by Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline, December 12, 2022
Last month, voters in Nevada, Seattle and at least six other jurisdictions around the country approved measures to change how they elect their leaders. Instead of voting for just one candidate, they instead will rank a slate of candidates.
Ranked choice voting has seen steady success in recent years. Nationwide, 62 jurisdictions have adopted the voting method, including Alaska and Maine in statewide races and New York City for local races. And with the 2024 presidential primaries looming, ranked choice voting advocates see an opening to gain broader appeal.
Proponents of the voting method argue it leads to better representation of voters’ viewpoints and more collegial campaigning while eliminating the need for costly runoff elections. Opponents say it’s too complicated for the average voter to understand.
Voters in Alaska and a handful of other cities used ranked choice voting for the first time during this year’s midterms. And voters in Evanston, Illinois; Fort Collins, Colorado; Multnomah County, Oregon; Ojai, California; Portland, Maine; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle passed ballot initiatives to adopt the voting method in future elections.
But in Washington state, voters in Clark and San Juan counties rejected ballot initiatives that would have adopted ranked choice voting for county elections.
In ranked choice elections, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate is the top preference for more than 50% of voters, an instant runoff process starts. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Those votes are then distributed to the candidates listed as a second preference. The process continues until one candidate has gained majority support.
In some communities, the counting process can take hours. In other states that rely on mail-in voting, the process can take days or weeks.
Nevada voters approved a ballot initiative to adopt the voting method statewide. But because it would amend the state constitution, voters must approve the ballot initiative again in 2024 before it’s officially adopted. If approved, voters in 2026 will be able to vote in an open primary. The five candidates of any political party with the most votes would advance to a ranked choice general election.
That would open the primary ballot to the 38% of Nevadans who are not registered as Democrats or Republicans.
“People are frustrated; people feel like their votes don’t matter and more and more of their elected officials are beholden to the parties and not the people,” said Mike Draper, communications director for Nevada Voters First, a political action committee that is leading the effort to amend the state constitution.
Proponents of ranked choice voting argue the system guarantees that candidates in crowded races eventually earn the support of most voters, instead of having races decided by a slim plurality.
Advocates also say it leads to less vitriolic and polarizing campaigning, since candidates need broad appeal to advance in the tabulation rounds. With less bitter partisanship, voters might elect politicians who could work to end paralyzing gridlock: “It creates campaigns that are more policy-based than fear- and blame-based,” Draper argued.
But critics often pan the system as being too confusing for voters.
In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, both Democrats, opposed the measure, as did the Nevada Republican Party.
“We should be finding ways to continue our progress, not pushing a rushed constitutional change that would make our system more confusing, error-prone and exclusionary,” Sisolak said in a statement over the summer to Politico.
The Seattle Times’ editorial board called Seattle’s ballot initiative a solution “looking for problems with how ballots are cast.”
But this criticism has not dampened the movement’s momentum. Proponents argue that political elites who want to maintain power overstate how complicated the system is.
While voter education is important, voters who use the system find it easy to understand, said Stephanie Houghton, managing director for FairVote Washington, a nonprofit that pushed for local ballot initiatives throughout the Evergreen State.
“Voters who have used ranked choice voting say it’s simple to use and they want to use it again,” she said. Indeed, exit polling conducted for pro-ranked choice voting group Alaskans for Better Elections during the state’s August election showed 85% of voters found the system “simple.”
While campaigning for the ballot measure, Houghton set up tables at county fairs and asked passersby to rank their favorite fair foods. Children ran up, read one line of directions and dropped their votes in the basket. “They just got it,” she said.
Ranked choice is quickly growing, said Deb Otis, director of research at FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for ranked choice voting nationwide. Over the next several years, she said, the number of jurisdictions that use the voting method could grow tenfold through state legislative action and ballot initiatives.
“When voters in one location start using it for some elections, they want to expand it for more elections,” she said, “and neighboring cities want it as well.”
The Georgia U.S. Senate runoff between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker could have been avoided with a ranked choice election, Otis noted.
Voters in Georgia already have some experience with ranked choice voting. Georgia — along with Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — allows military and overseas voters to rank votes based on preference in some races.
Ranked choice is used in some Republican jurisdictions, including 23 towns in conservative Utah. But after some high-profile GOP losses in Alaska and Maine, some Republican officials criticized the system.
After Democrat Mary Peltola won a special election for Alaska’s at-large U.S. House seat in August, besting two Republicans, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, tweeted, “Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections.”
The Republican National Committee also said at the time that ranked choice voting “disenfranchises voters.”
Republican leaders were similarly outraged in 2018, when Maine voters used the ranked-choice system to elect Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, even after former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin had the most first-choice votes in the initial round of tabulation. There were four candidates in the race, including two independents.
In the upcoming presidential primaries, more states could use ranked choice voting in the Democratic and Republican contests, if state lawmakers and political parties change the rules.
In 2020, Democratic voters in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada and Wyoming used ranked choice voting during the presidential primary, cutting through a field of more than 20 candidates. That list of states could expand next year, said Houghton.
By green-lighting ranked choice voting in presidential primaries, political parties or state lawmakers — depending on the differing rules that govern each state’s presidential primaries process — would help ensure voters who cast their ballots early by mail don’t lose their voice in the process in a dynamic field that changes rapidly, she said.
“That’s not a good system if you have 20-something people running,” Houghton said of rewarding primary wins to those who get plurality support. “It’s not a good system if you have three people running.”
This article was originally published in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.