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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 From 1912 and 1930, some forms of RCV were used, but most were repealed by the mid-thirties.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.