The Most Obvious Option: Ranked Choice Voting for Party Leadership Elections in the English-Speaking World

by Sarah John, Mike MacNevin // Published November 12, 2014

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As part of the movement seeking greater internal party democracy, openness and accountability that has taken hold in much of the English-speaking world, the New Zealand Labour Party has joined major political parties in Canada, Scotland, and the United Kingdom in allowing its members to pick the party’s leadership directly. As is the norm in these democracies, the New Zealand Labour Party will use ranked choice voting (RCV) to count the ballots currently being cast by its newly enfranchised party members. Also this month, Scotland’s two largest parties are picking key leaders using RCV.

Ranked choice voting (also known as “instant runoff voting”, the “alternative vote” and “preferential voting”) is a well-known voting system, used to elect all Australian parliaments, the president of Ireland, the mayors of London (UK) and Wellington (New Zealand) and the mayors of American cities including Minneapolis, Oakland, St. Paul and San Francisco. While it is well-known for governmental elections, it is used far more commonly outside of government. Tied to the recommendations of Robert’s Rules of Order, RCV is used to choose student representatives in close to 60 American colleges and universities, the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards, and the leadership of dozens of non-governmental organizations. These elections are often hotly contested and involve thousands of voters.

Labour Leader ContendersThe four  2014 New Zealand Labour Party leadership candidates (image courtesy of the New Zealand Labour Party).

In contrast to the handful of people who chose the party’s leader in 2011, thousands of New Zealand Labour Party members are currently ranking the four leadership candidates on the ballot. The system, there called “preferential voting”, is playing a prominent role in the campaign. It is allowing greater voter choice by enabling more than two candidates join the race. When the fourth candidate (interim party leader David Parker) entered the contest just before nominations closed, no one feared he would play the role of “spoiler” candidate, as that problem does not exist under RCV. RCV has also encouraged leadership candidates to develop broad appeal in order to seek voters’ second and third preferences.

New Zealand has a history of democratic trailblazing. New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote. It granted voting rights to the nation’s indigenous Maori people early in its history. And, in more recent decades, it adopted a highly representative and democratic voting system, mixed-member proportional representation, for its parliament. Yet, in recent years, the health of New Zealand’s democracy has faltered, at least in some areas. Turnout fell to historic lows in 2011, when less than 75% of registered voters cast their ballot. Membership and participation in political parties lessened too. For the Labour Party this decline has been especially troublesome. It is facing flagging memberships, donations and polling numbers.

It was as part of the New Zealand Labour Party’s program of internal democratic reform, aimed at reinvigorating and bolstering its membership and Election Day performance, that the party adopted RCV. The move is hot on the heels of the 2013 leadership election, in which party members contributed, for the first time ever, to the selection of their party’s leader (David Cunliffe). In the past, only elected legislators in the party caucus chose the party leader, an undemocratic phenomenon endemic in Australasia.

In similar projects of democratic improvement and membership expansion, Canadian, British and Scottish political parties have chosen RCV for their leadership elections. In 2013, the Canadian Liberal Party chose its leader, from a field of six candidates, by vote of party members for the first time. Of all the electoral systems available, the party chose RCV to count the more than 100,000 votes cast.  For the party, the system had two advantages: widened participation and greater legitimacy for the elected party leader. Since 1919, between 2000 and 6000 convention delegates had chosen the party leader by majority. The need for a majority in a (usually) multi-candidate race required multiple rounds of voting. These multiple rounds were often divisive and exacerbated existing fault-lines within the party.

Also in Canada, the New Democratic Party of Canada — for the first time in 2012 — combined RCV (for online and mail voting) with the more traditional majority voting (for members who attended the convention in Toronto) when selecting their leader from a field of seven nominated candidates. In all, a total of 165,000 votes were cast. The move to RCV followed the introduction of “one member one vote” in 2003, which, like the use of RCV, was intended to make the party more democratic.

In 2010, the British Labour Party used RCV in its Electoral College (in which the votes of individual party members, members of labor unions and the parliamentary caucus are weighted differently) to elect its leader in a close contest between two brothers, winner Ed Miliband and David Miliband. Neither Ed nor David Miliband received a majority of the 211,000 first choice rankings, but after the distribution of second and third choices, Ed Miliband overtook David to emerge the winner. The party used RCV in 2007 to select its Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, who, in a closely contested election, beat out her five opponents.

David Miliband Ed MilibandEd (right) and Dave Miliband at the 2010 UK Labour Party Leadership Convention.

In Scotland, the Labour, Conservative and Scottish National parties all use RCV to select their leadership. The Labour Party is likely to have three candidates running in its upcoming election for leader, with RCV likely to play a key role.  In 2008, the party’s leadership elections were provoked by the then-leader’s dubious dealings with campaign donations. The use of RCV ensured the leader-elect, Iain Gray, garnered a majority of votes by appealing to the third candidate’s supporters for their second preferences. In this way, the party emerged stronger and more united than it might have under the multiple rounds majority system.

This month, the Scottish National Party would have used RCV to select its new leader in the aftermath of the failure of the Scottish independence referendum, if more than one candidate had been nominated for the top job.  However, three nominees will fight it out for the position of deputy-leader, with the winner determined by the use of RCV. In 2011, the Scottish Conservative Party chose its party leader, Ruth Davidson, using RCV. Davidson, a moderate, won 55% of the vote after second choices were taken into account in a competitive election with four candidates – two front runners and two minor candidates.

All of these parties use RCV to elect their leaders because it works – that is, it is both simple and efficacious for voters, who merely rank the candidates in the order they prefer – and because there are few incentives for candidates to game the system. Additionally, RCV avoids divisive and confusing multiple rounds of voting, while at the same time ensuring that the candidate who is the most preferred by the party is elected. The system offers incentives for candidates to seek broad support, including second and third choices, helping ensure that the winning candidate is able to bring the party together.

In the United States, several state and local arms of both major parties, and some minor parties, already use RCV to fill certain offices. For example, the Arlington, Virginia, Democratic Party used RCV in three firehouse primaries this year. Similarly, the Utah Republican Party used RCV for a number of key votes at its conventions. It also uses RCV to select candidates to fill state legislative vacancies. RCV seems an obvious choice for voters in party elections, especially those, like the Republican Iowa Caucuses, where the field is often fractured and the outcomes equivocal.