Equal RCV: The political case for Condorcet

Marcus Ogren
7 min readNov 29, 2021

If you tell someone how Approval or STAR works, they’re liable to say, “Thanks for explaining Ranked Choice Voting to me!” I think there are a lot of flaws with RCV, but I will acknowledge that it has by far the best brand name. Most people who are aware of alternative voting methods think that they are synonymous with RCV, and far more people like RCV than can explain how the tabulation works. There’s a standing joke among people who advocate for non-RCV methods: All we have to do to get people to love our preferred method is give the honest explanation of how it works but call it Ranked Choice Voting.

Here’s my proposal: Take a Condorcet method — I suggest Smith//Minimax margins allowing for tied rankings, though plenty of other options work too — and advocate for it while calling it Equal Ranked Choice Voting. This is an entirely honest description. RCV is already an inconsistently-used umbrella term. Minimax uses a ranked ballot, so it’s no less “ranked choice” than Instant Runoff Voting. And it’s more equal than IRV in three important ways:

  • Voters have the option of giving candidates the same ranking. This both reduces spoiled ballots and betters handles situations where there are more candidates than allowed rankings.
  • Unlike IRV, Minimax passes the equality criterion: No matter how I vote, there’s a way for you to vote that precisely cancels out my ballot.
  • Candidates are equally incentivized to appeal to all voters in the sense that from candidate A’s perspective, getting one voter to go from ranking B>A>C>D to A>B>C>D is exactly as valuable as getting another voter to go from C>D>B>A to C>D>A>B. (The latter is far less valuable under IRV since lower rankings may never be counted.)

Condorcet is Pretty Great

A Condorcet method is a voting method which ensures that a candidate who would win a head-to-head matchup against any other candidate is elected. Condorcet methods avoid some of the main weaknesses of IRV: They’re immune to the center squeeze, it never hurts to rank your favorite candidate first unless there’s a Condorcet cycle, and they have excellent Voter Satisfaction Efficiency.

Condorcet methods also share the main advantages that IRV has over Approval Voting. The ballot is the same as IRV’s (aside from letting voters give the same ranking to multiple candidates), so it feels strategically straightforward: just rank your first choice first, second choice second, and so on. Contrast this with Approval Voting, where the question, “Where do I set my threshold for approving of someone?” essentially demands strategic deliberations from voters and yields greater influence for voters who have looked at polling data. And while the Condorcet criterion is inconsistent with Later No Harm, it is impossible for your first choice to be harmed by later rankings outside of the rare Condorcet cycle — and even there, the later rankings can just as easily help your favorite. This means that Condorcet methods will yield more positive campaigning in the form of “This other candidate is also good, rank her second” than Approval Voting.

Is this too complicated?

Probably the greatest objection to Condorcet methods is that they’re way too complicated and will never catch on. I believe the complexity is a myth and the inability to catch on is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Equal Ranked Choice Voting is actually easier to explain than IRV. Here’s how I’d do it:

You rank the candidates from best to worst. To determine the winner, look at each ballot to see which candidate is preferred in every possible head-to-head matchup. The candidate who beats everyone else head-to-head wins.

By contrast, here’s how FairVote explains IRV:

RCV is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters. It allows voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference: one, two, three, and so forth.

If your vote cannot help your top choice win, your vote counts for your next choice.

If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices in races where voters elect one winner, that candidate wins, just like in a single-choice election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote.

The description of Equal RCV is a lot shorter. You might object that my description leaves out the possibility of a Condorcet cycle. First of all, I think that’s fine. Condorcet cycles are a weird enough corner case that we have never seen a Condorcet cycle for first place in an IRV election; not worrying about Condorcet cycles is a bit like not worrying about the possibility of an exact tie. Secondly, even with the description of Condorcet cycles it’s still easier to describe than IRV:

You rank the candidates from best to worst. To determine the winner, look at each ballot to see which candidate is preferred in every possible head-to-head matchup. The candidate who beats everyone else head-to-head wins.

In the unlikely event that every candidate loses to some other candidate, look at the smallest group of candidates who all defeat everyone outside that group head-to-head. The winner is whichever of those candidates loses by the smallest margin to any other candidate.

