When I first encountered ranked-choice voting, I thought perhaps it was a new idea. Maybe cooked up in a math lab a few years back, or by computer scientists or something. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The origins of RCV reach back to Victorian England.
The real reason RCV seems new is that it was discredited so long ago. Various American cities experimented with it early in the 20th Century. And all of them repealed it. Jason Snead and I describe this in our new book, The Case Against Ranked-Choice Voting.
The impulse that produced RCV was directed at creating proportional representation rather than simply changing how officials are elected. (A proportional system represents political interest groups, rather than districts, and usually results in a multiparty system and coalition government.) In the 1850s, an English barrister and former Member of Parliament named Thomas Hare proposed a multiple-winner election system with votes transferred among candidates based on mathematical calculations. About two decades later, that system was modified by an American architect and academic to make it work for single-winner elections. The American’s name was W. R. Ware, and what was originally called “Ware’s System” is now known as RCV.
Most nations rejected their proposals, but versions of Ware’s and Hare’s systems were adopted in some Australian elections and in Ireland upon its independence. Members of Australia’s House of Representatives have been elected using RCV since 1918 (although most elections are won in the first round). In the early twentieth century, some American cities adopted them for council elections, often as part of larger populist or progressive reform packages. All of these cities repealed the RCV, often within less than a decade.
The simple facts are that RCV makes it harder to vote, harder to run elections, and harder to trust the results. More recently, a number of cities and counties have tried again to implement RCV—only to repeal it. Maybe reformers should take the hint?