down to the next subheading.

Still here? Okay, here’s my best attempt.

Ranked choice voting is exactly what it sounds like. You have several candidates running in an election for a single office, and voters are allowed to vote for multiple candidates, ranking their choices from highest to lowest.

When all the votes are cast, the first-choice votes are tabulated first. At that point, if one candidate has a majority of votes, that candidate wins. But if no one has a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are reassigned to their second choices. If there is still no majority, the new last-place candidate is likewise eliminated and votes are likewise redistributed to their next remaining choice, and so on until someone has an outright majority.

RCV basically simulates a series of runoffs until there is a majority winner. It’s also known as instant runoff voting (IRV) for that reason.

What does ranked choice voting have to do with the Bible?

There aren’t many examples of democratic elections as we’d consider them today in the Bible, and certainly there’s no explicit endorsement of a particular voting system. However, Scripture does have quite a lot to say about leadership, and in particular, about qualifications for leadership.

Here’s one example from the early church, as described in the book of Acts:

“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” Acts 6:3 (ESV)

This passage is describing the selection of the first seven deacons; that is, officials in the church who are primarily responsible for seeing to the practical needs of the people (as opposed to elders who are primarily concerned with spiritual and theological matters). The first qualification mentioned for the first deacons is that they have a good reputation.

Here’s another verse from 1 Timothy 3, which is one of the texts on leadership most commonly cited in evangelical circles:

Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” 1 Tim. 3:7 (ESV)

That’s the same Greek word (well, the same root – it’s a verb in Acts 6 and a noun in 1 Timothy 3). Again, a good reputation is considered a necessary qualification for leadership.

While these passages are specifically talking about qualifications to lead within the church, the underlying principles on leadership should be applicable to secular elections as well. Both of these passages evoke the idea that a leader should be generally well-regarded; to put another way, there should be a broad consensus that the candidate is a good, qualified leader.

As such, if we’re evaluating our elections through the lens of Scripture, here is the question we should be asking:

Does our current voting system consistently produce leaders who earn such a broad consensus?

Absolutely not!

Under our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, it is very easy for a polarizing candidate who has strong support from a minority of the population (but little support outside that minority) to get a plurality of votes in a party primary, then a plurality of votes in the general and thus win the election. See: the current occupant of the White House.*

*Trump, of course, actually got a minority of the popular vote in the general election, not even a plurality. In his case, the problems with FPTP were compounded by the Electoral College, where Trump won enough pluralities in winner-take-all elections in key states to win the election.

People, of course, know this, which gives rise to a highly toxic phenomenon: strategic voting. Instead of voting for the candidate they like most, people often vote for a less preferred candidate who they think has a better chance of winning. When voters are casting their ballots not based on who they like, but based on how they think everyone else will vote, it’s very difficult to believe that the eventual winner is the consensus choice.

Given those realities, FPTP will inevitably trend toward elections with just two candidates. Technically, that guarantees a majority – when there are only two candidates, someone will almost certainly get more than half the votes – but again, many of those votes are cast for the “lesser of two evils” or the candidate people dislike the least rather than the one they like the most. So it’s hard to claim that there is any real consensus there.

Would RCV consistently produce leaders who earn a broad consensus?

Maybe not always, but it’s definitely way better.

The whole point of RCV is to maximize the number of voters who get an official they voted for – not necessarily their first choice, but at least one of their choices. It eliminates plurality winners and forces the eventual winner to get a majority, or at least a majority of the votes that are left over as losers are eliminated.

In local elections where RCV is used, we’ve already seen more consensus-oriented campaigns.

For instance, in the San Francisco mayoral election last year, candidates Jane Kim and Mark Leno openly encouraged their voters to rank the other as their second choice.*  This sort of campaigning certainly isn’t perfect – the Kim-Leno “soft alliance” was as much a negative campaign against their opponent, London Breed, as a positive campaign in favor of each other – but it’s still an object lesson in the way RCV changes elections.

*It worked, sort of; when Kim finished third and was eliminated, most of her votes did in fact go to Leno, but the other candidate, London Breed, picked up enough to win.

In a FPTP election, ideologically similar candidates will often viciously attack each other because they’re competing for the same pool of voters. Or, perhaps more frequently, party leadership forces candidates who are perceived as less viable (or less party-friendly) out of the election, before they even make it to the ballot, to prevent them from splitting the vote. The result is a more contentious, more negative campaign that produces eventual winners who have a hard time claiming broad support. RCV eliminates these issues and allows true consensus winners to emerge.

If we truly care about choosing reputable, broadly acceptable leaders, we would do well to implement ranked-choice voting across the board.

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