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New Voting Methods

Believe It or Not, Some CA Dems and FL Republicans Agree on Something: Banning Ranked Choice Voting

It doesn’t seem like there is much these days that can unite Republicans and Democrats. However, one thing both parties have consistently agreed on is that nothing should threaten their grip on power.

The current electoral process is designed to serve the interests of the dominant two parties and their members. If there is a reform that threatens to upset the apple cart, it will encounter resistance from those who have the most to lose from a fairer, more equitable process.

This will include leaders and members in both parties.

The Partisan Attack on Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked choice voting, a nonpartisan reform that allows voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference, has won 13 consecutive victories at the ballot box across the US. Voters increasingly see its value in providing more choice and better representation.

RCV more than doubled its presence in the US in 2021, including in “deep red” states like Utah and “deep blue” cities like New York City. It’s tremendous growth is due in part to the growing understanding that it does not benefit one ideological side or party.

Voters are also increasingly seeing the benefits of a non-plurality voting system where candidates have to win with over 50% of the vote: 

  • Turnout tends to be higher; 
  • The campaign environment is much more civil; 
  • Candidates compete for more voters, which means more voters feel heard;
  • Elections are decided when the most voters participate; and 
  • Jurisdictions save millions of added costs that would be used for runoff elections.

Elections that are decided by plurality or low-turnout runoff elections favor those in power or those who know how to manipulate the system. Alternative voting methods like RCV have a track record of reducing the ease by which partisans game elections to their favor. (Note: They don't make it impossible, but they does do it harder.)

It is no surprise that Republican leaders in Maine and some establishment Democrats in New York City opposed RCV’s use. It threatened their power over elections. It is also no coincidence that we have seen the emergence of legislation to ban RCV’s use in multiple states. 

This includes two of the nation’s largest states: California and Florida.

In California, AB 2808 was introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, and would ban RCV at the statewide level and in all cities and local municipalities, including charter cities. The bill currently has no co-sponsors and may be heard in committee on March 21.

In Florida, a similar ban is included in HB 7061, which is largely composed of election law changes that are favored by Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans. The Senate version of the bill, SB 524, has cleared its chamber and the legislation is making its way through the House. 

The proposed laws do not just affect future efforts to expand RCV’s use in these states. They also would undo election laws in local jurisdictions that require the alternative voting method and undo the will of voters in places where RCV was approved by ballot measure.

RCV is currently used in 4 cities in California, including San Francisco and Oakland. Its use was also approved in 3 additional cities in 2020 (Albany, Eureka, and Palm Desert). Voters overwhelmingly said ‘Yes’ to RCV in Eureka (61%) and Albany (73%).

In Florida, Sarasota voters approved a city charter amendment in 2007 that called for RCV ballots to be used in local elections when the state’s Division of Elections approved a system for its use. Nearly 80% of city voters voted for the ballot measure.

Taking Power Away From Local Governments

Voters generally respond favorably to non-plurality voting methods like RCV. Yet, proposed legislation that would ban nonpartisan reform of any kind, including alternative voting methods, erect barriers that block voters’ ability to decide how they want elections conducted.

Brian Cannon, Director of Advocacy at FairVote, the nation’s leading advocate group for RCV, says one reason we are seeing the emergence of bills that ban RCV in multiple states is because local control in many policy areas (elections, policing, education, etc.) is being taken away.

“Both Tennessee (which also has a proposed RCV ban) and Florida have the example of an important city that adopted ranked choice voting and was trying to move the ball forward on it,” he said in an interview. 

“In Memphis, they approved it multiple times, and then they were hung up with the secretary of state and election administration problems.”

On top of that, he added, there is the election integrity issue that state lawmakers are using in states across the country to ban any type of new election practice, and since RCV is growing in popularity, it has received more attention.

“In Florida, the governor has done multiple waves of integrity and election changes and ranked choice voting got caught up in that,” Cannon said.

Other provisions in the Florida bill include the creation of an election crimes investigation unit, substantially raising the fine on voter registration efforts by third party groups, and a ban on private funds being used by election administrators to conduct elections, among other things. 

Democrats argue that there is no need for more election laws when current state laws produce smooth elections. Republicans say there is no harm in additional integrity and security measures.

RCV has nothing to do with these other provisions. However, since the ban is included in a bill that is sailing through the legislature and is expected to be signed by Gov. DeSantis, there is a strong probability it will be enacted.

It is a tall hurdle RCV advocates would have to overcome. Cannon, however, says it won’t necessarily be impossible.

