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Ranked choice voting explained

| October 14, 2021 1:00 AM

A bill recently introduced by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) supports an intriguing trend in how we vote.

The Voter Choice Act would provide financial support to local and state governments which transition to a ranked choice voting (RCV) model (the 2020 version of the bill didn’t gain momentum).

In ranked choice voting, voters get second and third choices, not just a top pick. So if their favorite doesn’t get a total majority, their second choice still counts. Right now, most elections use a plurality, most-votes-wins system, whether or not that represents a majority of voters.

Used for years by military personnel from seven states living overseas, ranked choice voting isn’t new. Some U.S. cities used RCV in the 1920s and ‘30s but discontinued a few decades later because counting them by hand was too cumbersome. Now with technology aiding that process, it’s seeing a quiet revival.

According to the bill sponsors, jurisdictions and parties in 29 states have already adopted some form of RCV. Maine and Alaska use RCV for statewide and presidential elections. Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada and Wyoming did for their 2020 presidential primaries; and California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont for local elections. The nations of Ireland (both), Australia, Malta, New Zealand and Scotland have adopted it.

How it works. If a candidate gets 50 percent plus one after all first-choice votes are counted, that candidate wins. If no one gets a majority, the person with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and that candidate's voters' second choices get bumped up to the top spot for the next count. This reallocation goes on until someone reaches 50 percent plus one.

Pros. Proponents say RCV ensures the winner represents a majority vote. Consider the 2016 presidential election, when neither Mr. Trump nor Ms. Clinton earned a majority vote.

The usual system of "most votes wins" can make someone with only a plurality, not necessarily the person with majority support, the winner. That’s been especially evident considering the electoral system, where the popular and electoral choices don’t necessarily match; we’ve had more than one president whose opponent actually got more votes.

Proponents and some elections experts also say it encourages more moderate candidates, that extreme-view candidates would have a harder time getting through primaries because a broader appeal nets more second choice votes. RCV may also cut down costs by eliminating the need for run-off elections, already built into the process.

Perhaps the most appealing benefit proponents offer is less negative campaigning, as candidates will need a majority of voters on their side, and mud-slinging has been shown to turn off voters.

Democratically speaking, RCV’s biggest argument is that it gives voters more power. No longer would they have to consider viability of candidates, holding their noses to vote for someone they like less simply because the favorite seems less likely to win (or risk vote-splitting).

In the ranking system, such dilemmas are solvable by listing more than one choice. Of course, opponents disagree, saying it’s not the one person, one vote system it was intended to be.

Cons. Opponents say RCV is too complicated, and complications can lead to confusion or voter mistakes. That can lead to ballots not being counted if voters don’t know how to fill them out properly, at least during the learning curve of transitions.

Another con is that it could lead to deal-making between candidates, encouraging voters to vote for someone as No. 2. In New York’s June mayoral election, such an alliance was openly campaigned, with mixed reactions.

Opponents also say it wouldn’t necessarily reduce negative campaigning. Much of that is done by outside groups who support a candidate, and RCV wouldn’t change that.

Ranked choice voting would also mean voters would need to do more of what we all should be doing anyway — be more informed about all the candidates.

It’s (probably) constitutional. In 2018, Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) challenged the constitutionality of Maine’s ranked-choice voting system in federal court, and lost. The U.S. District Court judge ruled the U.S. Constitution allows states autonomy in choosing how to run elections.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a brief on this topic at Bit.ly/3lnCkXi.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.