Admittedly, Equal RCV is more complicated than STAR or Approval. But, since IRV is the most popular despite its complexity, the lesser complexity of Equal RCV shouldn’t be an issue.

Equal RCV is also easier to administer than IRV. It’s precinct summable, and since you don’t have multiple rounds of tabulation it’s easier to perform risk-limiting audits. The advantage of IRV is that it’s easier to tabulate by hand, but we use computers anyway. Equal RCV may not be as easy as Approval Voting, but it’s still pretty easy.

How Equal RCV could catch on

From the perspective of the typical voter, Equal RCV is just RCV; they don’t really understand how it works but like the idea of ranking candidates instead of only being able to vote for one, and have vaguely positive associations with the term “Ranked Choice Voting”.

Another important perspective is that of people who want to replace Plurality but don’t have strong opinions on the intrinsic merits of IRV vs. Approval vs. STAR. This includes a lot of politicians, most notably Andrew Yang. Basically all of these people want to be on the RCV hype train; if they focus their efforts on anything else they’re unable to take advantage of RCV’s momentum and have to explain to all the people who have heard of RCV but not STAR/Approval why they’re going for a lesser-known option. Imagine that Andrew Yang concludes that IRV is moderately worse than the alternatives. He would have several options:

  1. Continue advocating solely for IRV for single-winner elections. The downside is that it yields worse elections if Yang prevails; the upside is that it doesn’t require anything along the lines of a flip-flop.
  2. Announce that another voting method (let’s say STAR) is actually better and switch to advocating for that method. This will confuse a lot of people since RCV is a huge party of Yang’s platform; “Ranked-Choice Voting and Nonpartisan Primaries” is listed first among the core principles of the Forward Party. It would also alienate a significant number of RCV supporters and make Yang look wishy-washy (which is totally unfair since politicians should change their minds when they find better options, but it’s still a political consideration). No matter how much better STAR is as a matter of policy, such a move is almost certain to harm Yang politically.
  3. Announce that he supports Equal RCV as a modernized version of RCV. He continues to be an RCV supporter and most people don’t even notice, but it does delight the people who think IRV leaves a lot to be desired.

What about the perspective of more committed IRV advocates? FairVote makes it clear that they think IRV is the best single-winner voting method possible, but is substantially less antagonistic towards Condorcet methods than towards Approval or STAR. They acknowledge that it’s resistant to strategic voting. They “consider the Condorcet criterion to be important”. If you compare what they write about Condorcet methods to their hit pieces against STAR and Approval they seem downright friendly towards Condorcet.

Now imagine that a city decides to enact Equal RCV. FairVote can either decry it as an abomination that is besmirching the good name of RCV, or declare it as a victory and add it to their list of jurisdictions that use RCV. Since they’re happy to brag about the cities in Utah that use Preferential Block Voting even though they’re invested in proportional representation, my guess is that they’d opt for the latter.

A final point is that would be easier for a jurisdiction that already uses IRV to switch to Equal RCV than to any voting method that isn’t called RCV. If you switch from IRV to Approval, or even to STAR, a lot of voters will feel like something is being taken away from them. Not so much with Equal RCV. Equal RCV is still RCV (according to the name), and it uses exactly the same ballots. To the average voter, it can seem like a slightly boring upgrade.

To sum it all up:

  • One of the greatest things the RCV community has built is brand recognition. Equal RCV builds on that without having to start from scratch.
  • The idea that Condorcet methods are complicated is a myth stemming from the historical focus on legitimately complex methods like Schulze Beatpath and Ranked Pairs. Equal RCV is actually simpler than ordinary RCV.
  • Equal RCV can be far more acceptable to RCV supporters than Approval or STAR — partly because it’s similar it IRV in the ways that RCV supporters care about, and partly because it doesn’t require political backtracking.
  • Condorcet methods are legitimately fabulous. Getting Equal RCV enacted is a comparable (and perhaps slightly greater) victory than getting another top-tier method like STAR enacted.

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Marcus Ogren

I am an advocate of better voting methods which eliminate the spoiler effect, make third parties viable, and yield proportional representation.