Ranked Choice Voting: Three Takes

ranked choice voting

One of the elements of the Velazquez bill is a recommendation that Puerto Rico should decide on the future political status with a ranked choice vote. Ranked choice voting, not currently used widely in the United States, allows voters to choose more than one option from a ballot. Using a grid like the one shown above, voters make their first choice in one column, second choice in another, and so forth.

Any option that gets over 50% of the vote on the first pass wins the vote. However, just as ballots in some jurisdictions automatically trigger a run-off if they don’t get a clear majority, a ranked choice ballot requires further calculations if no option gets 50% or more of the votes.

Under the Velazquez bill, there is no limit to the number of options that can be on the ballot, even though statehood and independence have already been identified by Congress as the only valid non-territorial options.

What’s more, options for the same status with a different method of implementation count as separate options. So there could be “Independence by Congressional vote” and “Independence through demand by independence delegation” and so one until all the means of implementing each option is included.

At the very least, we need to imagine a much larger grid than the one shown above.

Here are three takes on this suggestion.

It won’t matter

Latino Rebels reported on an apparently otherwise unpublished analysis by Data for Progress, “Puerto Rican Status Preferences: Simulating Decolonization through Ranked Choice Voting” by Andrés Rodríguez Brauer, Giovanni Pagán Vélez, Edoardo Ortiz, and Gustavo Sánchez.

This simulation showed that, as the authors put it, “The Statehood plurality becomes a majority under a ranked-choice or runoff system.”

In other words, just as every referendum so far this century has shown statehood as the preferred outcome, a ranked-choice vote will also show statehood as the winner.

The cumbersome and expensive process the Velazquez bill requires will thus just make statehood take longer. It will still be the preferred option on the Island, and the result will be the same as that of the 2020 referendum.

It won’t work

Another study, “A False Majority: The Failed Experiment of Ranked-Choice Voting” by Matthew Gagnon, Adam Crepeau, and Liam Sigaud, of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, analyzed 96 ranked-choice elections conducted in the United States. They concluded that “most ranked-choice voting elections that have more than one round of tabulation produce exhausted ballots.”

What’s an exhausted ballot?

Imagine that the referendum ballot includes 27 choices, including two statehood options, twelve independence options, 13 “enhanced commonwealth” options, and reunification with Spain.

Say that you vote first for “Statehood by Congressional vote.” Since you are only willing to accept statehood, as the only option that gives the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico equality under the U.S. Constitution, you choose the other statehood option as your #2 choice, and make no further choices.

After your first choice gets 49% of the vote, the options that have no mathematical chance to win — 24 of the options — are removed from consideration. Their combined total of votes are awarded to the second most popular option.

The second most popular choice is the second statehood option. However it now has 48% of the vote, while the first statehood option has 49%. Neither of the top two choices got 50% of the vote, so there must be more calculation — but you don’t have a #3 choice, so your ballot and those of all the statehood-only voters are thrown out. It is, as the report from Maine says, as if you had never voted.

The only way to avoid exhausted ballots is to get all voters to rank all options. With a large number of options, which is certainly a possibility in this case, most options will be completely unacceptable to most voters. Either they will randomly rank those options anyway, or most of the ballots will be exhausted.

In the 96 contests analyzed, nearly 11% of ballots, on average, were exhausted before a decision was made. Another study found rates of ballot exhaustion over 27%. And in one election reviewed in the study, “the 2010 election for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in District 10 resulted in 9,608 exhausted ballots whereas the prevailing candidate only received 4,321 votes.”

False majorities

The San Fransisco case is just one example of a false majority. While some describe ranked choice voting as an automatic run-off, it actually just recalculates votes that are already in. It is possible for a choice that received fewer votes to end up as the winning option. This may be particularly likely in the case of status options.

While ranked choice voting for candidates might bring out feelings that Ms. X is better than Mr. Y, people who want independence cannot be expected to see statehood as almost as good. Equally, supporters of statehood cannot be expected to accept the other choices. As Governor Pierluisi said recently, “Those of us who want equality can never consent to discrimination and unequal treatment. There can never be consensus for second class citizenship.”

Ranked choice voting is therefore particularly unsuited to a status vote. In this case, given the fact that options will be determined in a status convention, they would even be open to manipulation with ranked choice voting in mind.

The study’s conclusion: “This analysis of 96 ranked-choice voting elections from across the country shows that the voting system produces false majorities, frequently exhausts more than 10 percent of ballots cast on Election Day, and further disenfranchises voters who are already less likely to vote.”

It will be inconclusive

Anti-statehood factions have claimed that Puerto Rico voters are confused by ballots with only two or three choices. This is an offensive claim, but it should not be ignored when considering ranked choice votes. “In Maine, voter confusion was so pervasive that proponents of ranked-choice voting felt the need to publish a 19-page instruction manual to help voters navigate the process,” according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The Velazquez bill includes funds for voter education. And there are some who believe that ranked choice voting is the wave of the future. But choosing a new and potentially confusing method for a status referendum, one of the most important votes for Puerto Rico’s future, seems unlikely to lead to clarity.

Instead, Congress will once again be able to say that the vote is too uncertain to count, and to use that excuse for inaction.

The Velazquez bill does say that Congress will react to the referendum by ratifying the vote, but it cannot compel Congress to do so. It is not a binding vote, and the ranked choice option may just lead to further confusion.


Tell your representatives to support the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission bill, not the Velazquez bill.

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