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Ranked Choice Voting

[Editor’s note: According to Fair Vote Action, “Ranked choice voting (RCV) just had its biggest Election Day ever. RCV Ranked choice voting won in 8 of the 10 places where it was on the ballot, including Seattle]

Flying under the radar on Election Day were cities, counties, and one state voting to accept ranked choice voting (RCV). This isn’t the first time there has been a wave of support for RCV. From 1912 and 1930, some forms of RCV were used, but most were repealed by the mid-thirties. There was another burst of support for them in 20092010, that petered out as well.

However, in the last ten years, RCV has emerged again as an alternative to voting candidates into office. For example, in June of 2021, New York City used RCV for the largest election in RCV’s history. This year, 32 cities in seven states used the voting procedure to determine winners.

Nationwide, 50 jurisdictions employ some form of ranked choice voting. At the same time, Seattle voters added their city to the list of bigger cities, New York, San Francisco, and Austin, using RCV.

The list further expanded on Election Day when eight other cities and counties voted on whether to convert to ranked-choice voting. Based on an April 2022 poll by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, these measures were expected to pass. It showed that more than 60 percent of Americans favor using RCV for federal elections.

On November 8, Seattle voters chose between leaving primary elections as is, or choosing RCV or an alternative “approval voting” system introduced by a citizen initiative. The latter approach allows voters to support as many candidates as they wish, with the person receiving the most votes winning. By a seven to two vote, the city council decided to place both proposals on the ballot. While the approval voting proposal was limited to Seattle, Washington for Equitable Representation, a coalition of organizations is pushing for RCV across the state, including for federal elections. The victory in Seattle could bolster that effort in the state legislature.

So how does Ranked Choice Voting work?

In Seattle, voters will now rank all the primary candidates on the ballot by preference. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the first preference vote, then the candidate in that race who received the fewest votes is eliminated.

Here’s where it becomes a bit challenging to understand. The eliminated candidate’s votes are then distributed to other candidates that the dropped candidate’s voters chose as their second favorite on the ballot. Further candidates will be eliminated with the same procedure followed until a final winner receives a majority of votes. It may also end when a select number of candidates pass a threshold of votes needed to move on to the general election.

Critics of RCV say it is confusing and will decrease voter participation.

Critics of RCV complain that it is too difficult for voters to understand and that there will be a significant vote drop off in elections. However, exit polls from Common Cause New York and Ranked the Vote NYC showed 3 in 4 voters are eager to use the method in future elections.

Alaskans for Better Elections, which advocated for the new election system, commissioned an exit poll in conjunction with their state’s special election for congress. It found that 85 percent of voters found the ranked ballot to be “simple” or “very simple.” And 95 percent said they had received instructions on how to fill out the ballot.

RCV trims out candidates with a narrow voter base.

Advocates of RCV point out that it forces candidates to win in crowded races by securing the majority of voters. However, in doing so, they must attract voters outside their party’s core voter base. In short, RCV diminishes voter attraction to proposals considered too radical from candidates, whether perceived as from the left or right. Consequently, some of the Democrat and Republican Party leaders have not embraced RCV for fear that some of their candidates will lose elections.

Before Maine residents converted to RCV by initiative in 2018 for federal and statewide elections, Republican Governor Paul LePage and some of the state’s senior Democrats fought the initiative. Presumably, he could see RCV giving him a problem since he was elected twice to the governorship without receiving a majority vote. After the initiative passed, the state ¬supreme court struck down the law by issuing an advisory opinion. Six of the seven court’s justices were appointed by the Republican Governor. A second initiative passed again, approving RCV over the politician’s objections, and was implemented.

An Alaskan congressional special election held this summer was a headline example of how a dominant party’s candidate could lose due to RCV. Due to two recent changes, Mary Peltola became the first Democrat to be elected to the House of Representatives from that state in 50 years. The party primaries became nonpartisan blanket primaries, and RCV was adopted. Only the top 4 candidates would advance to a general election.

In a June primary Democrat Peltola came in fourth behind Republicans former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich. Independent Al Gross came in fourth but withdrew and endorsed “two outstanding Alaska Native women,” Peltola being one of them.

With Gross out of the election, just three candidates ran in the August general election. Peltola led with 40 percent of the total after the initial ballot, which was not enough to be declared the winner. Begich was eliminated since he was the lowest-scoring candidate. His second-choice votes mostly went to Palin; however, over 40% of his voters did not choose a second preference. As a result, Palin failed to overcome Peltola’s vote total, and Peltola won the election.

The Republican Party leaders protested the result. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas asserted that Palin should have won because “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican.” He accused RCV of disenfranchising voters. However, he didn’t acknowledge that the 60% was divided between two Republican candidates. Palin captured only 31% of the votes, while Republican Nick Begich received 28%. Palin lost a substantial amount of Begich’s voters in the next round of counting votes because Begich’s supporters didn’t choose Palin as a second preference. They understood what they were doing. They would not vote to send Palin to congress.

Does RCV favor Democrats or Republicans?

University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation did show a partisan divide over RCV, with 73 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and only 49 percent of Republicans in favor of its use. Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation, said in describing the public’s reception to RCV the more they know about it, the greater “they seem to like it. Resistance is rooted in unfamiliarity. This is particularly shown among Republicans.”

The most uncompromising Republican opposition to RCV came from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. When he signed a bill that creates a police force dedicated to pursuing voter fraud and other election crimes, he also banned ranked choice voting for all elections in Florida. However, Republicans do not seem averse to using ranked choice voting. Half of the former Confederate States, and all red states now, use RCV for military and overseas voters. Utah, a red state which hasn’t voted for a Democrat President since 1964, has far more cities using RCV than any other state.

Of the only two states that currently use RCV statewide, one is red, Alaska, and the other is blue, Maine. Each state has voted in the last four presidential elections strictly for either Republican or Democrat presidents. Nevertheless, both states adopted RCV through a citizen’s initiative.

What can RCV accomplish?

Ranked Choice Voting can contribute to greater accountability of politicians to the majority of voters. It can strengthen the voice of independent voters. Although, it doesn’t assure that the majority promotes democratic values. Other conditions contribute more to that end, like fair and comprehensive civic education among our citizens, particularly our youth.

RCV can become cumbersome if not executed with the support of state governments. Without that support, gaps between adopting this new approach and laws not meant to facilitate it could confuse the administration. If frustrations result, then opposition to it will follow. Nonpartisan commissions must oversee the administration of RCV elections to avoid future problems in electoral procedures.

We witnessed victories of election deniers in 2022 to offices responsible for accurate and reliable vote counts. Unfortunately, this trend demonstrates that all oversight mechanisms can be corrupted by ideologues committed to a cause that discounts the reliability of an election if its results are unacceptable to them. Nevertheless, RCV may be able to filter out enough election deniers to retain an election process overseen by more citizens committed to a democratic process. This accomplishment alone is a critical reason for using RCV.

~Nick Licata

This article has been updated and adapted from “Citizenship Politics,” 11/4/22. It is reprinted with permission from the author. Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is a former Seattle City Council member and the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials. You can subscribe to Licata’s newsletter “Citizenship Politics.”


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