“We have a couple of options,” he explained. “One, there are plenty of states that have a similar ban in place. New Jersey is one of them, and Hoboken passed a trigger ordinance this year whereby if the state allows it, then they would adopt ranked choice voting or have a referendum to adopt it.”

He added that a strategy among RCV advocates may be to get a dozen or so cities to pass a similar type of trigger ordinance in Florida to show the state legislature that there is a strong demand for RCV reform. This strategy, however, needs to target the party in power which at the moment is the Republican Party.

“We’ve got to do a better job nationally of getting the story out about all the success the Republican Party has had in Utah on it,” Cannon said. 

“In Virginia, the statewide ticket that the Republican Party nominated in 2021 was the strongest in the state’s history for Republicans, and when you talk to the insiders they say ranked choice voting had a lot to do with that success.”

Reformers have to tell these stories, and Cannon doesn’t believe the word has gotten to Florida yet. 

Misinformation Drives Legislative Push

Voter education is critical to the success of any nonpartisan reform effort, and current efforts to ban non-plurality voting methods like RCV show how much misinformation is out there. 

Unlike the Florida bill, California’s AB 2808 focuses exclusively on ranked choice voting, and not only does the bill ban its use but it calls on the legislature to officially state inaccurate or blatantly false assertions about RCV.

Some of the things stated in the bill attempt to take arguments for RCV and flip them on their head. Yet, by doing so, the bill gets much more wrong than it gets right.

Section 1 of the bill states:

“(a) Ranked choice voting can lead to inherently undemocratic outcomes like the winners of elections failing to receive a plurality of the vote.”

RCV is a method that prevents a candidate from only winning with a plurality of the vote. If a candidate only garners a plurality then that means a majority of voters didn’t vote for them, thus perpetuating minority rule in elections.

ALSO READ: Thanks To Ranked Choice Voting, A NYC Mayoral Candidate Won't Win with 32% of the Vote

The only way a candidate can win under RCV is if they get a majority of the vote. This could either come from first round tabulations or subsequent rounds of instant and automatic runoff. This is why ranked choice voting as we talk about in the US is also known as “instant runoff voting.”

Voters need to think about it like this: If their first choice was not in the race, who would they vote for? That would be their second choice. If their first two choices were not in the race, who would they vote for? That would be their third choice. And so on.

This is how you make sure every voter who participated in the election is heard if additional rounds of runoff are required and any of their top choices are eliminated, instead of just leaving them without a voice. 

And in the end, only a single vote is transferred to the final total.

It is a way to hold runoff elections if a candidate only receives a plurality of voters’ first choices without the added expense of an additional election or allowing elections to be decided in runoff elections with substantially lower turnout.

“(b) Ranked choice voting is fundamentally more complicated than currently available alternatives and this complexity can lead to mistakes that can further disenfranchise voters.”

It is true that RCV is more complex than, say, approval voting, which simply allows voters to vote for as many candidates as they want on a ballot. However, this commonly used argument by opponents of RCV asserts that voters are too dumb to understand the voting method.

Yet, in recent history, voters in jurisdictions that have adopted RCV and members of organizations that use it for their own offices have reported that not only do they fully comprehend RCV and how it works, but they want to continue to use it.

In 2021, 77% of voters surveyed in New York City during the city’s first RCV primary elections said they supported RCV’s continued use in future elections. Nearly every voter surveyed in Santa Fe, New Mexico (94%) reported feeling either very or somewhat satisfied with their first use of RCV in 2018.

Voters who use RCV are often satisfied with it because it is easy to use. Voters just need to rank the candidates in order of preference. It is that simple. A 2021 exit poll in Utah, where a record 23 cities used RCV for the first time, found that 81% of voters believed RCV was “very or somewhat easy” to use. 

For more on the stats about voters’ use of ranked choice voting, visit FairVote’s extensive overview of exit polls, surveys, and other research. This article merely scratches the surface.

“(c) Ranked choice voting can lead to elections that are more expensive given the additional computer systems or manpower required to tabulate the ranked votes.”

There isn’t much data available on how much new computer systems and manpower to tabulate ranked votes actually costs. However, when examining how much cities have saved switching to RCV, it appears it is marginal.

Maine’s secretary of state reported that after the state’s first use of RCV in June 2018 “additional cost to conduct ranked-choice voting in the primary election came to $102,653.” This is statewide implementation, and less than 10 percent of the $1.5 million fiscal note that was quoted when the 2016 RCV ballot measure that led to its adoption was certified. 

