The Movie Theater Contemplation

Dan O’Donnell systematically dismantles the arguments for Ranked Choice Voting using the testimony and professional background of one of its biggest supporters.

Jan. 10, 2024
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

Ranked choice voting is the living dead of bad policy: No matter how many times the hero shoots it in the head, it still staggers forward, lurching for another gullible brain to consume.

It was somewhat fitting, then, that one of its biggest backers during a Tuesday hearing before the Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Campaigns and Elections was Greg Marcus, CEO of the theater chain that bears his name.

He and other prominent Milwaukee-area business leaders—almost all of them left-leaning—sit on the board of Democracy Found Action, a Super PAC dedicated to making voting infinitely and needlessly more complex.

Of the dozens of people who testified in support and against the proposal, which alarmingly has the support of a number of gullible Republicans, Marcus’ testimony stood out not because of its brilliance, but because of its sneering condescension.

“Do we truly believe that our population is less intelligent than the people of Australia and Ireland, who have been doing this for 100 years?” he asked, glossing over the fact that both countries have completely different systems of government than does the United States.  “I refuse to believe that we can’t figure it out.  This is America, great things happen here because we constantly innovate.

“So let’s make sure that that American exceptionalism extends to the systems that we use to govern ourselves.”

Opposition to the convoluted ideas dreamed of your social and intellectual betters, Marcus not-so-subtly implies, is actually stupidity masquerading common sense.

“Frankly, I’ve got to be honest: Some of the people who have been speaking in opposition have been more confusing than trying to understand ranked choice voting.”

Got that? You plebes just don’t know what you’re talking about.  Just leave it to the movie theater magnate to run this show.

“We frequently are trying new ideas to make our product better,” he explained.  “We do this to deliver better results for our customers. “

Then, turning to the issue of politics and government, he added, “Well I’m a customer and I need better results [from politicians].”

This arrogance presents the perfect opportunity to illustrate just how ridiculous ranked choice voting is.  Famed elections expert and author Hans von Spakovsky calls it the “supermarket contemplation,” in which a shopper ends up buying a generic brand of steak sauce instead of the A1 he wanted because other shoppers essentially made his choice for him.

To make it easier for Greg Marcus to understand, let’s call this the “movie theater contemplation.”

I walk into a Marcus theater with my family to see a movie, but I’m not totally sure which one I want to see.  The four films playing in the next half hour are blockbusters “Wonka” and “Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom,” the animated “Migration,” and the horror flick “Night Swim.”

Just as in a voting booth I would choose one politician to represent me, at the ticket counter I can only choose one film to see.  Just as I weigh the records, resumes, political parties, and endorsements of each candidate before casting a vote, I also consider a film’s reviews, stars, genre, and my own personal taste in entertainment before buying a ticket.

I haven’t really heard anything about “Night Swim” and generally don’t like mindless slasher films, so I mentally rank that last of the four films that I could see.  “Migration” is more for kids and since mine aren’t with me, that’s probably third on my list.  Now it’s between “Aquaman” and “Wonka.”  I’ve read some scathing reviews of Aquaman and loved the original Willy Wonka movie so, what the heck, I guess I’ll go see “Wonka.”  I buy my ticket, grab some popcorn, and head to the theater.

“Think about what ranked choice voting destroys,” von Spakovsky said.  “It destroys your clear and knowing choices as a political consumer.”

That’s not how it would work in a ranked choice theater.  Even though I ranked “Night Swim” fourth, there was no clear favorite film among all the other people in the ticket line with me.  With the vote essentially split between “Wonka” and “Aquaman,” “Night Swim”—which was the second choice of just enough moviegoers—snuck up from behind and won on the third round of polling.  Now I’m stuck seeing a movie I would never, ever choose to see.

“Think about what ranked choice voting destroys,” von Spakovsky said.  “It destroys your clear and knowing choices as a political consumer.”

The reason for this insanity in ranked choice voting is the concept of the “exhausted ballot.”  Voters on each ballot are asked to rank each candidate in order of preference, but a sizable number of voters don’t rank every candidate.

“If a voter only ranks two of the five candidates and those two are eliminated in the first and second rounds of tabulation, their choices will not be considered in the remaining rounds of tabulation,” von Spakovsky explained.  This ballot exhaustion leads to candidates being elected who were not the first choice of a majority of voters, but only a majority of all valid votes in the final round of tallying.”

This has happened twice in two recent Congressional elections.  Alaska, an overwhelmingly Republican state that voted for President Trump by 15 points in 2016 and 10 points in 2020 now has a Democrat as its lone representative in the House because of ballot exhaustion in the 2022 midterm.

After the first round of counting, Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich had a combined 60 percent of the vote, while Democrat Mary Peltola had 40 percent.  The will of the people was clear: Alaska wanted a Republican elected to Congress.  However, Peltola ended up winning because approximately 15,000 Republican ballots were exhausted after two rounds when Republicans either didn’t know to rank all three candidates or refused to put a mark next to a Democrat’s name.

In 2018, Democrat Jared Golden defeated Republican Bruce Polquin in a Maine congressional race after 8,0000 votes were exhausted.  Even though Polquin had 46.3 percent of the vote and Golden 45.6 percent after the initial count, Polquin lost because more than half of the total ballots cast in the race were not counted in the final tally.

This amounts to disenfranchisement and runs afoul of the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” standard.  If only some ballots are counted in the final tally, then each individual voter does not have an equal voice in choosing his representatives.  Simultaneously, a different voter might have multiple votes count toward the final tally, boosting more than one candidate along the way in what might be termed a new “one person, a couple of votes” principle.

Greg Marcus would never run his theater this way, and neither would any other business owner.  Movie tickets, just like every other purchase, are made through conscious selection; not the intricate calculus of other consumers’ second and third choices.  Voting in a constitutional republic is no different, as free citizens deserve and require a free and straightforward means of picking their leaders.

If moviegoers choose “Wonka” but end up having to see “Night Swim,” Marcus Theaters goes out of business.  If voters choose one candidate but end up with another, an even worse fate could befall Wisconsin.