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Deep Dive

Politics vs Math

by Trent England

I wrote for RealClear Policy about an interesting problem RCV has created for the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV). The compact is an effort to manipulate the Electoral College so that it must rubber stamp the popular vote result. It would do that, in theory at least, by getting states to aggregate popular votes from all states and then choose presidential electors on that basis. Of course, NPV assumes every state has a normal election.

You remember what they say happens to those who assume?

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.

A normal election is the simplest of addition problems: 1+1+1+1, and so on. You add up the votes, and so you can add them up within a precinct or a state and then add those with other precincts or states, and you’re just doing the same thing. But RCV doesn’t work that way, and the nonsense results when using it with NPV could flip an election outcome.

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.

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.

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