The reason why the costs were tremendously lower than expected is because open-source tabulation software and support is available through organizations like the RCV Resource Center. In addition, most modern voting equipment made by major vendors can run RCV elections. 

There is an ongoing outcry across the country for states and local jurisdictions to use more modernized voting equipment. However, the additional cost of upgrading voting machines is not on RCV itself. This needs to happen with or without the alternative voting method.

“This underscores the need for the federal government to step in and help states modernize and improve our voting machines just one more time,” said Cannon. 

The numbers do not show a dramatic increase in election costs tied to RCV. However, they do show sizable savings.

When RCV was implemented in San Francisco, it saved the city $3 million by eliminating the need for runoff elections, and turnout rose exponentially. When looking at how RCV could benefit the Texas primary system, it is estimated that it would save the state over $6 million for primary runoff elections with dismal turnout.

“(d) Many of the purported benefits of ranked choice voting, including more diverse fields of candidates and fewer negative campaign advertisements, have not been realized in the jurisdictions that have used this election method.”

Regardless of how one interprets “diverse fields of candidates,” this statement is not supported by the evidence. In fact, in New York City alone voters put into power the most diverse city government in history following the 2021 RCV primaries, including the first majority female city council. 

Sarah John, Haley Smith, and Elizabeth Zack published a paper in 2018 that examined California cities that use RCV. They found that local jurisdictions saw an increase in the percentage of candidates of color running. The paper, along with other research, has also found that the probability of women and women of color winning increases under RCV.

Also check out the subsection in this article titled, “RCV in Eastpointe: A Case Study in Empowering Communities of Color.” 

It is not just social diversity and representation that are improved, but ideological representation as well. A 2021 study out of Georgetown University found that “the electoral arena” in 2020 “was more open to new parties and candidates under RCV in Maine than under runoff or plurality elsewhere.”

Third party and independent candidates were invited to nearly all of the US Senate debates in Maine in an election conducted with RCV. Their ideas had to be considered by the major party candidates in what was considered a close contest between incumbent Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon.

On the subject of campaign civility, a ​​Eagleton Poll conducted in 2013 and 2014 found that voters in RCV cities were more satisfied with how campaigns conducted themselves and perceived less candidate criticism. A 2013 analysis of press coverage by Martha Kropf of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that articles were 85% more negative than positive, compared to 77% in non-RCV cities.

This means that not only does ranked choice voting have an impact on how candidates conduct themselves, but how members of the press cover elections.

Nonpartisan election reform is about shifting incentives in US politics. By allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, particularly in large candidate fields, it reduces the incentive to attack others in the race because candidates have to campaign for a voter’s second or third choice. The sales pitch would be hard if the candidate is attacking the voter’s first choice.

What About Legislation to Pass RCV?

The increased attention on ranked choice voting has proven to be a double-edged sword for reform advocates. On one hand, there are new efforts to ban its use completely. However, the momentum behind RCV has not just led to more campaigns to get it passed at the ballot box, but in state legislatures in several states. 

It is important for nonpartisan reformers to see the potential for success in state legislatures. Only 26 US states have ballot referendum processes, which means reforms like RCV will eventually run into a roadblock if reformers want to see change at a statewide level.

Legislators in over 20 states introduced legislation in the early days of 2022 to advance RCV. This means either adopting RCV at a statewide level, for special elections, or (in most cases) making it easier for local municipalities to adopt RCV. 

The Utah Legislature has already passed legislation that made modifications to its municipal RCV pilot program that led to 23 cities using RCV for the first time in 2021.

Proposed election law changes in other states could also result in more states adopting RCV at the statewide level. Only two states, Alaska and Maine, have crossed this reform milestone. However, FairVote has identified 4 states that could soon follow: New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Hawaii.

The New York Legislature has several bills aimed at making it easier for local municipalities to adopt RCV. Enough implementation at the local level can elevate momentum to statewide adoption.

Massachusetts and Wisconsin RCV bills have the highest number of cosponsors than legislation in any other state. The more people who are signed on to legislation, the greater chance it has to pass.

Hawaii used RCV in its presidential primaries in 2020. Legislators in the state are now considering several bills to advance RCV, including the implementation of the voting method in special elections. 

According to Cannon, FairVote is also looking ahead to 2023 for the best opportunity to pass legislation that implements RCV in more presidential primaries. He identified Vermont, Colorado, Washington, and potentially Virginia as four states where progress could be made in what he anticipates will be another big year for RCV. 

What is this story missing? Let us know. >>What is this story missing? Let us know. >>

About the Author

Shawn Griffiths

Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.

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