What is the impact of RCV on the role of money in elections?
Ranked Choice Voting helps reduce the influence of money in elections by enabling all voices to be heard and supported regardless of how well-funded they are, by increasing the value of grassroots campaigns, and by eliminating the need for preliminary elections and runoffs.
Many have seen how vote-splitting can distort election outcomes. Namely, when multiple like-minded candidates run, they can split their base of support and throw the election to someone strongly opposed by a majority of voters. Less well-known is that the mere threat of vote-splitting can pressure candidates to not run at all. To avoid “spoiling” the election, candidates perceived as longshots — generally those with less money and name recognition — often drop out, or decline to even enter the race. Before the campaign has even begun, in a phase some call the “money primary” big donors have already determined which voices and viewpoints voters will hear.
In a Ranked Choice Voting election, an underdog with little money or name recognition can run without fear of splitting the vote. Even if that candidate doesn’t win, under RCV their platform and ideas are given an airing they wouldn't otherwise receive. And because RCV removes the pressure to vote strategically for “electable” candidates, it liberates voters to support the candidate whose ideas they like best, irrespective of their fundraising numbers. Ranked Choice Voting thereby weakens the control that money exerts over the breadth and diversity of our collective political conversation, and over how we cast our votes.
Ranked Choice Voting further diminishes the role of money by offering grassroots campaigns a path to victory over better-funded opponents. In the 2010 Oakland mayoral race, for example, incumbent Mayor Don Perata spent a whopping $850,000 on his re-election bid, dwarfing challenger Jean Quan’s $280,000. To counter Perata’s big ad buys, Quan pursued a grassroots strategy that reached beyond her base to pick up the second and third choices from supporters of other candidates. The strategy paid off: while she place second in first choices, she won a majority in the instant runoff, becoming the first woman and Asian-American mayor of Oakland. In a post-election interview, Quan praised RCV for giving “hope to people who are outspent.”
The Oakland mayoral race wasn’t an isolated event either. In a 2014 survey of candidates in both RCV and plurality elections, winning RCV candidates reported spending more hours on door-to-door canvassing and placed greater importance on volunteers than winning plurality candidates did. Thus in 2013, Betsy Hodges won the Minneapolis mayoral race on the strength of her grassroots campaign, despite being heavily outspent by her chief rival. In 2004, Pierce County, Washington saw the candidate who spent the most win five out of six races, but that dropped to only three out of six after they adopted RCV in 2008. As the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that works to reduce the influence of money in politics, wrote in The Civics Benefits of Ranked Choice Voting, under RCV “candidates who spend less money have a greater chance of winning than they do under the current system.”
Finally, Ranked Choice Voting reduces total campaign spending when it replaces a two-round election system. A 2016 study of city elections in California found a $3 per capita decrease in campaign spending in cities that replaced their delayed runoff with a single, decisive RCV election. If cities in Massachusetts were to adopt RCV and thereby eliminate their preliminary elections, candidates would need to raise less money overall to win city office — enough for just one election, not two.